Mark Hughes reports from the opening round of Formula 1 2017 – Melbourne
The talk afterwards was about the track position Mercedes surrendered with Lewis Hamilton and how that had gifted Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel the victory. But given the opposing considerations, in the actual moment it was the correct decision. The real overwhelming truth that dwarfed all the minutiae was that on the day Ferrari had a faster car than Mercedes. It was Ferrari who had the pace to have pressured Mercedes into that awkward decision. They applied the strain and made them snap. Underestimating Ferrari’s pace, the Mercedes race plan was for Hamilton to open out the gap that would allow them the luxury of pitting at their own convenience. In trying to do that he overworked his tyres – and the Ferrari stayed right with him the whole time. Wait too late to pit with fading tyres and they’d have been sitting ducks to a Ferrari undercut. Or if Ferrari had chosen not to do that, they could just as easily have overcut them. They were simply faster in the 38-deg C track temperatures of the first part of the race. “I think if the positions had been reversed and Seb was ahead in the first stint, he’d have pulled away,” reported Hamilton. “In the second stint, on a cooler track and the harder tyre I think we were probably quicker but I wasn’t sure how much tyre life we had after coming in so early – and it would still have been impossible to pass.”
Even if somehow Mercedes had sneaked the win it would have been a fortunate one, built on the advantage of pole and track position against a Ferrari that was not only faster but better on its tyres. Ferrari faced a tricky decision of its own and played it perfectly – keeping Vettel out for five laps after Hamilton had pitted, judging that he wouldn’t quite reach the lapped traffic until Hamilton was on the back of Verstappen’s old-tyred Red Bull, with no way to pass. This has never been an easy track on which to overtake but the new generation of faster cars have made it yet more difficult.
Vettel had to get his elbows out for a couple of corners as he emerged from his stop just ahead of them, but once he’d established his position he was able to pull away as Verstappen remained in Hamilton’s way for a further three laps. Game over. Mercedes for a time considered a switch to a two-stop, but that would have only worked if the degradation rates on Vettel’s Ferrari had been significant – and they weren’t. At this point Mercedes instructed Hamilton to turn down his engine and informed its other driver Valtteri Bottas that Hamilton had been instructed to do this (the implication being, ‘hold positions’).
Merc’s new recruit Bottas had a transposed race to that of Hamilton. Slow on the ultra-soft in the first stint, but able to run long, with no pressure from behind, he was flying on the soft in the second stint and had he not had to back off to avoid pressuring his team-mate, that would have been a faster strategy over the race distance, the one that Vettel’s pressure had prevented Hamilton from adopting. The reason Bottas had no pressure from behind was the struggle that Kimi Räikkönen was having with a Ferrari that simply wasn’t set up right for him in the first part of the race on the ultra-softs. He finished fourth, 23sec behind his winning team-mate, but set the race’s fastest lap, enigmatic as ever.
So Mercedes beaten on pure pace for the first time in the hybrid era (if we take away the anomaly of Singapore 2015, when it somehow lost 3sec per lap) and it looks like we might have a title fight. The crowd seemed to love it when Vettel emerged ahead of Hamilton at the stops. They’d have had an even better day if their home hero Daniel Ricciardo hadn’t broken down on the way from the grid, started two laps down and then retired with a fuel flow metering fault.
The new cars look better, are faster and the tyres allow them to be pushed hard for longer. But they are not as much faster as they ought to have been given the downforce increase. Only during Friday morning practice were they quicker by the 5sec per lap expected. In qualifying that was down to 1.7sec and in the race 2.4sec. The reasons for that revolve around how hard the compounds of the new tyres are and how little therefore the track rubbers in.
Both Mercedes and Red Bull had been advised by the FIA to make changes to their suspensions during the pre-season Barcelona tests, the hydraulic activation of heave springs being at the centre of the debate. When trying their cars in a format that satisfied the FIA, each experienced some difficulty in getting them balanced. Ferrari – who had raised the initial technical point – may have taken some cheer from that and from the questions of whether that imbalance would still be there when the cars ran in anger around Albert Park. It was with the Red Bull. It wasn’t with the Mercedes.
