After Sebastian Vettel won the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, we now have a clearer idea of the pecking order for 2017, and a few conclusions can be drawn from the first race. Rob Watts analyses the stories beyond the timesheets.
Ferrari’s pace is real
Before Melbourne, several people were suggesting that Ferrari’s pace in testing couldn’t possibly be real – either it was running light, Mercedes had turned its engine down, or a combination of the two.
A poor performance from Ferrari on Friday did nothing to support its case to be a challenger this season, and some even declared the season ‘over’ as a contest before a wheel had even been turned in FP3.
What we do know, is that Mercedes still have the edge in qualifying. If you analysed the times in testing, you could probably have come to the conclusion that the new Ferrari car’s real strength lies in long-runs – i.e. race trim.
Melbourne’s Albert Park is a tricky circuit, however, and not always fully representative of a car’s true potential. It’s also quite unlike the next two F1 heads to – Shanghai in China and Sakhir in Bahrain. We may well see Mercedes be the strongest team at certain tracks this year, while at certain others, Ferrari may be the team to beat. Let’s hope there’s a fairly even swing there so we can enjoy some close fights along the way.
Red Bull have a lot to do
Given Red Bull’s performance in 2016, it was a real disappointment to see its new car a little off the pace in Melbourne. The hope was that we’d see three teams battling for pole position, but in reality, Red Bull was never in the fight.
The weekend was a disaster too for Daniel Ricciardo, who saw his qualifying ruined by an accident in Q3, and his race ruined by two separate technical issues. Not the start that he, or the whole of Australia, were hoping for.
Despite its slow start, Red Bull should not be counted out, and some significant upgrades will likely be introduced in the coming races. After complaining for so long that the Renault power unit was holding it back, this year it seems as though the issue is as much with the Red Bull chassis as anything else.
Max Verstappen says that the RB13 is “tricky to setup”, while Daniel Ricciardo believes that the team are “more than a second” off the pace at present. Let’s hope they can catch up and join Ferrari and Mercedes at the front sooner rather than later.
Mercedes are still the team to beat, just…
On account of its qualifying pace, the Mercedes W08 is still the car to beat this season. While Ferrari’s race pace was very strong, it will need to pick up its qualifying pace in order to be seen as the true favourite for this year’s championship.
With the new regulations, Melbourne (although it is a tricky circuit to pass on at the best of times) suggested that passing on track may be difficult this season. While grid position didn’t prove to be the ultimate deciding factor on this occasion, there’ll be races coming up when it will count for a lot.
In Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes has a very strong and capable number two driver. I say number two, not to do a disservice to Bottas, but because in all honesty, that’s the role he’ll likely play this year.
Ferrari is more likely to let Vettel and Raikkonen take the fight to each other this year than Mercedes are to let Bottas off the leash to take points away from Hamilton. With that in mind, we could see Bottas put on an alternative strategy in some races in an attempt to have him occupy track position in between Hamilton and the Ferrari’s – a tactic sure to frustrate the Scuderia as Hamilton found when struggling to pass Verstappen on Sunday.
My hope would be that Bottas is actually allowed to race Hamilton, but my feeling is that it’s unlikely to happen unless Bottas starts winning races on merit early on.
Conclusions from the Australian Grand Prix
Ferrari is quick and won Sunday’s race on merit. The SF70H will be a match for Mercedes at a lot of tracks this year, but the W08 still looks likely to have the edge on Saturdays. Shanghai should be a completely different challenge for the teams, and if Red Bull struggled for setup in Australia, they might well do so in China too.
I would expect to see Ferrari and Mercedes once again occupy the front two rows, but Red Bull will be looking over its shoulder at a gaggle of cars behind. It cannot afford to lose any more ground early on if it is to stay in the championship hunt this year.