The 2017 season opener in Melbourne finally arrived on Sunday. With the massive hype built up throughout the pre-season could Formula One really live up to the fans expectations?
Through practice and qualifying we got our first real opportunity to see the quite savage speed of the cars under the new regulations. Nowhere was this more impressive than through the high speed chicane of turns 11 and 12 (check out this great fan video from rrobertsstanley!) with some drivers flying through there in seventh gear during qualifying. Talking to the media in Melbourne, Romain Grosjean revealed that the drivers are hitting a peak of nearly 8G while navigating the fastest corners. So far so good then.
Race day was fairly uneventful for a season opener at Albert Park and was the first race here since 2013 to feature no running under safety car. The main highlight was, of course, the return of a non-Mercedes leader of the championship for the first time since Vettel in Abu Dhabi, 2013. Not only did Ferrari execute a flawless strategy (something they’ve failed to do far too many times in recent years) but they out-competed the Mercedes in terms of outright pace. This certainly bodes well for the season ahead.
The best (and basically only) action of the race was the exciting battle for 10th spot between Force India’s semi-rookie, Ocon; McLaren’s two time champion, Alonso; and Renault’s only hope, Hulkenberg. Three abreast into Turn 1 was surely destined for the barriers but somehow they all kept it together and Ocon ticked off passing Alonso in a wheel-to-wheel battle off his bucket list. There should also be an honourable mention to the impressive Antonio Giovinazzi who made the most of his F1 debut in the Sauber. Drafted in at the last minute to replace Pascal Wehrlein he did a commendable job on both Saturday and Sunday to prove his worth and certainly looks like one to watch in the future.
However, as the race unfolded it became clear that the result was going to be decided, in large, by strategy calls from the pit-wall rather than by the drivers pulling off daring overtakes. Long-time followers of F1 will not have been surprised by this revelation. It has been (reasonably) clear, since the announcement of the regulation changes, that following closely to the car in front will be increasingly difficult due to the large aerodynamic wake and the sensitivity of the complex front wings to this wake. Running in turbulent (or “dirty”) air reduces the load on the front wing, reducing downforce and thus grip, which in turn increases tyre wear. Not to mention the secondary negative effects the dirty air has on cooling various bits and bobs of the chasing car.
Aerodynamics is a fascinating subject and the aerodyamic features of a Formula One car are truly works of art. With the exception of T-wings. They’re just plain ugly. But no matter how interesting and clever the aerodynamic packages might be, if they negatively impact the racing then are they worth it?
The only reason behind the rule change for this season was to reinvigorate Formula One and to a certain extent it will do but the fans want to see close racing. If the drivers were able to race nose to tail we’d almost certainly see more real overtakes (rather than gimmicky DRS ones). With drivers pressured into mistakes we’d also have more incidents, more tension, and hopefully more competition for the titles. It would be thrilling to watch. Obviously, it goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyway), that it is definitely not as simple to implement these changes as it is to say we should. But I think that suddenly the more trivial complaints, such as noise, might take a backseat because the racing would be compelling and dominate the conversation.
Talking of noise, most of the noises coming from Ross Brawn and Liberty Media are good ones – like a Ferrari V12 blasting around Monza – and the changes implemented so far are a good start. With the arrival of Liberty and the return of Brawn it is easy to get carried away but we must remember that they cannot change things overnight so while it is true that we are in a new era of Formula One it will take time for the necessary fixes to be implemented and this is a good thing. We have seen the consequences of knee-jerk reactions to problems before (e.g. elimination qualifying) and they weren’t pretty. For now, we can hope that Ferrari can maintain their competitiveness, that Red Bull can develop themselves into true contenders, that Honda can miracle themselves a competitive power unit before Fernando pulls the plug, and that the next couple of races in China and Bahrain bring a little more excitement to the table.