“We had a few difficulties during the off-season,” related Hamilton after Friday practice, “but the guys have done a fantastic job in understanding what was needed and the car is just fantastic around here.” Quickly into his well-honed groove around this place, Hamilton was the man to beat, and this eventually converted into his 62nd career pole. Meantime Daniel Ricciardo threw his Red Bull off the road at turn 14 in Q3 trying to get within a second of the Merc, with Max Verstappen fifth fastest in the sister car 1.2sec off the pace.
So Ferrari was left as the lead chaser rather than the gold standard it had looked in testing. But it had definitely closed the gap. Vettel, in getting within less than three-tenths of Hamilton, was able to split the two Mercs to line himself up on the front row. “I lost a bit of time in turn one and was a bit too hard into turn 9,” reflected Seb afterwards, “so the lap might’ve been better. But even so I don’t think it would have been enough [for pole].” But it was close enough that Hamilton’s first Q3 run wouldn’t quite have secured him pole – and that’s different to how it’s usually been with Mercedes for the previous three seasons.
Bottas was naturally disappointed not to make the front row on his Mercedes debut, falling short of Vettel’s time by a couple of hundredths. But he was making progress in his understanding of the nuances of the car and closer to Hamilton than he’d generally been through testing. He’s wasn’t yet operating at Rosberg’s level, but was making steady progress towards that.
Kimi Räikkönen made two very messy Q3 laps, as ever a little more sensitive to front tyre temperature at the start of the lap than his team-mate, and this left him around 0.6sec adrift of Vettel to line up fourth. “We only understood what we needed for the set-up after qualifying,” said Kimi regretfully, “and so we were stuck with it.” As ever, he remains reluctant to use a lot of steering lock and feels he needs the car to rotate more for the amount of lock he wishes to apply. If it doesn’t happen, this just sees him running wide everywhere and making compounding errors.
Ferrari has found a lot of engine performance since last year – but so too has Mercedes. The corner speeds of the two cars were similar but the Merc was invariably significantly faster through the traps, indicating either superior power and/or lower drag. The Ferrari was getting into some of the turns better, notably the fast sweep of turn 12, where Vettel was flat in seventh and Hamilton was having to take a momentary lift to make the front respond to the steering. Lagging a long way behind, slower pretty much everywhere, was Red Bull. The RB13 has been conceived as a low-drag car (relative to Ferrari and Mercedes) and in testing, with its original suspension activation, its end of straight speeds were competitive. In Melbourne, the rear no longer squatting down at high speed and stalling the diffuser so much, that was not the case. Furthermore, its set-up was on a knife edge. Before Ricciardo crashed in front of him towards the end of their first Q3 laps, Verstappen had been on course to have beaten Räikkönen’s error-strewn lap. His subsequent Q3 run wasn’t quite as good and left him fifth. Ricciardo was left with no Q3 time on the board, which with a five-place gearbox penalty applied, left him to start 15th.
As with several incidents during the weekend, Ricciardo’s grip seemed to disappear very suddenly once the rear tyres got past a certain slip angle. The new cars are clearly going more quickly when they slide, but it seems more than just that. The stiffer construction necessary to withstand the extra loads seems to have made the tyre less tolerant to slip angle and when push comes to squeezing the last few hundredths of shove, they bite. Others thought perhaps it was an airflow effect of the shark fin engine covers.
Romain Grosjean, with just one set of ultras left for Q3, did a beautiful lap to line up the Haas sixth fastest, around 0.5sec adrift of Verstappen but a similar margin ahead of Felipe Massa’s Williams. His Haas team-mate Kevin Magnussen was in the wars, failing to graduate from Q1 after twice running off the road at the fast turn 12. “The first time I did it flat out to see where the limit was and I went off. The second time I asked for a little bit more front wing and I went a bit slower to get it right, but I didn’t get it right.”
Massa’s time just edged out Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso-Renault for seventh, Felipe fairly satisfied with progress. Things were pretty fraught on the other side of the garage though as Lance Stroll put his car in the wall at turn 10 on Saturday morning, damaging front and rear suspensions and gearbox. His subsequent few laps in Q1 were a blurry, crazy input of emergency avoidance and he failed to get within 0.5sec of his earlier practice time at over 2sec adrift of Massa. His 19th-fastest time translated to the very back after the penalty was applied for the damaged gearbox being replaced.
