F1 2017 Australian Grand Prix: Seeing Red

It’s only been 120 days between the final race of the 2016 Formula One World Championship and the start of the 2017 season but a lot has changed. The low-downforce, allegedly passing-friendly formula of 2009 has been replaced by a new high-downforce, high-speed aero formula. The caps have been taken off engine development. Tyres are wider and have been constructed to be more durable. Basically, what you remember about F1 last year is different this year.

That includes the team in front. While it sure looked like the new rules would only result in the same old, same old, there was a new car at the head of the field: A Ferrari SF70-H named Gina piloted by Sebastian Vettel who started the newest era of Formula One with a win.

As pre-season testing would have you believe, it was a battle between Mercedes and Ferrari in qualifying and the race. Hamilton scored the pole but it was Vettel who started alongside. After three years of regular silver front rows, this was a welcome change.

The top five held station off the lights. Among the few passes during the race was Felipe Massa getting by Romain Grosjean for 6th. Later on Lap 1, Sergio Perez made a pass. In the final laps, Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg used DRS to get by the ailing Honda of Fernando Alonso. And that was the sum of racing passes on the day so overtaking with the new aero formula might be at a premium.

The race did have a few retirements as we’ve come to expect from the first race of the season. Grosjean looked to have points well in hand until a water leak ended his day early. Brake issues felled both Jolyon Palmer and rookie Lance Stroll. Power unit issues ended the days of Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo. A hydraulic failure ended Marcus Ericsson’s day while Kevin Magnussen’s Haas ended an adventurous day with a suspension failure.

The big moment of the race was Lewis’ early call for his pit stop. Claiming a lack of grip on his ultra-softs, Lewis made a far earlier call to pit than his competitors. He stopped five laps before Vettel and that was his undoing. Because tyres are more durable and overtaking harder, the undercut doesn’t have as much of an effect. As a result, Vettel was able to get by Hamilton when he was caught behind Max Verstappen. Last year, we would have been upset by a race decided by pit strategy but because there’s a new car on the point, it doesn’t seem so bad.

The win was Vettel’s first in 18 months. His 42nd career win came in Singapore in September 2015. Seb’s 43 career win was a long time waiting for Maranello and much-needed considering how high expectations were set following a strong showing in testing. The two Mercedes rounded out the podium with Hamilton leading Bottas home.

Kimi Raikkonen was 4th having held off Max Verstappen who finished 5th. Verstappen’s choice to go super-soft in his second stint appeared to pay off until the late stages when the Pirelli reds appeared to fall off compared to the yellows. Felipe Massa was the last car on the lead lap in 6th. The old man might have retired last year but still has a little left in the tank.

Sergio Perez was 7th but we know he’s got some pace around Albert Park. It’s believed that his ability to nurse tyres won’t help him much this season. The Toro Rosso teammates of Sainz and Kvyat were 8th and 9th, respectively. Kvyat went with a two-stop strategy that didn’t pay off which will be a sign of things to come at most races. Esteban Ocon scored his first career points by finishing 10th.

Given their atrocious pre-season testing form, the future of McLaren has been a hot topic of the paddock and pundits.

In the preview, I mentioned that McLaren isn’t blameless for their struggles since Lewis left the team after the 2012 season. That being said, everyone is laying the blame at Honda’s feet because of the unreliable and slow engine. There were suggestions in testing that the new Honda power unit is actually going backwards with the 2017 Honda engine down up to 50 horsepower on the end of 2016.

The major stumbling block at this point of the reported ten-year deal between Honda and McLaren is the estimated $100 million that Honda puts into the team through free engines, subsidized driver contracts and sponsor payments. McLaren has held informal talks with Mercedes for an engine supply contract. McLaren has lasted the last couple of years with minimal sponsorship on prize money and Honda’s contributions. Without Honda, they would not be in the best financial position.

Depending on who you listen to, they could be asking about a mid-season switch (which is unlikely because the MCL32 is designed around that Honda power unit) or for 2018 to take up the engine supply deal that Manor’s closure has made available. They need to have a deal lined up before dropping Honda since the “obligation to supply” rule puts teams without engines with the suppliers who has the fewest engine contacts to McLaren would go straight back to Honda but without that $100 million in sponsorship.

