Formula 1 made its much-anticipated return last weekend, as the 2017 season got underway around the Albert Park Circuit in Melbourne.
The race presented the first opportunity for the world at large to get a glimpse of the new generation of cars, which added an extra level of anticipation. In the end, it was Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel that played their cards best, with the German claiming a well-executed victory. Apart from that, there were several things to keep an eye on as F1 returned for yet another year of thrills and spills…
Vettel and Ferrari check all boxes
In recent seasons, Ferrari have generally had some of the necessary components in place in order to challenge for success, but too often there have been deficiencies in other areas. For the past few years, the Scuderia have had a strong driver pairing in the form of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen, but lacked a competitive car, or, when the car was competitive, lacked the strategic skill to maximise results.
First win since Singapore GP 2015
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In Australia, however, all the components came together well. A solid qualifying effort on Saturday put the Italian squad in a position to take the fight to Mercedes on Sunday. From the moment the lights went out, it was clear that the team’s SF70-H challenger was working well, and when the opportunity arose to take the lead of the race, the team made the right calls, and then executed well.
Overall, it was a professional and well-managed effort from Ferrari, with leading man Vettel flawless in his ability to keep the pressure on the leading Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton in the early stages, before holding him at arm’s length in the second half of the race. Now all the Scuderia need is to produce race weekends such as this on a consistent basis.
Bottas keeps his cool
Few gave Valtteri Bottas any chance of keeping up with his more illustrious Mercedes teammate, Lewis Hamilton. During practice for last weekend’s race, these suspicions appeared to be correct as Hamilton out-paced the Finn by the hefty margin of half a second.
On Saturday, Bottas had to settle for third place on the grid, 0.3 seconds behind Hamilton, who claimed pole. During the opening stages of Sunday’s race, the Briton left the Finn behind, but the new man at Mercedes produced a strong second half of the race to claim a podium on his debut for the German outfit, only 1.6 seconds adrift of Hamilton in P2. Of course, Bottas won’t ultimately be satisfied with “almost” beating Hamilton, but after a difficult start to things on Friday, he did well to show his speed during the race.
Niki Lauda had praise for the Finn, declaring that Bottas had done the best job possible, given that he was still adapting to his new team. The F1 world is already salivating at the idea of a title showdown between Vettel and Hamilton, and if Bottas could throw his hat into the ring too, that would produce a more thrilling battle. In order to beat Hamilton, however, he will have to bring his A-game every weekend, which is easier said than done.
Red Bull fail to hit the heights
The initial expectation was that it would be Red Bull, not Ferrari, that would take the fight to Mercedes in 2017. In Australia, however, the Austrian outfit were a distant third behind their rivals. While Daniel Ricciardo endured a nightmarish weekend, Max Verstappen could only manage fifth place in qualifying, 0.4 seconds slower than the fourth-placed Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen. Afterwards, the Dutch youngster suggested that he had achieved the maximum that Red Bull could have hoped for.
On Sunday, Verstappen endured a slightly lonely race which saw him easily out-pace the pursuing Williams of Felipe Massa, but unable to challenge the frontrunners. While he temporarily showed great pace in the middle of the race to take the fight to Räikkönen for P4, the Finn ultimately saw off the challenge by a neat 6.4 seconds as the flag fell.
A poor outing around Albert Park is by no means a damning statement about Red Bull’s prospects for 2017, but the team have to be frank with themselves: they were never really in the race all weekend. On a more positive note, the Milton Keynes-based outfit are famed for their ability to develop their car throughout the year, so progress is likely to be forthcoming at some point.
A solid start for Ocon
20-year old Esteban Ocon made his Force India debut last weekend, having already done duty in the final part of last season for Manor. The race represented the Frenchman’s first opportunity in a competitive package, and in general, he can be satisfied with his efforts. He qualified, and finished, lower down than more experienced teammate Sergio Perez, but wasn’t embarrassed by the Mexican, and his P10 finish is a solid return for his first race with a bigger team.
Rather than being overwhelmed by his surroundings at the start, Ocon managed to stay out of trouble on the sprint down to turn 1, and from there he set about his work. He slowly but surely crept up behind the McLaren of Fernando Alonso and ultimately swept past the two-time champion with a decisive and well-judged pass to move into the points. Then, he saw off the Renault of Nico Hülkenberg, who was on softer, newer tyres, until the end of the race.
If Ocon wants a shot at the big time, he will ultimately have to beat Perez and set the pace at Force India, but for the moment, he has done what was expected of him.
Giovinazzi takes his chance
With Sauber regular Pascal Wehrlein still affected by a back injury that he picked up during the Race of Champions last year, reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi was parachuted in to replace the German. The Italian, who was runner-up in the GP2 series last year, had minimal time to get to grips with the Sauber C36, but qualified only 0.2 seconds slower than teammate-for-the-weekend Marcus Ericsson. Come race day, the debutant kept his nose clean and his car out of the gravel to cross the line in P12, which is just about the best result Sauber could have hoped for at this point.
Giovinazzi, who is also a Ferrari junior driver, did enough to make some in the Melbourne paddock express regret that he probably wouldn’t be in the car in China in two weeks’ time. Regardless, the youngster has put his name on the lips of those in the paddock, and given how volatile life is at the back of the grid is, he might just be called upon again at some point this season. You never know.
Anything but a Stroll in the park
Lance Stroll was already under more scrutiny than most on his debut weekend, owing to his patchy performances in pre-season testing, which saw him crash his Williams FW40 three times in two days. The 18-year old Canadian seemed to steady the ship during practice, although more experienced teammate Felipe Massa predictably set the pace.
Come qualifying on Saturday, however, and Stroll slid the rear of his car into the wall coming out of turn 10, ending his session and forcing a gearbox change. On Sunday, the Canadian made up some ground in a solid, if unspectacular way before retiring from the race after a trip through the gravel. While his debut hardly set the world on fire, it is far too early to judge Stroll at this point, and it is entirely possible that he will adapt and ultimately do well.
One thing is clear though: Formula 1 isn’t simply a lower formula with bigger engines. This is the pinnacle of motorsport, and if the 18-year old didn’t know that before, he certainly knows it now.
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