“A Breath of Fresh Air”: 2017 Australian GP Race Review

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Sebastian Vettel celebrates after taking the checkered flag at Albert Park, Melbourne. Photo from Autosport

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.

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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.

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Head-to-head: Could we be in for a Vettel-Hamilton battle for the rest of the year? Photo from Sky Sports

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!

A New Era: Formula One 2017 Pre-season

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Foreground: Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes. Background: Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari. Photo from Sky Sports F1

The regulations overhaul has brought forth new-look cars with wider tires, swept-back front and rear wings, and the return of the shark fin engine cover, among others. The V6 turbo engines stay on and no cockpit-protection structure has been implemented yet. Higher cornering speeds and lower lap times are predicted with the mechanical grip from wider tires and increased downforce. In effect, cars will be a lot more physically demanding to drive. Overall, we’ll see cars that are faster, sleeker, and more aggressive-looking, as has been frequently billed. For sure, they will be a lot more spectacular to watch. I am already loving the wider look.

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Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull. Day One pre-season testing at Barcelona. Photo from Sky Sports F1

More than just elevated physical demands on the drivers, the new cars will require a new driving technique. It will be interesting if McLaren rookie Stoffel Vandoorne, fresh from a season in Japanese Super Formula, can find an advantage from his experience with a fast-cornering car. Four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel thrived in cars with high mechanical grip and cornering speeds—can he lead a possible revival of the Prancing Horse?

For better or worse, the regulations changes are very much welcome in Formula One. Insiders warn that it may not lead to better on-track racing and closer competition among teams but the change is a good start nonetheless. Mercedes will very likely still be the team-to-beat at the head of the pack but one can never dismiss the tantalizing possibility of a dark horse contender in seasons with new regulations. Red Bull has been speculated to be the favorite in dethroning the Silver Arrows at the top, following their impressive year in 2016, but another interesting possibility has emerged after Toro Rosso revealed their 2017 machine, which shares quite a few similarities to the defending champions’ Mercedes W08.

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The new Toro Rosso STR12 is a stunner, both in terms of livery and bodywork. Driven here by Carlos Sainz. Photo from Sky Sports F1

Anyway, again, that’s mere speculation—we’ll have to wait until the end of the eight-day testing in Barcelona. There was so much anticipation from the car launches all throughout the previous week and finally, F1 cars are now back running on track. Day One of preseason testing has begun and the wheels have started rolling for 2017.

New cars are hyping up a new season of grand prix racing. New possibilities knock on the door of a new generation of Formula One.

For the Title: 2016 Abu Dhabi GP Season Finale Race Review

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Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton were set to race for the World Title.

They called it the “Duel in the Desert.” Under the lights in Abu Dhabi, two drivers vied for the championship on the 21st and final race of the longest season in F1 history.

Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton were split by only 12 points heading into the season finale. Permutations were the main talking points of the weekend. As championship leader, Rosberg needed a minimum third place to clinch the title even if Hamilton won the race. On the other hand, Hamilton at the very least needed a podium finish even if Rosberg were to retire from the race. The Mercedes teammates have finished one-two in the past three races with Hamilton taking all the wins. Crucially, Rosberg didn’t even need to win in the final four races to become champion—all he needed to do was to keep his nose clean and pace himself.

As such, the two Mercedes locked out the front row of the grid for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix with Hamilton on pole and Rosberg second. Momentum and statistics favored another Silver Arrows one-two finish, which was a scenario that Hamilton did not want. In order to be crowned a four-time champion, he had to find a way to spoil his teammate’s result. Then again, there were no guarantees, as absolutely anything can happen within 55 laps around the Yas Marina Circuit.

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Track map of the Yas Marina Circuit

When the red lights went off in the Abu Dhabi twilight, Hamilton and Rosberg consolidated their positions up front. A few rows behind, the Red Bull of Max Verstappen spun after a slight tangle with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg in the first corner. Verstappen’s spin was to prove crucial later on in the race.

Curiously, the mighty Mercedes pair wasn’t leaving the rest of the field behind in a cloud of dust as was normal. Hamilton up front was deliberately slowing his pace, putting into play his scheme to back Rosberg up into their opponents. The two Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, split in between by the Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo, applied pressure on Rosberg throughout the first stint.

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The early laps of the race saw Hamilton lead Rosberg, Kimi Raikkonen, Daniel Ricciardo, and Sebastian Vettel.

The first round of pit stops went by and Hamilton maintained his lead but Rosberg now found himself in third, behind Verstappen who hadn’t pitted. Rosberg didn’t need to fight too hard because third place was enough but because of Verstappen’s different pit strategy, the championship leader had to free himself from behind the Red Bull. Bravely, Rosberg attacked the unpredictable Verstappen to regain track position. Their brief skirmish along the two back straights of the Yas Marina Circuit was a heart-stopping tightrope walk for Rosberg. One wrong move could’ve ended his championship hopes but he managed to get through unscathed. Verstappen eventually made his pit stop a few laps later, making him the only one-stopper among the front runners.

The two Mercedes took their second pit stops with Hamilton still maintaining the net lead of the race. Because Rosberg was able to overtake Verstappen on track previously, he emerged ahead of the Red Bull after his second pit stop. Respectively, Hamilton and Rosberg ran second and third because Vettel stayed out to inherit the overall race lead. The Ferrari driver had prolonged his Soft tire stint in order to run the Supersoft compound for his final stint.This strategy worked out brilliantly.