The car designs are likely to change for 2018. One likely rule change will have a minimal effect as far as we see while the other will require a complete overhaul.

Charlie Whiting says that he expects the shark fins and T-wings to be banned for 2018. A loophole in the rules allows for both to be used on the 2017 cars and teams are using them because they help control airflow to the rear wing which increases downforce. Unfortunately, they also tend to be quite ugly and don’t help the show so no one is likely to miss them.

Also rumoured to be coming for 2018 is a new rule regarding the driver’s seat position.

Sam Collins of Racecar Engineering told Radio Le Mans that the FIA is finalizing language on a new rule for F1 and LMP1 that will change the semi-reclined seating position to prevent back injuries to drivers. The FIA has been looking into this for years but have finally settled on rules language to make the change a reality.

Currently, drivers sit at an angle of about 45 degrees. A sports medicine journal article by CART and IndyCar doctor Dr. Terry Trammel says that the optimal seating position to prevent spinal fractures is a recline of no more than 25 degrees from vertical. If the FIA follows this study, that will require a complete change in the design and construction of F1 and LMP1 cars.

Going from a 45 degree to a 65 degree seating angle means that the drivers will be higher in the cars so the sides of the cockpits will be higher to enclose the drivers. The roll hoop and air inlets will have raised to accommodate the new sitting position. The centre of gravity of the cars will be changed so either car designs will change to compensate or the handling characteristics of the cars will change.

While everyone is busy looking at the shark fins as a place for major changes to the cars, the seating position change is the one that will have the biggest impact and no one is talking about it yet. When this rule change becomes official, this will dominate the conversation until the new cars are unveiled next February.

Just as things were looking up for Force India with new sponsor BWT taking over branding for the car, it looks like they could be relying on that sponsorship money for the foreseeable future. Britain has just certified an extradition request from the Indian government for team owner Vijay Mallya.

In 2016, a group of banks had gone to the Supreme Court of India seeking over $1 billion in loans owed to them by Mallya and his companies. It was reported that he had already left India by the time they brought action to the courts and he apparently hasn’t been back since.

The request for Mallya’s extradition to India came in February and a warrant for his detainment for extradition is expected shortly. What we don’t know is if this will have any impact on the operations of the team. It comes down to how involved Mallya was in the operations and funding of Force India. We know that the sidepods of the SFI have historically been adorned with Kingfirsher or Sahara (the team’s other ownership group) branding so the owners have been the primary funders.

For the rest of this season, Force India should be able to continue, especially as they’re reasonably competitive in the midfield. It’s a matter of how long their BWT and Johnnie Walker deals run that will impact the future of SFI.

As I’m wont to do, I’m going to complain about my local broadcaster yet again.

In my part of Canada, we had the race live on two of the five TSN channels and with one replay condensed into two hours at 7:30 PM. This was the debut of a new Canadian driver but two TSN channels were showing SportsCentre replays and the other was showing a series of Top 10 lists. TSN1 was showing the race until the live curling match at 3:00 AM while TSN5 was the only channel with time available for post-3:00 AM coverage.

You would think that TSN, which ran a special hyping Lance Stroll’s F1 debut, would dedicate some time and effort to covering the actual race but TSN’s modus operandi when it comes to motorsport is minimum effort for whatever reward that falls out and spin it to justify their decision.

The next round of the 2017 Formula One World Championship will take place in two weeks’ time. We leave the streets of Albert Park and head to a dedicated road course for the first time this season. It’s time for the Chinese Grand Prix from the Shanghai International Circuit.

Ferrari typically does well at Shanghai so I wouldn’t be surprised if they can put in another strong showing in China. Will it be enough to topple the Mercedes? Well, the pundits are suggesting that the season doesn’t really start until we get to the first of 11 Tilke designed or renovated circuits on the calendar.

However, the win in Australia bodes well for Vettel and Ferrari. In the last 20 season opening Grands Prix, the winner has gone on to win the World Drivers’ Championship 12 times and the World Constructors’ Championship 14 times. That still leaves eight out of 20 times that the Drivers’ Champion didn’t win the first race. So there’s the bone that I’ll throw Hamilton’s fans.


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