The Toro Rossos proved to be a little sensitive to track temperature and had to be rebalanced through each session to gradually find the sweet spot that had been there on Friday. Sainz and Daniil Kvyat squeezed through to Q3 and lined up eighth and ninth, separated by around half a tenth.
Sergio Pérez was complaining of an engine hesitation on upshifts in the Force India, causing him to just miss out on Q3, 11th fastest, with team-mate Esteban Ocon half a second and three places behind. Despite now being in a different team, Nico Hülkenberg was within a hundredth of Pérez in 12th, the only Renault in Q2 after Jolyon Palmer found his rebuilt car – he’d crashed it heavily at the final turn on Friday afternoon – to be bugged by fuel system and braking issues. He was slowest of all.
Fernando Alonso did well to get the under-powered McLaren-Honda through to Q2 where he went 13th fastest, 0.5sec adrift of the Force India and Renault. It at least ran fairly reliably. His car featured updated aerodynamics around the front, reckoned by the team to be worth 0.35sec, but Stoffel Vandoorne’s did not. The second McLaren was 18th, around 1sec adrift of Alonso.
Sauber had significantly improved its car since Barcelona testing and Marcus Ericsson was able to slot into Q2. Pascal Wehrlein withdrew through injury after driving the car on Friday. Hence a Formula 1 debut for the team’s third driver Antonio Giovinazzi. He was on course to edge Ericsson out of a place in Q2 before running across the grass at the penultimate turn. He’d start 16th.
Late summer into autumn can still produce a scorcher of a day in Melbourne and so it was on Sunday. By the 4pm start, the track temperature was still hovering at around 38-deg C and that would have a bearing on the shape of this race. On the ultra-soft that most of the field started on, it worked against Mercedes and in favour of Vettel’s Ferrari. It would take a few laps for that to become apparent, but it seems that just the nuances of track temperature can now change the competitive order at the front – and that’s a measure of how much progress Ferrari has made.
Ricciardo’s Red Bull broke down on an out-lap from the pits with an electrical sensor failure. It was towed back to the garage, the problem component was replaced and the crowd’s favourite would join in after everyone else had been racing for two laps. He would later retire out on track with a fuel flow meter problem. The absence of Ricciardo from his grid slot caused some confusion in the mid-pack, Pérez initially pulling up in the wrong position but then nudging forwards, a small brake fire on Kvyat’s car (not unusual) triggering a marshal there into nervously pressing an alarm button to race control. With such uncertainty, Charlie Whiting took the decision to abort the start, everyone going around again, the race distance reduced by a lap to 57.
Faster cars and tougher tyres are not all that is new for 2017. There is also a new more properly manual clutch activation. Hamilton judged his perfectly, Vettel was a little hesitant and had to put a squeeze on Bottas just to retain his second place. Hamilton doubtless breathed a sigh of relief; one of the potential random threats to his route to victory had not materialised. Just bright Melbourne daylight in front of him, a speed-blurred crowd and parkland greenery in his peripheral, a small blotch of red in his mirrors.
Räikkönen and Verstappen’s Red Bull ran side by side behind Bottas through the first turn but Kimi had the momentum around the outside and made the place his own as the pack headed down to turn three, where there was some minor carnage near the back as Magnussen hooked some inner kerb, which flicked the Haas into Ericsson’s Sauber, taking them into the gravel from where they would continue but later retire with damage related to the incident.
Massa had passed Grosjean off the line and was in sixth ahead of the Haas, Sainz, Pérez, Kvyat, Hulkenberg, Alonso, Stroll, Palmer, Vandoorne and Giovinazzi. Pérez nailed a ballsy, beautifully judged move up the inside of Sainz at turn five. Hülkenberg tried a brave manoeuvre on Kvyat at turn 12, but lost momentum and was passed by Alonso. Stroll had started well but had flat-spotted his tyres so badly he needed to be brought in as early as lap four. As a generality, he looked under-prepared for F1 on his debut in between flashes of speed. He certainly didn’t lack for trying but there was little finesse about his performance. By contrast surprise new boy Giovinazzi, with no preparation, looked very composed.
