By Thomas Dodd
- 2017 Formula One season got underway in Melbourne, Australia, last Sunday
- Defending champion Nico Rosberg not on grid after retiring from sport at end of 2016
- Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel beats title favourite Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes to claim season’s first win
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – There were winners and losers from last weekend’s Formula One season opener, but it’s the fans who may well have left Albert Park the happiest.
Ferrari and Vettel are back
The Scuderia had shown lightening quick pace towards the end of testing, but heading to Melbourne it still seemed a little too early to suggest they could take on and even beat Mercedes over a full race distance. But, to the surprise of perhaps even those at Maranello, Sebastian Vettel stayed with Lewis Hamilton in the opening exchanges and then controlled the race after the pit-stops to claim victory – their first at Albert Park since 2007.
The new rules have definitely brought the top teams closer together and the Italian team have already laid down a marker for the others to go and attack. Four-time world champion Vettel returned to the top step of the podium for the first time since Singapore in 2015 and with Kimi Raikkonen quietly setting the fastest lap too it can be declared official: Ferrari are back.
Hamilton and Mercedes will not have it all their own way
The reaction of Mercedes team principle Toto Wolff when Vettel emerged in front after the final round of stops said it all. Banging his fists on the table in frustration perhaps already shows Mercedes are not as comfortable as last year.
Of course, it would not be ridiculous to suggest that Hamilton and new teammate Valtteri Bottas could claim all the remaining race victories in 2017, but while last year’s races were a procession at times for the Silver Arrows, they could find winning the title this year requires digging deeper than they have ever needed to before.
Formula 1 needs this
Since the start of 2014 Mercedes have won 51 of the 59 races contested in Formula 1 and have recorded 30 one-two finishes in that same time period. Sound boring? Of course it does, and while the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari have been able to pick up the scraps, it has only been whenever Mercedes have faltered.
Quite simply, Motorsport’s pinnacle racing series has been crying out for competition between the constructors on track for years and last weekend’s result may just have got fans hopeful once more and the excitement around Formula One always has more traction when a Ferrari is near the front of the grid fighting for the spoils. With a little bit more development, Red Bull won’t be far behind either.
Midfield battle too close to call
Competition between the marks in the middle of the grid could be hotter than this year, and Melbourne gave no indication as to who has the edge in the race to be the fourth best constructor behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.
Williams were the first non big-three car home on Sunday with Felipe Massa but the Williams looked uncomfortable at times around the streets. Force India, with Sebastian Ocon scoring a point on his debut for the team, and Toro Rosso both staked claims by filling the minor points positions as well as showing genuine race and qualifying pace. The big losers appear to be Haas, who were quickly made to forget last year’s points-scoring debut in Australia with two DNFs in 2017.
It could be a long year for some
The majority of the Formula 1 paddock arrived Down Under with high hopes for 2017. Some didn’t. And some had those worse fears confirmed with a very long weekend. New boy Lance Stroll had a debut to forget after struggling in pre-season testing and Joylon Palmer also found the going tough at the start of a second season where he simply has to perform.
But the biggest disaster story on the grid at the moment is McLaren Honda who stayed true to testing form by languishing in the lower third of the grid for all three days. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso joked in the pre-race press conference when asked what rule he would change in Formula One that all teams should have the same engines, a clear jab at Honda, who seem to have gone backwards in their development.
There are those such as Hamilton, and Daniel Ricciardo (who crashed out of his home race) who will be itching to get to China in ten days time and bounce back with style as the season kicks into gear. Those at the other end of the grid however– Alonso, Sauber et al – may well be dreading the short hop to the Far East.
The China Grand Prix takes place between 7-9 April.
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