OK, well…this is certainly going to take some getting used to, isn’t it? Granted, there’s always changes being made in the world of motorsport, and some are inevitably going to be bigger than others, but it’s not often you see one quite as momentous as this, with the genuine end of an era – and one that’s not even been played out on the track, at that – being executed in such a ruthlessly efficient fashion, and already, there are signs the future direction at the highest level of the sport is going to be significantly different to what’s gone before. However, for everything that’s gone on behind the scenes, the on-track action hasn’t escaped without alteration either – in fact, you could probably argue the sheer scale of the rule changes this year is the biggest for quite some time – and, with the usual changes of personnel adding another element to the already complicated mix…it’s anyone’s guess what’s going to happen next. There’s every reason to be excited about the 2017 Formula One World Championship, and, after so much talking over the winter…it’s time to write the first chapter.
Since the introduction of the 1.6 litre hybrid engine regulations at the beginning of 2014, the top step of the podium has been almost permanently occupied by the all-conquering Mercedes team – indeed, out of the 59 races that have taken place over the last three years, the Silver Arrows have secured an incredible 51 victories and a scarcely believable 56 pole positions in qualifying – meaning that it was often simply a question of which of their two drivers would emerge on top on a particular weekend, and, with no regular challengers coming from elsewhere, it was no surprise that the battles between the pair were so intense. For the first two seasons, Britain’s Lewis Hamilton was the regular dominant force within the team, racking up victory after victory on his way to securing a second and third drivers’ titles, but team-mate Nico Rosberg was never far away in his attempts to gain the upper hand, with their ever-increasing rivalry coming to a head on several occasions (most notably when they made contact in the early laps in Belgium in 2014 while battling for the lead) before the eventual outcome was decided.
However, last season, there was something of a change in fortunes between the pair, with Rosberg setting his stall out from the outset by taking the first four wins of the season to establish a significant championship advantage even before their dramatic first-lap accident in Spain that saw both end up in the gravel and out of the race, and, despite a mid-season revival from Hamilton that saw him win six races out of seven – including snatching victory at the death in Austria after making contact with his team-mate on the final lap, with the German being penalised as a result – to narrowly retake the initiative by the conclusion of the European races, a dramatic engine failure for the Brit while he was leading in Malaysia proved fatal in his attempts to make it a hat-trick of titles, with Rosberg able to take the points in the final four races (finishing second to Hamilton in each of them) to finally take his maiden world championship crown by a slender margin of just 5 points, becoming only the second son of a previous champion after Damon Hill in 1996 to win the title themselves after father Keke’s success back in 1982.
The drama, though, wasn’t over there, though, as, just five days after clinching the title, Rosberg announced his shock decision to retire from Formula One, meaning the new season would be the first since 1994 where the defending champion will not take part, while away from the track, the completion of American-based Liberty Media’s purchase of the sport saw the departure of the irrepressible Bernie Ecclestone as chief executive of Formula One Management after more than 40 years at the helm, with Chase Carey (supported by commercial managing director Sean Bratches and revered designer Ross Brawn as sporting managing director) taking his place. On track, meanwhile, the long-awaited introduction of a new set of technical regulations means that the cars will look noticeably different compared to 12 months ago, with wider sidepods and wings, an increase in the size of the rear diffuser and significantly bigger tyres (around 25% wider than they used to be) all designed to generate more mechanical grip and an expected reduction in lap times of between 4 and 5 seconds depending on the circuit.
The first round of the season was very much familiar territory for the championship as the cars arrived in Australia, with the street circuit in the heart of Albert Park in Melbourne – measuring in at just over 5.3km (almost 3.3 miles) and containing a mixture of 10 right-handers and 6 left-handers – providing the first chance for fans to see the new-look cars in action. Having first arrived on the calendar as the season-opener back in 1996 after taking over from Adelaide as the host venue for the race, the track is made up mostly of public roads that wind around the lake in the centre of the park, but despite this, the numerous sizeable run-off areas around the lap and the smoothness of the track surface means it also shares the characteristics of a conventional purpose-built circuit as well, thus making it one of the more unique venues on the schedule.
