Grand Prix notebook – Australia

Lewis Hamilton arrived in Melbourne adamant that Ferrari had the fastest car. Yes, he was relieved that the awkward balance his Mercedes had displayed at Barcelona under the new FIA suspension ruling was apparently resolved as soon as he hit the track at Albert Park – and that was enough to allow him his 62nd F1 pole – but still there was a nagging doubt. Vettel was right there on the front row with him. There was relief rather than elation for Hamilton when he was able to keep the traditionally faster-starting Ferrari off the line. But still he couldn’t lose him. Everything he did, Vettel was right with him – and the more the leader tried to push on to open a gap, the more he was taking from the tyres. And he knew that was going to be critical – for this wasn’t set to be an undercut race. So hard are the new compounds that degradation is low and the switch to the harder compound at the pit stops would likely make you slower. 

For the guy behind – Vettel – it was going to be about keeping close enough and staying out long enough to get the overcut. For Hamilton and Mercedes, once it was obvious that the Ferrari could match their pace and was easier on the tyres, it was always going to be a ‘damned if we do,damned if we don’t’ situation on when to come in. Hamilton was already saying his tyres were going. If they stayed out longer and the rubber became really bad, then Ferrari and Vettel could simply undercut them. If they came in earlier, they might have the pace on new tyres to stay ahead – if they could switch them on fast enough. And depending how strong Vettel’s pace was once you’d pitted out of his way. But the likelihood was always going to be that he was going to be overcut. 

And that’s exactly how it played out, Vettel staying out an extra five laps until he had enough time to buy the pit stop and still come out ahead. Ferrari was gifted a present in that Hamilton had exited directly behind Max Verstappen’s yet-to-pit Red Bull, and Seb had to get his elbows out upon rejoining to keep Verstappen off his back. But thereafter he was home and dry.

The more realistic rhythm for a Mercedes on this day was that of Valtteri Bottas. Much slower in the first stint than Hamilton as he simply drove to the tyres, under no threat from behind. That allowed him to pit seven laps later and subsequently on his fresher rubber he was much faster than his team-mate – and had to be called off. It all just confirmed that Vettel’s pace in the quick and tyre-easy Ferrari had forced Hamilton to go faster than his tyres liked.

Maybe if they’d still had the suspension the car was designed around, but which the FIA insisted was modified (following a late off-season query from Ferrari), that wouldn’t have been the case.

Whatever, if we ignore the strange anomaly of Singapore 2015 we had a Mercedes defeated on straight race pace for the first time in the hybrid era. We might just have ourselves a championship… But Ferrari’s pace was just one of the pre-season questions answered by the first race. The others were:

How much quicker are the aero-aggressive new cars?

Well, potentially up to five-seconds faster – as per the brief. Comparing Friday morning practice with the same session in 2016, that was the margin. But it became progressively less until by the time of qualifying, on Saturday afternoon, Lewis Hamilton’s pole was a mere 1.65sec faster than that of a year earlier. For a full explanation of this, see the column on page 26.

They have a lot more aero grip, but Pirelli’s reaction to the loads of the new faster, heavier cars has been an increase in the compound stiffness. Which has an implication on how the track evolves. Yes, on a green track they are 5sec quicker.

It remains to be seen if this pattern holds elsewhere or is peculiar to Albert Park. In Barcelona testing the improvement was in the order of 3.5sec, but it might be that F1 has spent all this money and effort just to spin its wheels.

Do the cars race better?

Depends what you mean by better. Can we be sure the drivers are pushing to their maximum for long stretches of the race rather than just managing tyre temperatures while driving two or three seconds off the pace? Yes.

There is still some tyre management necessary – at least on the Mercedes on the ultra-soft in the high track temperatures of the first stint in Australia. “The tyres do the things they’ve always done,” said Lewis Hamilton. “They get hot, they drop-off, they grain a bit. But they are a bigger, harder tyre, probably two steps stiffer on compounds, so they just go longer.” But can they be brought back when too hot? “Yes, but they still degrade.”

Vettel’s take is different. “You could push much harder. Usually the first couple of laps you were pushing last year and then the tyres were dropping off. Now the tyres are still dropping off a bit but you can keep pushing. You can keep braking at the same point. The car is screaming, ‘more, more, more!’ Also, at the end with the harder tyres there is hardly any degradation so it’s really good fun, especially in the fast corners. You could keep going forever.”

But if by racing, you mean is overtaking any easier? No.

Is overtaking even more difficult than before? Probably. “The cars have been difficult to pass ever since I came into F1. But these are worse,” said Hamilton. “The speed advantage you needed last year to be able to overtake was about a second per lap – though that scattered from track to track. But if it was a second last year, it’s about two seconds this year.” That much was evident as Hamilton in a Mercedes with fresh Pirellis could not pass Max Verstappen’s very old-tyred Red Bull – the very thing that lost him the race.

But is that necessarily bad? Had Hamilton just been able to breeze by Verstappen we’d not have had the fascinating contest we did…

Will anything be done to improve the racing?

Ross Brawn was at Melbourne and said: “If we see things this year that we don’t think are great for the sport, then we will be fighting our corner, and we will be fighting at every level. You can rest assured that we will be working with the teams and working with the FIA to find solutions if we don’t feel the racing is as good as it should be. If you look at the configuration of the aerodynamics we have, we have cars with very complicated bodywork structures that create very sensitive flow regimes around the structures. It means as soon as they are disturbed by a car in front, they suffer. So can we come up with a set of regulations where we can still use the power of aerodynamics to give us the speed and spectacle of the cars, but in a more benign way so they can at least race each other more closely without it having an impact? That is my ambition, that is my objective.”

To read how he is going to go about that, go to our interview with him on page 98.

