Australian Grand Prix Analysis: Mercedes make way for in form Ferrari


Sebastian Vettel - Scuderia Ferrari, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas - Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 - Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

This weekend’s Australian Grand Prix was perhaps not the start to the 2017 Formula 1 season that everyone had hoped for, especially in light of the new rules introduced this year, the plan being to make the cars look more aggressive and much faster, which we had all been told would improve the racing spectacle.

It did not of course, and although we were treated to a non-Mercedes winner in Melbourne on Sunday, it was not the close race that many had expected following winter testing, and in the end, it was a pretty dull affair.

Before the racing could get underway however, home boy Daniel Ricciardo came to a halt on the formation lap as a result of what is believed to be a gearbox sensor failure. Although the engineers tried their damnedest to get the car fixed in time to allow the Australian to start the race from the pitlane, it was to no avail.

Ricciardo did finally get out onto track, to the delight of the home fans, but he was two laps down and never in with a chance of bagging the win he so craved at his home race. That feat became even more of an impossibility when a fuel cell gave out midway through the grand prix, and the Australian understandably dejected, had by then had enough.

Things got off to a ropy beginning from the off, when the start was aborted, after Sergio Perez initially pulled into the wrong grid slot before edging his car forward into the correct position.

A marshal then triggered a warning light next to Daniil Kvyat’s car in error, leaving F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting unsure whether it was safe to get proceedings underway, leading him to abort and send the drivers round again on another formation lap.

To add to that chaos, the start procedure had also been privy to an overhaul in 2017, in a bid to give more autonomy to the driver. Having been prone to the odd slip up off the line, all eyes were on Lewis Hamilton, who had taken pole position on Saturday, to see what sort of getaway he would achieve this time out.

Business as usual, or was it…

The Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver held the lead as the lights went green, with front row neighbour Sebastian Vettel in tow, and their team-mates Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen right behind them through the first few corners.

The two men at the front eventually began to pull away however, trading fast laps as they went, but although he had managed to drop the rest of the field with relative ease, Hamilton could not shake the Scuderia Ferrari man.

The Brit complained over team radio that he had a lack of grip, but the Mercedes engineers remained firm and kept him out for as long as they could, which was lap seventeen. With the gap back to Vettel now under a second, Hamilton made the call to pit early, having felt that his tyres were going off and he would lose out to the German if he continued on.

Dutch Road block…

Hamilton made the switch from the ultra-soft compound to the yellow walled soft tyre, but without an ideal gap to the next car being strategically thought through, he managed to come out behind traffic, and not just any traffic, the RB13 of Red Bull Racing driver Max Verstappen.

One thing that many experts had predicted in this new era, was that overtaking would be nigh on impossible, and that appears to be right, as Hamilton tried in vain to pass the Dutchman, but without success.

Whilst the Brit struggled to get anywhere fast, his lap times dropping, Vettel stayed out without losing any time to his main rival, and in the end lapping quicker than the Brit, who looked like he would be stuck behind Verstappen for the foreseeable future.

Hamilton complained over team radio that there was just no way through and nothing he could do to get by the Dutchman, but all the team could offer up to him, was that making the pass was critical to his race.

Ferrari finally figure it out…

Vettel finally went into the pits on lap twenty-three, and as he slowly meandered down the pit exit, it was clear the German had done enough to come out ahead of the Red Bull and the Mercedes to take over the lead of the race.

With Hamilton still holed up behind the 19-year-old, Vettel was able to pull away, and it was not until three laps later when Verstappen finally pitted, that Hamilton could attempt to make any inroads on Vettel.

With fresher tyres on the Ferrari however, the Brit was powerless to prevent the German from taking his first victory in two years, and Vettel kept him at a steady distance as he controlled the race to the line. When he took the chequered flag, Vettel was almost ten seconds ahead of Hamilton, that early pit stop in the end, having compromised the Brits race.

Towards the end of proceedings, Hamilton was being caught by team-mate Bottas, but the Finn began to feel a lack of grip and in the end took third place and the final step of the podium in his first race for the German team.

That win was Ferrari and Vettel’s first victory since the Singapore Grand Prix in 2015, that result that had alluded them for so long had finally arrived, with the added bonus of leading the constructor’s and drivers’ standings after round one of 2017.

The rest of the field…

Raikkonen took fourth place, albeit eleven seconds down the road, but ahead of Verstappen and Williams Martini Racing driver Felipe Massa, who took an excellent sixth after a disrupted weekend of technical issues.