A typical lap begins with a reasonably long run down to the sharp right-hander of Turn 1, where the short apex means the drivers can carry the speed through the sweeping left of Turn 2 before heading down the first significant straight on the lap to another tight right at Turn 3, which has seen more than its fair share of incidents in the past. From there, after the sweeping curves of Turns 4 and 5, a short tree-lined straight – which can make it difficult sometimes for drivers to spot their braking points – leads down to the slightly cambered 90-degree right at Turn 6, with the drivers then winding around the wall through the easily flat-out Turns 7 and 8 before they hit the brakes again for the right-left chicane of Turns 9 and 10, which in turn feeds out onto the curving back straight that runs alongside the lake and leads to one of the more spectacular points on the lap in the form of the high speed direction change between the left-hander of Turn 11 and the right-hander of Turn 12. The final sector is a little more stop-start, with another heavy braking zone into Turn 13 being followed by a sweeping right at Turn 14 that requires just a slight lift off the throttle, before the tight left-hander of Turn 15 and the sweeping final corner brings the cars back onto the start/finish straight.
In terms of overtaking opportunities, the best of the bunch in recent years has tended to be with the benefit of DRS (Drag Reduction System) either down the pit straight into Turn 1 – where the car on the outside can be forced wide and through the gravel if they fail to give up the position – or in the second zone between Turns 2 and 3, which can sometimes extend into Turn 4 if the passing car is unable to get cleanly through in the braking zone. Elsewhere, moves can also be made with a good run out of the high-speed chicane and into the 90-degree right-hander at Turn 13, while, although difficult, it is possible to get up the inside into Turn 15 with a degree of co-operation from the car in front, although this can leave the driver making the move vulnerable to being re-passed on the exit of the final corner and down the pit straight.
The corresponding race here 12 months ago will perhaps be remembered most notably for one of the biggest accidents the sport has seen in recent years, with former double world champion Fernando Alonso fortunate to escape with only minor injuries after contact with the rear of Esteban Gutierrez’s Haas underbraking for Turn 3 sent his McLaren spearing into the wall before barrel-rolling through the gravel and coming to rest against the tyre barriers.
Elsewhere, though, it was business as usual for the two Mercedes as they started where they had left off the previous year, with Hamilton utterly dominant to take pole by more than 0.3s ahead of Rosberg in the first qualifying session to be run under the short-lived and much maligned ‘elimination’ format, but, despite a poor start to the race that saw both concede positions to the flying Sebastian Vettel, a strategy error from Ferrari when the red flags were deployed following Alonso’s accident saw the German restart on a different strategy that meant he would have to make another pit stop while the two Mercedes would not, which allowed Rosberg through into a lead that he was never to concede on his way to taking the first victory of the season, with Hamilton – who had fought through after being shuffled back to sixth on the opening lap – securing a Silver Arrows 1-2 ahead of a surprisingly upbeat Vettel in third, with the German believing Ferrari were capable of taking the fight to Mercedes during the year.
So, with the new season heralding the start of a new dawn for the sport on and off the track, would it be yet more of the same for Mercedes in spite of champion Rosberg’s shock retirement – freed from the shackles of his rivalry from the last few years with the German, would Hamilton re-establish his position as the dominant force within the team, or would new team-mate Valtteri Bottas be able to show he would be up for taking the fight to the Brit from the outset? Having shown such strong pace in pre-season testing, could Ferrari get themselves back in the mix on a more consistent basis with both Vettel and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, or would the new regulations allow one or two of the chasing pack to throw their name into the mix straight away? Well, it’s time to find out – this is the story of the first race weekend of the 2017 Formula One World Championship, the 2017 Australian Grand Prix…
With the three free practice sessions out of the way, the first chance to see the new 2017-spec machinery on the ragged edge came in the opening segment of the three-part qualifying hour, but, in a continuation of the past few years, it was the two Mercedes that led the way early on, with new boy Valtteri Bottas putting in a strong early showing to outpace Hamilton by the matter of a few hundredths of a second after their opening runs. Behind, Vettel slotted into third in the first of the Ferraris despite posting his time on the soft compound Pirelli tyres – both Mercs having bolted on the faster ultra-soft rubber for their flying laps – with Sergio Perez making an encouraging start in the new-look pink Force India to lie fourth ahead of home favourite Daniel Ricciardo in fifth for Red Bull, but, by the end of the session, it was business as usual at the front, with Hamilton leading the way from Raikkonen after the Finn was forced onto the ultra-soft tyres to secure a Q2 berth.
As ever, though, the main focus of the session was to find the five drivers that would be eliminated from the remainder of qualifying, and it proved to be something of a baptism of fire for the two full-time rookies in the field – having already picked up a five-place penalty for a gearbox change after hitting the wall at Turn 10 in final practice, 18 year-old Canadian Lance Stroll was unable to find the speed in his Williams to miss out at the first hurdle, while an early fuel flow problem for the beleaguered McLaren-Honda team meant highly-rated Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne also failed to make the cut. However, there was still nearly a big surprise from another newcomer as, after a last-minute call-up in place of the injured Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber, 2016 GP2 Series runner-up and Ferrari reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi looked on course to make it into Q2 on his F1 debut, but a last-gasp improvement from team-mate Marcus Ericsson saw the Italian bumped out along with familiar faces Jolyon Palmer in his Renault – the Brit also recovering from a sizeable crash in FP2 – and the Haas of Kevin Magnussen.
