Sebastian Vettel won the Formula 1 season opener at Albert Park in imperious style. A style very reminiscent of many of the Mercedes wins in recent history. He won in a manner that bodes well for this years Formula 1 title battle with the all-conquering Mercedes team led by its mercurial star driver, Lewis Hamilton.
The 2017 FIA Formula 1 Championship kicked off at Melbourne Park on Sunday. Much has been written and speculated about the various changes wrought by the governing body and the commercial rights holder. Changes that were imposed in order to break the vice-like grip of the Mercedes team on both F1 titles and to spice up ‘The Show’ and thus reverse the declining F1 viewing figures. Make no mistake, Formula 1 has never seen domination (not in the modern era) from one team like we have witnessed in the past three seasons. Not even the Michael Schumacher/Ferrari super team of the early 2000’s or the Sebastian Vettel/Red Bull team that emerged later has exerted such dominance. Since the hybrid-engine era began in 2014, only one team and two drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, realistically entertained the idea of winning a race. The rest were really fighting for third. And the stats bear this this out. Take the 2016 season for instance, out of 21 races, Lewis Hamilton won 10 races and Nico Rosberg won 9. 19 wins!!!! A win ratio of 90%!!!!! This could and should have been 100% as the other 2 races they lost were lost because of accidents and incidents. The Spanish round was won for Red Bull by the youngster Max Verstappen only after Lewis Hamiltion had collided with Nico Rosberg!
I won’t bore you with the details of all the 2017 regulation changes but it is one of the biggest and most comprehensive set of changes in Formula 1 history, designed to make the cars much faster and physically harder to drive and promote closer racing. As I mentioned earlier, the changes were also brought in to break the Mercedes dominance of the sport and give the other teams and manufacturers an opportunity to close the performance deficit. On the evidence of Australia these rules may have partly succeeded because Sebastian Vettel, driving a Ferrari beat the Mercedes duo on performance. This has happened only on a few occasions in the last 3 seasons. The rule changes though, can not yet be deemed to be wholly successful because one of its major aims was to ensure closer competitiveness between the different cars and promote close racing and exciting overtaking. It is too early to judge as one race does not a season make.
The early signs that the competitive order at the top has changed are good though. Sebastian Vettel put his Ferrari SF70H on the front row alongside Lewis Hamiltion. That was the first time a Ferrari has been on the front row since Singapore in 2015! He then proceeded to stalk Lewis Hamilton in the first stint. He was comfortably able to stay within 2 seconds of him and apply pressure on the Mercedes team. So much so that the Mercedes team was forced into coming into the pits a lap earlier than they had planned. Lewis Hamilton had been complaining of poor grip and a general lack of pace throughout his opening stint. He said after the race:
“A big congratulations to Sebastian and Ferrari. I know this win has been a long time coming for them. This shows we’ve got a real race on our hands this season and it’s a challenge we will relish. It’s going to be great for the fans. We had a really good start which is fantastic. It was nice to get a good getaway. But I was struggling with grip from the get-go. Sebastian was able to always answer me in terms of lap time and just go quicker. Towards the end of the first stint I caught some traffic and that overheated the tyres. I struggled for grip to the point where I needed to come in, plus the gap was closing up and I was sliding around a lot. We made the call to pit, because otherwise I think Sebastian would have come past me anyway. After my stop I got caught in some traffic which was unfortunate but that’s motor racing.”
This would never have happened last year. Very rarely were the other cars and drivers fast enough to put any meaningful pressure on Lewis or Nico in races.
Lewis’ new team mate, Valterri Bottas, concurred:
“There are always things that could have gone better on the day but it’s a good starting point for my journey driving for Mercedes. As a team I think we did a really good job with the car we had. But Ferrari were quicker today, there’s no doubt about that. They’ve obviously done a great job over the winter. From my side the main issue was the first stint. I felt like I was always sliding around on the UltraSoft tyre – missing front and rear grip – especially after 10 laps. That wasn’t easy. But once we stuck on the Softs I had a great feeling with the car. It was behaving really nicely and it felt really nice to drive. It’s a shame it was just a bit too late. But overall this race wasn’t a disaster. It’s good to start with a podium with a new team and every position is important for the Championship. There’s a long season ahead. I have my points and I’ll do better next time. I’m looking forward to China.”
“Some races you win, some races you lose, and when the days come where another team has done a better job, you need to accept that with humility and recognise their performance. Today, Sebastian and Ferrari were well-deserved winners. From the early stages of the race, it was clear that Sebastian was very quick because Lewis wasn’t able to pull away. Sebastian came into the window where the undercut was possible and we had the feeling at that point that the tyres were not lasting. It was the team’s impression on the pit wall looking at the data and Lewis’ in the car, too. So that was when, with all the clear risks of coming out in traffic, we took the decision to come in. We were between a rock and a hard place, really, and we went for it. But Ferrari played it very well – and they had the quicker car today. After that, we seemed to pick up in performance on the Soft tyres. Lewis managed everything perfectly and I must compliment Valtteri, too – he showed really good pace, made no mistakes through the whole weekend and got his first podium with the team in his first race. Now, the job for us is to learn the lessons from this race, understand why we didn’t perform to our maximum today and keep working hard to improve the car in every area.”
The resurgence of Ferrari and especially Sebastian Vettel, if indeed it is a genuine resurgence, is to be welcomed. Ferrari are a global brand and F1 racing is central to their existence. F1 racing is ingrained in Ferrari’s history and the Scuderia ARE the Italian national motorsport team. Ask any past and present Ferrari driver (except maybe Kimi, who is seemingly oblivious to such emotional factors) when you drive for Ferrari, you drive for Italy. The ‘Tifosi’, Italian word for ‘fan’ are arguably the most passionate Formula 1 fans in the world. They demand success and are notoriously critical of ‘their’ team and frankly speaking, Ferrari have not delivered in recent years. Their last world champion was Kimi Raikonnen. In 2007! A decade ago. They have done a very bad job since then if you consider the resources at the teams disposal. Sebastian Vettel, with both feet firmly planted on the ground had this to say:
“It’s been a great day for us. The team has been working so hard at the track as much as back at the factory. It’s a great feeling. “Grazie mille”, you can’t say much more. The last months have been really intense, it’s been tough to get into the rhythm. It’s just the beginning and there’s still a lot of work going on. This is one of many steps and we have to enjoy what we do. It’s great to see people smiling. Now we have to reset to go to China and try to do a good job.”
So is this a sign of things to come? That finally, we have a team and driver combination that is capable of breaking Mercedes’ stranglehold on the Formula 1 championship?
We shall see. I Sincerely hope so.