Perez was a solid seventh for the mainly pink Sahara Force India F1 Team, after a battle with Scuderia Toro Rosso boys Kvyat, and in particular Carlos Sainz Jr to the line. The Russian fell away after needing to make a late pit stop to top up his engine air system, whilst the Spaniard put in a good final stint to very nearly catch the Mexican.

Esteban Ocon came home in tenth place to score his first ever point in F1, after a late battle with former Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg, now with the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team, and McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team driver Fernando Alonso.

The Spaniard had been sat in tenth position through to the latter stages of the race, but Ocon and Hulkenberg suddenly began to close in on the McLaren, and Alonso retired from the race shortly after being overtaken by the Frenchman, in what was a worryingly close manoeuvre, as Ocon got right up behind the MCL32.

Alonso began complaining the car was pulling to the left, before retiring from the race completely, after what had been a positive race for McLaren Honda…as opposed to their performance in winter testing at least.

Antonio Giovinazzi, who had replaced Sauber F1 Team driver Pascal Wehrlein in Australia, after the German decided to sit the event out due to lack of preparation following an injury, came home in a respectable twelfth place, just ahead of final classified driver Stoffel Vandoorne in thirteenth position.

Retirees…

At the start of the grand prix, Haas F1 Team driver Kevin Magnussen was unable to avoid the unlucky Marcus Ericsson, as the Dane got oversteer going through turn three, causing him to spear into the side of the Swede, pitching them both into the gravel. They did manage to get back underway again, but their races were pretty much over from that moment on. Magnussen eventually retired seven laps from the end, whilst Ericsson’s race was over by lap twenty-one.

Romain Grosjean, who had brilliantly qualified in sixth place on Saturday, was forced to retire from the race after just eleven laps, when his engine blew and he returned to the pits, smoke streaming from the back of the VF17, having looked strong up until that stage.

Lance Stroll managed forty laps before a brake disc failure ended his debut, and it was a solid effort form the 18-year-old rookie, who got off to a flying start before flat spotting his tyre avoiding an incident ahead, which forced him into an early pit stop and a strategy change.

Renault driver Jolyon Palmer had been struggling with the RS17 all weekend and the race was no improvement, as the Brit continued to experience brake problems, that saw him take numerous excursions off track, before finally retiring from the race on lap fifteen.

The 2017 Championship…

Australian GP – Podium. Sebastian Vettel,, Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas. Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Sunday’s result sees Ferrari take an immediate lead in the constructor’s standings, with driver Vettel also heading up the drivers’ championship. It is the first time since 2014 that a team other than Mercedes (on that occasion it was McLaren) have led the championship.

There is hope that this year will see a close battle between more than just the two Mercedes drivers this year, and Ferrari have already put down that gauntlet. Whether they can maintain such strong performance for the rest of the season is debatable, but so far so good for the Maranello based team.

Red Bull had a difficult weekend. The Milton Keynes based squad were never really able to take the fight to the top two runners, and their situation went from bad to worse on race day. It was a huge disappointment for Ricciardo who, after crashing out in qualifying and needing a gearbox change, came to a halt on his way to the grid (a direct result of said gearbox), before the grand prix had even got underway. They still sit third in the standings however, at this early stage.

Williams did well to recover what up until the race had been a pretty disastrous weekend for the Grove based squad. Electrical problems for Massa in FP2, saw the Brazilian lose out on some much needed track time, with brake problems then stopping his progress in FP3.

Team-mate and F1 debutant Stroll crashed the FW40 in the Saturday morning practice session, and it was touch and go as to whether he would make it to qualifying. A solid effort from the Williams engineers ensured that he did, but a gearbox change meant he would start from the back of the grid regardless.

In the end, Massa had a strong but relatively quiet race, coming home in sixth place, which was enough to see Williams move into fourth in the constructor’s standings.

Just behind them and nipping at the Grove based squad’s heels, are Force India and Toro Rosso, who had both their drivers finish in the points on Sunday, and the battle between that little trio could be one to watch for the remainder of the season.

Renault, McLaren Honda and Sauber all came away from the Australian Grand Prix without any points to the name. A particularly disappointing outcome for McLaren who did have Alonso running in tenth for the majority of the race, before from the race, bodywork damage to the MCL32, believed to be the cause.

It is only the first race of the season, with plenty of racing still to be had, but early signs that another team may be able to take the challenge to the mighty Mercedes this year are good, but this is F1 we are talking about, and so literally, anything could happen from here on in!