Eliminated in Q1: 16th – Giovinazzi, 17th – Magnussen, 18th – Vandoorne, 19th – Stroll and 20th – Palmer
The two Silver Arrows remained equally matched into the opening exchanges of the 15 minutes of Q2, with Hamilton only marginally slower than Bottas after their first flying laps despite going out on a scrubbed set of ultra-softs (the Finn having fitted a fresh set for his opening effort), but the Ferraris weren’t too far away either, with first Vettel and then Raikkonen both coming within a quarter of a second of the outright pace, thus underlining the increased competitiveness and performance that they had shown in winter testing. Behind, Ricciardo was best of the rest in a distant fifth – the Australian some 0.5s adrift of former team-mate Vettel – ahead of his unusually subdued stable-mate Max Verstappen in sixth, while an impressive display from the two Toro Rossos (complete with their striking new dark blue livery) saw both Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat squeeze into the top 10 to go through to the final segment of qualifying.
However, it wasn’t such a good session for the new-look Force Indias as, having shown some encouraging speed in the earlier session, Perez was unable to reproduce it when it counted and duly missed out on a Q3 berth by the slender margin of 0.084s, while, despite joining his new team-mate in failing to get through, young Frenchman Esteban Ocon still managed to score his best-ever grid position in the sport by taking 14th after his part-season with the now-defunct Manor operation last season. A strong lap from Nico Hulkenberg in the sole remaining Renault looked initially as though it might have been good enough to squeeze through into the top 10 on his debut for the team, but the German was another to go no further as those around him managed to find a fraction more speed, with Alonso in the second McLaren-Honda also missing out – despite an improvement on his final run – along with Ericsson in the remaining Sauber.
Eliminated in Q2: 11th – Perez, 12th – Hulkenberg, 13th – Alonso, 14th – Ocon and 15th – Ericsson
A few drops of rain greeted the remaining runners back onto the track for the final top 10 shootout, but the arrival of a bit of the wet stuff seemed to enliven the already thrilling battle between Mercedes and Ferrari, and, despite running behind his team-mate on the track, it was Hamilton that managed to find the extra speed to move onto pole position by exactly 0.3s ahead of Vettel, with Bottas – who was first car out of the pit lane – just 0.002s behind in third. However, the session then took an unfortunate turn for the home fans as Ricciardo lost control of his Red Bull through the fast right-hander at Turn 14 and skated through the gravel into the wall, forcing the red flags to be displayed, but it proved a mere disruption for Hamilton as, on the restart, despite seeing Bottas go fractionally faster on his second and final run, the Brit was comfortably able to maintain his previous advantage on his way to netting a fourth successive pole in Melbourne.
It wasn’t all quite such good news for the team, though, as Vettel managed to find just enough to get the Ferrari onto the front row ahead of Bottas – the final margin between the pair being just 0.025s – leaving the Finn having to settle for third on his debut for the Silver Arrows alongside compatriot Raikkonen in a distant fourth, while, in the absence of Ricciardo, Verstappen upheld Red Bull’s honour with a solid if unspectacular lap to secure fifth on the grid. Behind, another superb display from Haas at the track where they scored on their F1 debut 12 months ago ended with Romain Grosjean taking an impressive sixth ahead of the sole remaining Williams in the hands of veteran Felipe Massa in seventh – the Brazilian having reversed his decision to retire at the end of 2016 following Bottas’ switch to Mercedes – while Sainz narrowly edged out team-mate Kvyat in the battle of the Toro Rossos to grab eighth, leaving the Russian to settle for ninth ahead of the unfortunate Ricciardo.
Q3 – Top 10: 1st – Hamilton, 2nd – Vettel, 3rd – Bottas, 4th – Raikkonen, 5th – Verstappen, 6th – Grosjean, 7th – Massa, 8th – Sainz, 9th – Kvyat and 10th – Ricciardo
There was yet more drama even before the lights went out to get the opening race of 2017 underway, with Ricciardo’s difficult weekend on home soil continuing when his Red Bull – which had also needed a gearbox change after his Q3 accident – ground to a halt on the way to the grid, and, although the team fixed the problem to allow him to start from the pit lane two laps down, the Aussie’s challenge was effectively over before it even began.
