GAME ON: Ferrari & Vettel surge to stunning season opening win in Oz, Hamilton & Bottas 2nd & 3rd for Mercedes
After suffering three years of Mercedes’ dominance to start this new turbo era of F1, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari fired a warning shot on Sunday that 2017 could well be different. At the season’s opening round in Melbourne, Australia, Vettel showed that the redesigned Prancing Horse’s blistering pace during the pre-season Spanish tests was no fluke. Vettel charged his blood red mount to a dominant win at the Albert Park circuit, coming home nearly 10 seconds ahead of Hamilton’s previously nonpariel Silver Arrow. Despite a good getaway by Lewis from pole, Vettel had a dominant race once he overtook Hamilton on tire strategy and was barely challenged thereafter. With Hamilton’s super soft Pirelli’s going off after Lap 17, the Englishman was forced to pit for fresh rubber. But Vettel’s sleek new SF70H chassis was able to continue to run effectively until Lap 23 on its fat super softs. Hamilton was further hampered by getting stuck behind the competetive Red Bull of Max Verstappen so that by the time Vettel emerged from a well-executed Ferrari service Hamilton was two places behind the German former 4-time World Champ. While Hamilton would eventually overtake Verstappen the damage was done & Vettel sailed away to the surprisingly easy victory. Obviously it’s only one race but the prospect of a real season-long fight between a newly ascendant Ferrari and the previously imperious Mercedes has got to whet the appetite of every true F1 fan.
Hamilton’s new teammate Valtteri Bottas made up for a poor start on the super softs by charging hard on his soft tires after his pit stop, where his F1 WO8 seemed to instantly perform better on the relatively harder rubber. Bottas, who has looked nearly a match for Hamilton despite his brand new equipment, even harrased his senior teammate as the laps ran down. In the end Bottas was able to join Lewis on the podium in P3, salvaging a very good points haul for the somewhat stunned Mercedes team. It’s possible that the Merc braintrust will have to re-evaluate both their race strategy in light of Sunday’s dissapointment, as well as just how much downforce they can afford to put on the car in order to get their tires to last longer and perform better.
Vettel’s Ferrari stablemate, Kimi Raikkonen, also had issues with his tires and had nothing to really challenge the top 3. The veteran Finn finished P4. After losing out on his dice with Hamilton, Red Bull’s Verstappen slipped back with brake issues and finished P5. Still the result was much better than his teammate Daniel Ricciardo. The Australian hero had a disastrous weekend at his home Grand Prix, first wiping out in Q3 on Saturday and then suffering an sensor issue where his car was stuck in 6th gear on the formation lap. This required Ricciardo to start from the pits after his team had frantically repaired the issue and by the time he came out he was already 2 laps down. As if to emphasize the futility of the entire weekend’s effort, his RB13 gave up the ghost on Lap 26. The talented and charismatic Aussie will be hoping for better things when the competition moves to China in a fortnight.
Felipe Massa fared much better in his return to F1 racing after an incredibly quick retirement at the end of the 2016 season. The savvy old Brazilian proved he still has what it takes, shepharding his Williams home to a P6 finish. Force India had a nice recovery after poor qulaifying saw both cars staring outside the top 10 on the grid. The ever improving Sergio Perez nabbed a solid P7 and his young wingman Estaban Ocon grabbed a valuable point by coming home P10. The Toro Rossos of Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat rounded out the top 10, finishing P8 and P9 respectively.
McLaren nearly looked competetive with Fernando Alonso driving superbly and dicing with Ocon and Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg for the ever-important 10th spot before suspension damage forced his retirement. Alonso’s new teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, taking over from longtime McLaren stalwart Jenson Button, struggled mightily and finished back in P13. Another notable disappointment was Romain Grosjean who qualified his Haas an impressive P7 and looked strong in the early going only to see engine failure end his day prematurely on Lap 13.
Top 10 finishers in Australia:
POS. DRIVER TEAM TIME POINTS
1 SEBASTIAN VETTEL FERRARI 1:24:11.672 25
2 LEWIS HAMILTON MERCEDES +9.975s 18
3 VALTTERI BOTTAS MERCEDES +11.250s 15
4 KIMI RÄIKKÖNEN FERRARI +22.393s 12
5 MAX VERSTAPPEN RED BULL RACING +28.827s 10
6 FELIPE MASSA WILLIAMS +83.386s 8
7 SERGIO PEREZ FORCE INDIA +1 lap 6
8 CARLOS SAINZ TORO ROSSO +1 lap 4
9 DANIIL KVYAT TORO ROSSO +1 lap 2
10 ESTEBAN OCON FORCE INDIA
The next round of the World Championship will be contested from Shanghai, China in two weeks time. Will Ferrari’s first strike prove to be a harbinger of great things to come or an early season fluke? Only one way to find out — hope to see you then!