Vettel momentarily dropped to sixth after his final pit stop but because he was on fresher and faster rubber, it was a lot less difficult for him to make his way back up the order. Teammate Raikkonen let him through unchallenged. With supreme pace, Vettel then dispatched Ricciardo and then Verstappen to move up to third as the race neared its conclusion.

Back in front, Hamilton again deliberately slowed his pace, allowing the field to bunch up. The very tense final handful of laps featured a train of cars led by Hamilton, followed by Rosberg, Vettel, and Verstappen. It was nail-biting and a very fittingly dramatic final few laps of the season.

Hamilton needed to get Vettel and Verstappen to overtake Rosberg. His tactics were understandable but over at the Mercedes pit wall, the bosses were not too pleased with Hamilton putting the race win at risk. Still, in that desperate situation, he had to make something happen to snatch away the title from his teammate’s grasp. Rosberg only needed to hang on to second but Vettel was rapid and Verstappen was still dangerous despite running on older tires.

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Rosberg had to defend against Vettel’s late charge.

As his engineers continued to haggle him to go faster, Hamilton  was obstinate, openly refusing to follow suit as he drove even slower in the lead. On the penultimate lap, Vettel attempted a move on Rosberg along the second back straight but the latter took the perfect defensive line into Turn 11. Vettel tried again on the same corner in the last lap but Rosberg managed to stay ahead just enough. There were virtually no overtaking opportunities in the lap’s final sector so despite Hamilton’s excruciatingly slow driving, Rosberg held on until the end by calmly, cleanly weathering the storm.

At the checkered flag, the top four finished within roughly 1.7 seconds of one another. Talk about a tight finish.

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Hamilton took the checkered flag first, followed closely by Rosberg, Vettel, and Verstappen.

Champion

Nico Rosberg crossed the finish line in second place but ultimately took the crown as World Champion for 2016. Hamilton took his tenth race victory of the season but in the final drivers’ standings, Rosberg stood at 385 points to Hamilton’s 380. Despite having one less win than his teammate, it was Rosberg’s consistency across a tough 21-race season that buoyed him to his maiden drivers’ championship.

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Newly-crowned World Champion Nico Rosberg did some donuts to celebrate his triumph after the race.

Thirty four years after his father Keke won the World Championship, Nico finally became a Formula One World Champion himself after 206 race starts across eleven seasons. Congratulations to the Rosberg family and to the Mercedes F1 team. What a brilliant ending to the season!

2016 Brazilian GP Race Review

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Race winner Lewis Hamilton kept his cool in a 3-hour long wet Brazilian Grand Prix.

Treacherous. It was the most appropriate word to describe last week’s grand prix. Being an old school circuit, Interlagos doesn’t indulge drivers with copious amounts of runoff area, especially in the track’s fastest sector. Through the flat-out left hand kinks leading to the undulating start-finish stretch, there are only walls on either side. This isn’t normally a problem in dry weather as there is lots of grip that the drivers can work with. But when the rain streamed down in Sao Paulo last Sunday, there were no more guarantees, as Romain Grosjean discovered, when he crashed into the wall during his reconnaissance lap. Rain set the backdrop for another Brazilian Grand Prix classic. Continue reading “2016 Brazilian GP Race Review”

2016 US GP Race Review

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Lewis Hamilton wins the 2016 US Grand Prix, the fiftieth win of his career.

For the two Mercedes drivers, the United States Grand Prix was a race that hinged on timing. Trailing the championship battle, Lewis Hamilton took a timely victory in Austin, notching the fiftieth win of his career. Equally timely was teammate Nico Rosberg’s second place finish, which minimized the damage on his still sizable title lead. The Mercedes one-two finish was consolidated by a Virtual Safety Car deployment at the most opportune time for the Silver Arrows, when both Hamilton and Rosberg effectively took a free pit stop under the circumstances.

One year ago, Hamilton clinched his third drivers’ championship in Circuit of the Americas while this year, the most he could do was inch his way a few points up towards Rosberg’s current spot at the top of the standings. In a must-win race, Hamilton delivered with a perfect start from pole position and a clean drive to the checkered flag. Unlike earlier this month in Malaysia, his Mercedes power unit saw him through the finish and didn’t burst in flames.  Continue reading “2016 US GP Race Review”

2016 Japanese GP Race Review

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Mercedes AMG Petronas are your 2016 F1 Constructors’ champions. Photo credit: F1 Fanatic

The Triple. It has been another successful title defense for the Mercedes AMG Petronas team after Nico Rosberg’s Japanese Grand Prix victory clinched the 2016 Constructors’ championship for the team. On the heels of only the squad’s second loss of the season last week in Malaysia, Sunday’s title-clincher in Suzuka came thanks to Rosberg’s ninth win of the season. A Silver Arrow has now won 15 out of 17 races thus far this year and they have now cemented themselves as three-time champions.

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Nico Rosberg won the Japanese GP for the first time in his career. Photo credit: Sky Sports

I mentioned in a previous review that last month’s race in Singapore was arguably the best of Rosberg’s career but that has rapidly changed after his impeccable performance throughout the Japanese Grand Prix weekend. The German set the quickest time in each of all three practice sessions, nabbed pole position in Qualifying, and cruised to victory in the race. From the lead during the final stint, Rosberg expertly managed his gap ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen by being efficient and driving conservatively. It’s not exactly a spectacular racing style but it has proven to be effective. A controlled pace while in the lead has been the craft that Rosberg has developed for almost a year now and his twelve wins since last season’s Mexican Grand Prix shows that it has delivered the results. Crucially, Rosberg now leads the championship by 33 points from Lewis Hamilton and there are only four races to go.  Continue reading “2016 Japanese GP Race Review”