Several times last year, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari were in position to win races but failed to convert due to ill advised pit strategy decisions. This year, as F1 kicks off a new era with new car regulations, Ferrari finally got the right strategy to earn their first victory since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix. But more than just a smart strategy, Ferrari demonstrated the promising pace of the SF70-H to earn the first race win of the season.
Mercedes were still the odds-on favorite throughout pre-season testing but the Scuderia also showed up with a surprising package, setting the fastest time across all test sessions in Barcelona with this lap from Kimi Raikkonen. Coming in to the Australian Grand Prix, there was much hype surrounding Ferrari’s upcoming campaign, particularly with the scintillating possibility of Mercedes being toppled at the head of the pecking order. In Qualifying, the two teams were nip-and-tuck for the first four positions on the grid but ultimately, the shootout for pole position had Vettel battling against Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton. Vettel managed to marginally beat Bottas’ pace but ultimately, it was Hamilton who emerged with a flawless, blistering lap to earn pole.
When the race started as the 2017 season saw its first green lights, Hamilton maintained his position but Vettel kept closely behind. This first stint was crucial for the Ferrari driver’s victory. Contrary to what would have been the typical scenario, we didn’t see a Mercedes leaving the rest of the field to dust. The Ferrari matched the pace of the leading Silver Arrow and even left Bottas behind trailing at third place. Hamilton struggled with his tires early, deciding to pit after only 17 laps, as Vettel inherited the race lead and lots of clean air. Vettel managed to continue on for a few more laps without a complaint about his own tires while Hamilton got stuck behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. In the race’s most tense moment, the Ferrari crew executed a perfect stop to bring Vettel out ahead of both Verstappen and Hamilton.
From then on, it was a straight-up race to the end with every driver electing a one-stop strategy due to tires being a lot more durable this season. As the new race leader, Vettel pulled away solidly albeit Hamilton continuing to be stuck behind the turbulent air from the Red Bull. But Vettel continued to maintain the gap between him and Hamilton all the way to the checkered flag. Unable to gain any ground on the leader, Hamilton continued to struggle even with new tires while Bottas at third place had caught up to trim the gap down to under two seconds behind his teammate. In the end, Vettel brought home the win with a calm drive while the two Mercedes drivers held station to consolidate second and third.
It’s worth pointing out that Ferrari’s strategy was another key point in their victory. Last year, they tended to do the opposite of what Mercedes would do (e.g. if Mercedes worked a two-stopper on slower tires, Ferrari would opt for a three-stopper on faster tires), which arguably cost them wins in last year’s Australian and Canadian Grands Prix. This time, Ferrari matched Mercedes in strategy–both Vettel and Hamilton started on the Ultrasoft compound and then switching to Softs for their final stints. Again, the crucial thing here was Vettel’s first stint, keeping Hamilton closely ahead of him and making his tires last longer.
David Croft mentioned on commentary that it was “a breath of fresh air” following Vettel’s victory. Things are looking up for the Scuderia after they’ve managed to better, if not match, the pace of the Silver Arrows. It’s clear that Hamilton still has tremendous pace, especially in qualifying runs. But when it counted most, the Ferrari of Vettel emerged on top. It has only been one race but it’s not difficult to imagine a Vettel-versus-Hamilton fight for the championship this season. Of course, it’s too early to discount the potential of Bottas and even Raikkonen, as well as the expected development of Red Bull, which could still bring Verstappen and Ricciardo closer to the top.
There wasn’t a lot of overtaking, as expected, but boy, are the cars spectacular to watch on television. I’m a huge fan of the wider (and sturdier) tires and the lowered rear wing. We had one-stop strategies aplenty but I still think that having tires that last long and can be pushed lap after lap is a step in the right direction. The thing that I hate most about the sport that I love most is tire-nursing, so I’m happy that drivers can really wring out the performance of these beastly new cars without being limited by tire wear.
Next stop, Shanghai!