Australian Grand Prix: Will Sebastian Vettel's unexpected win lead to season-long Ferrari vs Mercedes contest?
With one race out of twenty concluded, we still have more questions than answers. Will Ferrari vs. Mercedes play out all season long and how long till Red Bull Racing join them? Hopefully Shanghai will have the answer
Formula 1 started off with a bang when Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel scored an unexpected but much-awaited victory at the 2017 Australian Grand Prix. It was Ferrari’s first victory at the Albert Park Circuit in ten years, a record that doesn’t befit a team of Ferrari’s stature. This win was also Vettel’s 43rd career win and the four times World Champion had to wait for 27 races to claim one. When it comes to Vettel, it was a case of progressing from whining to winning, a welcome change.
The pressure of scoring zero wins in 2016 would’ve released to an extent after Ferrari convincingly beat Mercedes on pace for the first time since the change of regulations in 2014. The Italian team lived up to and delivered on the hype that surrounded their pace after pre-season testing. In fact, it wasn’t just on pace that Ferrari delivered, after a series of questionable tyre strategy calls in 2016, the team nailed their strategy in the one-stopping race on Sunday.
After managing to qualify between the Mercedes cars on Saturday, Vettel was chasing Hamilton from P2 when Mercedes blinked first and decided to pit Hamilton. Much to my surprise, Ferrari decided to stay out a few more laps, a decision that worked in their favour as Hamilton rejoined the action behind Red Bull’s prodigy, Max Verstappen. Mercedes’ strategy relied on Hamilton overtaking Verstappen and cutting down on Vettel’s lead – a strategy that lost them the lead and is being excessively questioned by Hamilton fans.
Could Mercedes have let Hamilton stay out longer? I doubt that, Hamilton claimed that he was losing grip and Niki Lauda admitted post-race that it was Ferrari’s pace and not Mercedes’ strategy that cost them the win. The other Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas finished 3rd, ahead of his compatriot Kimi Raikkonen in 4th. I would rate Bottas’ first race with Mercedes as a mixed bag. He scored his 10th podium, but was unable to match Hamilton’s pace for most of the weekend. If he wants to cement his place in the World Champion team, he should see himself as a replacement for Hamilton, not Rosberg. Interestingly enough, Lauda also claimed that had Rosberg been racing, the result for Mercedes wouldn’t have changed!
Does this mean a Ferrari vs. Mercedes battle for 2017? I hope so, because that’s what the sport and the fans need. However, it is too early to call this. Mercedes’ qualifying pace was superior, while Ferrari’s race pace won them top honours. 2017 could turn out to be a season where track position would be very critical, even more so given the difficulty in overtaking. Let’s remember that the top 5 drivers weren’t involved in an overtaking move whatsoever. In fact, Hamilton chuckled when Mercedes radioed him and told him to overtake Verstappen to make his strategy work.
If it is a two horse race at the front, it will turn out to be a Hamilton vs. Vettel battle for the Drivers’ Championship. Although, I am hoping that Red Bull Racing, whose only car (Verstappen) finished 5th and 30 seconds off the winner, join the battle too. At the Australian Grand Prix, they managed to score only a third of the points scored by Ferrari and Mercedes. This is also because their star driver and local hero, Daniel Ricciardo, suffered from the worst luck of his career that saw him spin out of qualifying on Saturday, suffer electronic sensor issues a few minutes before the race start on Sunday leading to an eventual retirement.
It was business as usual in the mid-field as Williams and Force India resumed their battle for 4th place in the Constructors’ Championship. The just-out-of-retirement Felipe Massa scored his favourite 6th place while rookie team-mate Stroll had to retire after notching the highest number of overtakes (7) of the race. The pink Force India cars scored double points finish (Perez, 7th and Ocon, 10th) as did Toro Rosso (Sainz, 8th and Kvyat, 9th). The biggest disappointment of the race was Grosjean’s Haas that retired due to an engine related issue after qualifying 6th and running in the points.
Mclaren-Honda managed to finish 13th (Vandoorne) and last, two laps behind the leader. The biggest positive for the team from Woking would be that they managed to run the full race distance, a feat they were unable to accomplish in pre-season testing. Alonso, who claimed that Australia was one of his best races, drove brilliantly (yet again!) to stick to P10 till the ending few laps of the race. It took a breathtaking maneuver by Ocon to dislodge a defensive Alonso out of the points. Like one of our listeners Gunjan put it, in the Mclaren-Honda-Alonso saga, one of them will give way very soon; who or what will it be is anyone’s guess!
The new regulations were expected to shake up the pecking order. However, much of the 2016 order remains with the only difference being that Ferrari and Mercedes seem evenly matched. Those expecting overtaking would be a tad bit disappointed as there were a only a few moves along the grid. However, the battles seemed closer. The Ocon-Hulkenberg-Alonso overtaking moment at Turn 1 was my favourite moment of the race.
Kudos to Pirelli for delivery a good tyre (finally)! Irrespective of their compound names, the tyres lasted well and offered us a good race despite it being a one-stopper only. The thermal degradation is lesser and is allowing drivers to stay in the fight much longer – as Vettel demonstrated in the opening stint. In fact, with the extra grip on offer and the aerodynamics of the new cars, drivers were said to be pulling nearly 6Gs at certain corners of the circuit.
With one race out of twenty concluded, we still have more questions than answers. Will Ferrari vs. Mercedes play out all season long and how long till Red Bull Racing join them? How many races before Bottas scores his first-ever win in the Mercedes? And my personal favourite, will Raikkonen prove his critics wrong and match Vettel in the races to come? Hopefully Shanghai will help answer a few of these.
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