Welcome along to the first round of the 2017 Formula One season. Six jumbo jets full of gear and 200 tonnes of sea freight have touched down in Australia as the 71st season of the world’s fastest sport is about to get underway. The season begins with the sport’s 22nd visit to Albert Park in the centre of Melbourne, and there are plenty of unknowns as F1 embarks on its new era.
There’s already fighting talk going on between the pair who look set to be our main protagonists this season. While Sebastian Vettel insists Mercedes are the favourites for top honours in 2017, Lewis Hamilton sees things differently, placing expectation on Ferrari to deliver given their pre-season pace:
“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment and I think they will definitely be the favourites but we’ll find out more going into the weekend. It’s interesting to see Sebastian’s usually a lot more hype and I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”
Who are the real favourites? It’s difficult to say, but Ferrari have definitely had a new air of confidence since setting the fastest time in Winter Testing. No team has ever won the Constructors’ Championship back-to-back when there has been a major regulation change between those two years. With Formula One now very much an engine formula, however, Mercedes will still likely have the advantage so I’d be more inclined, given their previous form, to say that Mercedes are still the favourites.
The mind games continued, as the idea of 25 races per season was discussed. Vettel claimed that 25 was ‘too many’ and anywhere between 16 and 20 races is enough, whereas Hamilton wants to see more: “I love racing so I’m not opposed to more races.”
Ferrari have taken just five poles this decade and haven’t won at this track since Kimi Raikkonen was victorious in 2007. The Finn could take his third win here this weekend. The last time he won at Albert Park was in 2013, which was also the last time a non-Mercedes driver won here. Hamilton, meanwhile, could also take his third win in Melbourne on Sunday. His previous victories here came in 2008 and 2015.
Another Finn who’ll be hoping to be victorious in Australia is Valtteri Bottas. When asked if he’d like a Mercedes 1-2 this weekend, he said:
“That would be a good way to start. Obviously we do need to see where we are standing against all the other teams. It’s a completely new season, a new era of Formula One, a new team for me but that’s always the ultimate target. I feel in a good place and definitely it’s always some kind of dream coming true, being part of a team like this that has pretty much dominated the last three years in Formula One. I feel very happy but just keen to get going. I feel well prepared, I feel definitely ready to race. I really think we made the most out of the short period of time I had to prepare with the team and get into everything perfectly.”
It will be fascinating to see how Bottas shapes up compared to Hamilton on his Mercedes debut. The gap between the pair on Saturday in Qualifying could be very telling as to how this season will go. Last year, the gap between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in Qualifying here was 0.360. Bottas’ best finishing position at this track in the past has been fifth, in 2014 – a race in which he recovered from a puncture after hitting the wall at Turn Ten. In 2015, he sat out of the Australian Grand Prix after injuring his back in Qualifying.
WHAT I’M WATCHING FOR THIS WEEKEND
I’m most excited about Q3 on Saturday, and finally seeing how much quicker the 2017 cars are when they’re driven at full power, on the fastest tyre and in anger. It’ll also give us an idea of just how close the top three teams are relative to one another and if the gap to Mercedes really has dramatically decreased. There’s some showers forecast for Saturday but they probably, and hopefully, won’t affect the qualifying hour. For reference, the 2016 pole position time was 1:23.837.
How about Red Bull? Many are expecting them to bring something different to their car this weekend than what we saw in pre-season testing. Max Verstappen, who starts his first full season with the team this weekend, has recently alluded to this, saying the car will look just a ‘little bit’ different:
“It will look a little bit different. A little bit. But not just in a single aspect – everywhere. That’s what you do if you want to drive the whole car concept forward.”
With the revised Renault power unit, his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo will be hoping to become the first Australian to win his home Grand Prix. If he gets on the podium this weekend, it will be his nineteenth rostrum appearance and the first time an Australian has finished in the top three at Melbourne. He has, of course, stood on the podium after a race here before – when he finished 2nd on his Red Bull debut in 2014 – but was later disqualified for a technical infringement. Ricciardo has aspirations to have a healthy rivalry with his team-mate throughout the season:
“Hopefully we’re fighting for victories, I think that would be something we would welcome. He’s obviously fast. It’s his third year now and although he’s young, he’s no longer a rookie anymore so I think we both carry a bit of experience. I think the team is excited to see how we go and I think everyone else is. They’re starting to hype it up a little bit. Hopefully it’s hyped up by the fact that we’re fighting at the front, that’s what we both want.”
Red Bull start their 13th Australian Grand Prix this weekend with the RB13. With a promotional campaign centered around superstition, perhaps the Milton Keynes based team has reason to worry this weekend. They’ve only appeared on the podium three times here but have had six DNFs, a DSQ and a DNS.
It was Daniil Kvyat who brought Red Bull that DNS last year, as his car ran out of steam as the grid was being formed. He had a similar issue on his lap to the grid in 2015 which prevented him from taking the start, so will be hoping to at least be able to line up with the rest of the drivers before the lights go out on Sunday.
Talking of starts, the start procedure has been changed slightly for 2017, so there could be more action off the line than we have become accustomed to of late. The drivers must now fully engage the clutch themselves, instead of relying on any assistance from their engineers. As well as this, bear in mind that the cars are wider this year, so Turn One could be very interesting indeed.
This weekend, three drivers compete in their debut Australian Grand Prix. Esteban Ocon drove only in the second half of the season for Manor in 2016, so has never driven the Albert Park track before. He gets his first outing in the pink-liveried Force India this weekend. Stoffel Vandoorne finally takes up a full-time seat at McLaren this season and gets his first taste of Melbourne this weekend. Lance Stroll becomes the second youngest driver to ever start a Grand Prix. While his newly un-retired team-mate Felipe Massa complained that he wasn’t able to ‘get fat’ over the winter in the Thursday Press Conference, the Canadian insisted that 2017 would be a learning year for himself when asked what goals he had set himself for the upcoming season:
“I think just a solid year, a clean year, obviously still a lot to learn so I don’t think putting a position or a number would be the right way to approach the whole thing. I think we’re just going to take it race by race. It’s still going to be a big learning curve for me, there’s still a lot for me to understand about everything but listen to the people around me that are there to help me and take it race by race. Looking forward to the whole thing.”
Will Lance be able to score on his debut? It really depends on Williams’ relative pace compared to the rest of the midfield – Force India, Toro Rosso and Williams are expected to be battling for the points behind the top three teams.
Other questions to be answered this weekend – will Haas be able to recover from their braking issues? Just how tight will that midfield battle be? How far off the pace will Sauber be this weekend? And how will Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen get on at their new teams?
READ MORE: 31 Stories to Watch in F1 2017.
And finally, during the Press Conference, the drivers were asked what changes they’d like to see under F1’s new owners Liberty Media. While Ricciardo asked for a race in Las Vegas, Vettel wished to see a race in his home country and Hamilton opted for a Grand Prix in Miami and more female presence in the F1 paddock. Fernando Alonso hilariously chipped in asking for ‘equal engines for everyone’. Looks like it could be a difficult weekend for McLaren Honda.
Whatever Fernando does this weekend, he’s bound to have at least one fan:
— Eva Nano (@FAsterNano) March 23, 2017
For the past two seasons, the winner of the Australian Grand Prix has gone on to win the Championship. In fact, thirteen times in twenty one runnings, the winner of this race has gone on to win the championship. Will that be true this year? Who will get the best possible start to the season and who will be left looking for more pace by Sunday evening? Formula One is back and we’ll have coverage of the events as they unfold throughout the weekend.
HEADER IMAGE: FORCE INDIA F1 TEAM