Class B: Midfield Report, 2017 Australian GP

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Antonio Giovinazzi (Sauber, No. 36) in action against Lance Stroll (Williams, No. 18). Both were competing in their F1 debuts. Photo from: F1Fanatic

Because F1 today is not just about the frontrunners Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull, this new-for-2017 section will be dedicated to the teams that make up the rest of the field. I’ll be calling this section “Class B”, where Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso, McLaren, Haas, and Sauber shine.

  • [Class A-minus] Red Bull wasn’t exactly a threat to the Mercs and the Ferraris this past weekend. Sure, Verstappen finished a solid fifth and there wasn’t much he could do about that. On the other side of the garage, Daniel Ricciardo didn’t have a dream weekend in his home race and it all started when he crashed out of Qualifying. A penalty from a necessary gearbox change relegated him to a fifteenth place start but he wouldn’t even make it to the grid as he’d encounter problems half an hour before the race. He was forced to start his race from the Red Bull garage, two laps down. About halfway through, his car eventually broke down on track, and that was the end of the day for the affable Aussie. He’ll definitely bounce back in Shanghai two weeks from now.
  • Felipe Massa had a rather lonely race but the supposed-to-be-retired driver had sharp form even since pre-season testing. He finished sixth for Williams, neither being a threat for fifth nor being threatened from seventh.
  • In stark contrast, Massa’s young teammate, 18-year-old rookie Lance Stroll, had a weekend as shaky as his steering technique. On Saturday, he hit the wall in FP3 and qualified 19th, which was over two seconds slower than Massa. Come Sunday, he tried to work his way up the field but couldn’t get past the formidable defense of Antonio Giovinazzi (more on him later). Late into the race, a brake failure forced the billionaire’s son into retirement.
  • Sergio Perez of Force India contributed at least two on-track overtakes to this race’s measly tally of five. Both his passes were on Toro Rossos, which is fitting considering he spent most of his race fighting off the two Toro Rossos of Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat. Perez, Sainz, and Kvyat finished in that order for seventh, eighth, and ninth places.
  • The other Force India driver Esteban Ocon contributed a highlight reel overtake that involved him, Fernando Alonso, and Nico Hulkenberg going three-wide on the main straight late in the race. Ocon passed Alonso, giving him tenth place and his first F1 championship point. Hulkenberg also managed to get past Alonso on that same moment, consolidating an eleventh-place finish for his first race with his new team, Renault. Alonso meanwhile, suffered a problem shortly after being overtaken, and retreated to the garage with a stricken McLaren.
  • Antonio Giovinazzi, last year’s runner-up in GP2 and current Ferrari test driver, was called up to the Sauber team on Saturday following Pascal Wehrlein’s withdrawal due to lack of fitness. Wehrlein sustained a neck injury last January in the Race of Champions event, hence missing training time and the first four days of pre-season testing. Okay, back to Giovinazzi. This kid has lots of promise and he definitely deserves a full-time seat in F1—if not this year, then 2018. He narrowly missed on out-qualifying teammate Marcus Ericsson but in the race, he didn’t put a foot wrong and brought home a 12th place finish. Also worth re-emphasizing that he did indeed hold off Lance Stroll in the theoretically faster Williams during the first half of the race. I’m glad that Giovinazzi not only was given an unexpected chance to race but also that he impressed the paddock with a solid F1 debut. Great effort.
  • Stoffel Vandoorne drove a hobbled McLaren to a thirteenth-place finish, last among all finishers. Like Giovinazzi, I also highly rate Vandoorne to be an intriguing young talent but that McLaren is just horrible, sadly.
  • Romain Grosjean qualified his Haas up to a lofty sixth place but retired after 13 laps in the race, pulling into the pits with smoke coming out of his car. It’s an unfortunate result but the Frenchman didn’t appear to be entirely disappointed because he thinks that his car’s got some serious pace. He’s already looking forward to the next race.
  • Kevin Magnussen and Marcus Ericsson tangled at Turn 3 in the opening lap. Both drivers eventually retired later on, not necessarily related to the incident, as far as I know.
  • The most wretched weekend belonged to Renault’s Jolyon Palmer. He crashed during FP2, culminating an unproductive Friday. This lack of running caused him to qualify dead last on the grid. Brake problems early in the race caused his retirement after 15 laps.
  • Earlier, I noted Stroll’s two-second Qualifying gap from teammate Massa. Aside from the Williams pairing, huge gaps between teammates were also found at Renault and Haas. Based on Q1 lap times, Hulkenberg outpaced Palmer by more than three seconds, while Grosjean bettered Magnussen by about 1.4 seconds. Breakdown according to Qualifying results:
    • Massa (7th) – (19th) Stroll
    • Hulkenberg (11th) – (20th) Palmer
    • Grosjean (6th) – (17th) Magnussen

“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 ahead. Vettel managed to continue on for six 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 a sizable 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 switched 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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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!