Five things we learned from the 'Straya F1 Grand Prix
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Formula 1 and I have a love/hate relationship.
Seemingly every season I approach the series opener with a massive head of steam — frothing from every orifice about how tight the on-track battle is set to be — only to come away bitterly disappointed with yet another dominant victory by the dominating driver/team of the time.
That then triggers a hibernation period that lasts throughout the season, where my level of care about F1 wanes with only brief flutters, until the following season rolls around again and I buy into the sandbagging, trick-playing, politicking party house that is pre-season testing. And the cycle kicks off again.
With this in mind, I assembled an appropriate arrangement of snacks and beverages last night for the 2017 season opener in Melbourne. And I was happily surprised.
Ferrari are back
All aboard, tickets please, for the official Scuderia Ferrari Hype Train™.
Yes, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen (but, mainly Sebastian Vettel) were in great touch all weekend. But only during the race did we really see just how close they were to Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton.
There had been accusations of sandbagging during Ferrari testing (somewhat traditional), and Vettel jamming on the brakes prior to completion of his quickest lap in Q2 seemed to further back up the claim.
Vettel ended up starting from second. After mirroring Hamilton's pace in the opening segment of the race, a later pit-stop punctuated by confident mid-race pace helped the German ace pop out in the lead. After a brief exciting squabble between he, Hamilton, and the off-sequence Max Verstappen, Vettel pretty much drove off into the sunset.
In the past, a Vettel win wouldn't be a celebrated one. But things are a bit different today.
Bottas is one to watch
I think the signing of Valteri Bottas as Nico Rosberg's replacement at Mercedes-Benz was seen by many as a conservative pick. As the choice of a driver who was unlikely to shake the tree and unlikely to run wheel to wheel with the former champ.
But low and behold, Bottas and Hamilton were near inseparable during the race. Hamilton clearly had better pace when forces were equal, but Bottas had a much more convincing run to the chequered flag thanks to superior strategy and Hamilton's tyre issues late in the piece.
He'll win Grand Prix' this year that boy.
Alonso is still world class
Fernando Alonso might just about be the angriest man in Formula 1 right now. Apart from maybe Jolyon Palmer.
Joking jibes early in the weekend about wanting the field to have equally powerful engines set the tone and supported what we already know — that McLaren's Honda package is far from competitive.
But while the team's second driver, new recruit and former reserve pilot Stoffel Vandoorne, floundered at the back of the grid on debut (perhaps displaying the car's true pace), Alonso sat in the points for most of the race.
A few incidents up ahead helped him push from 12th on the grid to 10th in the race, where is stayed for most of it. Late in the race he got gobbled up by Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenburg, then he retired with suspension failure, but it was still a very impressive drive from someone driving a not-so-impressive car.
"It was probably the best race of my life until that moment," Alonso later told Motorsport.com.
"Few times I've had such a an uncompetitive car, without any winter preparation, having to save fuel in a brutal way — I think we had to lift about a second per lap — and even so we were in the points.”
New formula isn’t a magic bullet fix
With enormous new tyres and reduced aero packages came the requisite internal hype about how all of this was going to 'change the game'.
And while the end result — Ferrari trumping Mercedes — was indeed a development to get excited about, sadly the racing was still relatively stale and processional.
Yes, it's just the first race of the season. Yes, things might get better at tracks like Bahrain or Singapore. But, people say things like that at the beginning of every drab season.
One can just hope that what we saw was drivers being conservative and feeling out their new mechanical wares in a competitive environment. In time, the proof will be in the pudding.
... but the passion is still there
The race might've been more fizzer than fizzler, but that didn't stop an incredibly large crowd of people from attending over the course of the weekend. No official numbers have been released yet of course, but you didn't need to be Einstein to figure out that the amount of people in the stands was impressive.
That was then underlined by the premature release of the public track invasion; which saw thousands of fans spew out onto the parklands circuit while the cars were still circulating.
This in itself opened up its own pandora's box of problems, but, in a way, it was still nice enough to see throngs of genuinely excited fans funnel out onto the track like that — brandishing huge Ferrari flags, screaming euphorically until their ears bled at Vettel's helmet as he rolled past.
In some ways it vindicates a lot of the off-season changes. Let's just hope that the crowds are still as passionate by the end of the season.