Did the FIA ruling on heave springs change anything?

In the lead up to this race the FIA’s Charlie Whiting asked both Mercedes and Red Bull to make changes to the way their hydraulically assisted suspension systems worked. This instruction came at Barcelona testing. Both teams trialled their cars there with suspension modified to meet the FIA’s request and both the Mercedes W08 and Red Bull RB13 were significantly slower and less balanced.

By the time each arrived at Melbourne, the Mercedes had been massaged into a car good enough to take pole by 0.3sec – though slower in the crucial stages of the race than the Ferrari. But the Red Bull remained a long way off the pace. Mercedes had been using the hydraulic actuation of the front heave spring to allow the car’s front ride height to collapse to a pre-set level under braking and, through asymmetric valving, rise up only slowly – allowing a lower ride height through the corner. The FIA refused to believe that this was not principally for aerodynamic benefit. Last year Mercedes used the system in only about half of the races, as it didn’t always bring the gains expected and it’s adamant that its modification did not seriously affect the W08’s performance in Australia. But it would say that…

The Red Bull was using asymmetric valving for roll control but also – with a concept introduced by Manor in 2011 – to allow the rear of the car to run lower at speed down the straight, thereby stalling the diffuser, the wake of which contributes to rear wing performance. The combination of these effects reduced the drag and for most of Barcelona testing the Red Bull had uncharacteristically competitive end-of-straight speeds. In Melbourne qualifying Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were respectively 12th and 16th fastest through the speed trap at the end of the pit straight, 7 and 10kph respectively slower than the Williams-Mercedes. The Mercedes W08 was 2kph slower than the Williams. The Red Bull was also on a knife edge throughout the Australian weekend. At best, the car requires extensive set-up work to unlock its potential in the FIA-approved spec. At worst, the whole aero concept of the car could have been predicated on the banned technology. For the sake of a competitive show, we must hope it’s the former.

“At Mercedes I was involved in the early stages of development of these systems,” Ross Brawn told us. “They are fascinating technology, essentially just mechanical computers. Like all things you do mechanically, it’s dead easy to do with a chip and a valve [which has long since been banned] but extremely complicated mechanically. So you end up with a system that is massively expensive, massively temperamental and difficult to get the same on both cars in the garage. But you do it because the potential advantages are substantial. If you went off with a Moog valve and a box of silicon chips – ie active suspension – you could do exactly the same, more reliably, for a fraction of the cost. So do you just recognise that and bring back active? But F1 being F1 it wouldn’t just be a simple active from the ’90s so you then have to get into defining it. The teams who don’t want it will give a distorted view, those that do will give a different distorted view and you have to see between that. The FIA will form its opinion and we [Liberty] need to form our opinion to bring clarity to the situation. But there’s millions being spent on mechanical computers at the moment.”

The FIA’s Marcin Bukowski is currently working through the systems of all the other teams to see if they comply with the FIA’s recent technical directive.

Will Valtteri Bottas slot in where Nico Rosberg left off?

Mercedes’ Niki Lauda said after the race that he was delighted with Bottas’s progress and that “He is already at the level of Nico.” Does that stand up?

Through testing Bottas was finding the Mercedes W08 to be a more operationally complex car than he’d been used to at Williams, requiring more input from the driver even during the course of a lap to optimise its various systems. He was struggling relative to Hamilton, often almost 1sec per lap slower in comparable conditions.

By Melbourne he’d made considerable progress and qualified within 0.3sec around a track at which Hamilton habitually excels. Hamilton qualified 0.6sec faster than Rosberg around Albert Park in 2015 and 0.3sec faster last year (though in 2016 he was adamant he’d simply banked his advantage at the end of the second sector and not chased the couple of tenths he believed were achievable in the lap’s final part). In the race Bottas struggled badly with overheating front tyres in the first stint, but was very competitive on the cooler track and harder tyres in the second stint and finished – under team instructions – right on Hamilton’s tail in third place.

“It’s a start,” he said afterwards. “I was feeling very good in the car in the second half of the race.” Told of Lauda’s comment, he said: “It’s difficult to compare. But that’s nice. But there’s more to come. I’m not surprised by Lewis’s speed and he doesn’t need to impress me. He’s super-quick but I’m confident I can progress further. I’m backing myself.”   

Whatever is McLaren going to do?

No one yet has any answers. Even McLaren is awaiting further enlightenment from Honda. It’s somewhere about 2.5sec off a front-running pace at the moment and was 12kph down on the fastest through the speed trap at the end of the pit straight.

How did Lance Stroll fare on his F1 debut?

The 18-year-old rookie gave his critics plenty of ammunition. Things got off to a reasonable start in Q1 when he lapped within 0.6sec of team-mate Felipe Massa. He improved his times further in second practice but a raggedness was creeping into his driving as he sought to find more. On Saturday morning he hit the Turn 10 wall hard, damaging both front and rear suspension and the gearbox. In qualifying he was incredibly ragged in the hastily repaired car – and not quick. Had he repeated his P2 time he’d have scraped into Q2. But he was 0.5sec away from it – 2sec slower than Felipe Massa – and slowest but one. 

He was aggressive through the first few corners, but in passing Palmer, Vandoorne and fellow newcomer Giovinazzi he put a huge flat spot on his tyres and had to be brought in for replacements as early as lap four. In mitigation he was avoiding an accident with Ericsson and Giovinazzi at Turn One. But the flat spot ruined his race, which later ended with a brake disc failure (he habitually puts huge energy into the brakes). Up until that time he’d been lapping reasonably well, usually within a few tenths of Massa who was running in sixth place. 

In summary, he’s not without promise; his attitude is gung-ho but there’s a long way to go. We’re probably going to see more speed… and more accidents.