On track, when the racing eventually got underway, pole man Hamilton made an excellent start to comfortably lead the field down towards Turn 1 for the first time, with team-mate Bottas initially going side-by-side with Vettel before the Ferrari squeezed back in front on the brakes, but it wasn’t long before there was contact further back as a clumsy move from Magnussen saw the Dane collect the unsuspecting Ericsson into Turn 3 before ending up in the gravel, and, although both eventually got going again, the Haas was forced to limp into the pits for a tyre change. Back at the front, the opening stages saw Hamilton and Vettel gradually begin to establish a margin over third-placed Bottas – the Ferrari able to match the pace of the race-leading Silver Arrow during an uneventful opening stint – but further back, there were yet more problems for McLaren as Vandoorne’s race being blighted by an early software issue that meant no data was being displayed on his steering wheel.
Before long, though, the reliability of the new cars started to be tested more thoroughly, with Grosjean the first to suffer when he dived into the pits at the end of lap 14 of 57 with smoke coming from the rear of the Haas and was forced to retire from an encouraging seventh place, while a miserable weekend for Palmer saw the Brit suffer from a recurring brake problem on his Renault. However, the battle to watch was continuing up the front, with Hamilton – who had been found himself being reeled back in by Vettel – going for the undercut when he pitted first at the end of lap 17 for a set of soft compound tyres in an attempt to maintain track position, but, despite immediately producing some good speed in the early part of his stint, the Brit soon got caught up behind the longer-running Red Bull of Verstappen as he tried to find a way through the traffic and started to lose time, allowing Vettel – who was able to stretch his ultra-soft rubber until lap 23 – to pit and get back out just in front of the pair.
As the Ferrari started to build a more manageable cushion in the lead, Ricciardo’s dire weekend on home turf got even worse just beyond half-distance when the Red Bull lost drive coming out of Turn 3, bringing his race – which had essentially become a test session after his delayed start – to a more definitive conclusion. Back at the sharp end, though, things soon got interesting between the two Mercedes as Bottas started to zone in on Hamilton for second – at some points, the Finn was around a second per lap faster – with compatriot Raikkonen unable to get anywhere near on terms with his team-mate in a relatively lonely fourth, albeit with fifth-placed Verstappen gradually reeling him in as the race wore on. Further back, teenager Stroll’s F1 debut came to a conclusion on lap 44 when the young Canadian suffered a brake failure into Turn 13 and skated through the gravel before pulling into the pits to retire, while a rare wheel-to-wheel battle for the final point saw Ocon emerge in front having gone three abreast with Hulkenberg and Alonso down the pit straight with six laps to go.
However, with the low degradation of the Pirelli tyres making it difficult for anyone to capitalise in the closing stages, the order remained pretty much as it was to the chequered flag as Vettel comfortably managed the remainder of the race to take his and Ferrari’s first win since Singapore in 2015, while Hamilton took second for Mercedes ahead of new team-mate Bottas in third, with the Finn right on his tail at the finish. Behind, Raikkonen held on to secure solid points in fourth ahead of the sole remaining Red Bull of Verstappen in fifth – the Dutchman’s late charge ultimately coming to nothing – and the anonymous Massa in sixth for Williams, with Perez fending off the attentions of Sainz and Kvyat in the two Toro Rossos to secure seventh, while new team-mate Ocon marked his maiden race for Force India by scoring his maiden F1 point to round out the top 10.
Daniil Kvyat (RUS) – #26 Toro Rosso-Renault
RACE RESULTS – TOP 10: 1st – Vettel, 2nd – Hamilton, 3rd – Bottas, 4th – Raikkonen, 5th – Verstappen, 6th – Massa, 7th – Perez, 8th – Sainz, 9th – Kvyat and 10th – Ocon
Drivers – Top 10:
1. Vettel (Ferrari) – 25pts
2. Hamilton (Mercedes) – 18pts
3. Bottas (Mercedes) – 15pts
4. Raikkonen (Ferrari) – 12pts
5. Verstappen (Red Bull) – 10pts
6. Massa (Williams) – 8pts
7. Perez (Force India) – 6pts
8. Sainz (Toro Rosso) – 4pts
9. Kvyat (Toro Rosso) – 2pts
10. Ocon (Force India) – 1pt
1. Ferrari – 37pts
2. Mercedes – 33pts
3. Red Bull – 10pts
4. Williams – 8pts
5. Force India – 7pts
6. Toro Rosso – 6pts