The smart money in the 2017 F1 pre-season was on another year of Mercedes dominance. But, after 57 laps of Albert Park, it was Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel who stood on the winner’s podium, having pulled out a post-pitstop lead the Mercedes team couldn’t touch.
While Sunday’s race is unlikely to be representative of the season as a whole – Albert Park is an unusual track, and often throws up unpredictable results – what the Australian Grand Prix has shown is that more than one team will rack up race wins this year.
Ferrari pulled off a strategic blinder, timing eventual winner Vettel’s pitstop with metronomic precision, returning their driver to the track ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who had struggled behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen after his own stop. Those short laps in traffic cost Hamilton the win; once the pitstop phase had finished the British driver was seven seconds behind Vettel on track, out of reach of victory.
Sunday’s grand prix was one of attrition, and one-third of the field retired. Of the 20 race starters, only 13 saw the chequered flag thanks to accidents and technical difficulties – and it is those technical troubles that promise to keep the 2017 season interesting.
Despite having spent the preseason talking up their potential, on Sunday Red Bull showed that the combination of an underpowered engine and a subpar chassis was going to make fighting for titles rather more challenging than hoped. The Renault power unit may be 0.5s per lap slower than its rivals, but the rest of Red Bull’s qualifying deficit can only be attributed to the car itself.
Daniel Ricciardo had a nightmare run, as is traditional for Australian drivers at the Australian Grand Prix, while the highly-rated Max Verstappen struggled for pace, seconds off his personal target of fastest lap of the race.
Valtteri Bottas’ Sunday performance showed that Mercedes were right to back the Finn to replace reigning champion Nico Rosberg. Bottas was far closer to Hamilton than anyone expected in qualifying and on race pace; had Mercedes better managed their pitstop strategy the Silver Arrows would have seen one of their drivers claim victory.
Looking ahead it is clear that – during the early flyaway races – the fight to watch is between Mercedes and Ferrari. Red Bull should get into the mix eventually, but it is unlikely to be before the summer return to Europe sees the development race kick up a gear.
It is in the mid-field that the battle looks closest, with Scuderia Toro Rosso and Sahara Force India both looking solid. Worthy of special mention is relative newcomer Esteban Ocon, who pulled off a banzai overtake on the struggling McLaren of Fernando Alonso, earning himself a points finish in the process.
McLaren look set for another annus horribilis. Melbourne’s shock was that Alonso’s car was running in the points before retiring on lap 48 with handling issues. Rookie teammate Stoffel Vandoorne was the slowest of the finishers, lapped twice. There is little chance of a turnaround for the team this season – getting two cars to the finish on a regular basis will be an achievement.
Another team to experience a nightmare weekend was American outfit Haas. The car has pace, as was clear from Saturday’s qualifying session, but with two retirements on Sunday there is still work to be done. Romain Grosjean’s car smoked itself to retirement, while Kevin Magnussen was sidelined by a rumoured suspension issue. Reliability counts, and the Haas has a long way to go before it’s bulletproof.
For Williams it was a race of two halves, foreshadowing the season of two halves the Grove racers are anticipating. Erratic rookie Lance Stroll made his name in winter testing as the natural heir to the crash-tastic Pastor Maldonado, and on Sunday the Canadian teenager retired after running off track.
In the other car Williams have the reliable but uninspiring Felipe Massa. The Brazilian racer was ‘best of the rest’ behind the Ferraris, the Mercedes, and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen, and best of the rest is a fair summary of Williams’ chances this year. With only one driver expected to score points regularly the privateer team are certain to slip down the constructors’ standings: budget and resources state they should be on par with STR and SFI, but with only one car in the points glory is impossible.
And as for Sauber, the other privateer team, one could be forgiven for asking whether they were in the race at all. The Swiss racers are barely in the championship.