Meanwhile Hamilton and Vettel edged away from the pack, just taking stock in these early heavily fuelled laps, each not really knowing yet what the other had got. It was difficult to be sure in the first race with the new tough Pirellis just how much they could be leant on without damaging them. Behind them Bottas was finding a lack of front grip from very early, generally 0.5sec off the Hamilton-Vettel pace. Behind him Räikkönen was doing even worse, falling away from Bottas though keeping himself out of Verstappen’s reach – and so the pack settled down in these early laps as everyone took stock. Grosjean went out with a suspected turbo failure early on, followed by Palmer with a brake problem.
So here we were: the big question of the winter still not properly resolved. Who has the faster car: Mercedes or Ferrari? On lap eight Hamilton set off to find out, upping his pace as per the pre-decided race plan, ready to open up the gap that would allow them not to be under pressure up to the first (and probably only) stop at around 20 laps.
“Yes, I could see him start to really push,” said Vettel, “trying to open a gap, and he succeeded a bit. I was struggling to hang on, but still hanging in there… Even if it wasn’t a wheel-to-wheel fight it was nice that we could just push and race to the first stop. It was a much more raw way of fighting than last year where you could only push for a couple of laps. There were some corners where he was on top of me and other corners where I was catching up.”
Hamilton’s charge saw him lapping around half a second faster than earlier – and he had the gap out to 1.8sec by the 13th lap. But that wasn’t enough and now Seb was all but matching him as the Merc’s tyres began to overheat and Hamilton had to slow a little to bring them back. “We just didn’t have the pace to pull that gap, and I knew that from quite early on,” said Hamilton. “But we continued to press on this road that we were on. The team were asking me to give them information on the tyres but it ended up that the race we had planned wasn’t the optimum one.” Not against a Ferrari that was faster than they’d realised. Had Hamilton’s 0.3sec advantage in qualifying perhaps led Mercedes to underestimate the Vettel challenge?
So now Hamilton and Mercedes were in an invidious position. With the stops approaching, their tyres were reaching the end of their life, but Vettel’s were still in good shape – and he was still right there, now chipping away a couple of tenths, the timing of his attack exquisite. Ordinarily, because of the hardness of the tyre compounds, the ‘overcut’ would work if you were close enough to the car in front, as the harder tyre of the pitted car would take a lap or so to come up to temperature. But now as Vettel closed them down it was quite feasible that the undercut would have worked for him too – as Hamilton’s old tyres had almost nothing left. Either way could have been the wrong decision for Mercedes. They were looking at where he’d come out after the stop as Hamilton was on the radio urging them to do something before it was too late. “I could see we were coming up to traffic and I was going to get tricky.”
“We were worried that Seb was going to undercut us in that moment,” said Toto Wolff later. With that concern added to Hamilton’s urgent calls, the decision was made and he peeled in at the end of lap 17. The stop was good, a new set of soft tyres fitted in 3.3sec. But it wasn’t enough to prevent him coming out behind Verstappen’s by now very gripless Red Bull. The gamble Mercedes took in bringing him in to defend the potential undercut was always that he hadn’t cleared Verstappen. They hoped the Red Bull would pit out the way. But it kept going. “You’re still 1.7sec safe from Vettel,” Hamilton was informed, “but you need to clear Verstappen.”
“I don’t know how you expect me to do that,” he replied. Even with a big performance advantage, passing was just not feasible. The DRS zone is short here – it cannot physically be any longer – and the turbulence from the car ahead is worse than ever.
But there was still a flicker of hope for Mercedes. Vettel was catching the same four-car cluster of traffic that Hamilton had been worried about. It contained the dicing, recently pitted cars of Alonso, Ocon and Hülkenberg, with the older-tyred Stroll hanging onto the back of it. Ferrari stayed calm, urged Vettel to do the same. He needed to pull a 22sec gap on Hamilton to get out ahead and it was hovering at 21sec. Ferrari had calculated that Seb could continue at a good pace and not quite catch that cluster until lap 22 – and that’s when they’d bring him in. So long as Hamilton reached the back of Verstappen before then, they should get out ahead. Hamilton closed down the initial 3sec gap to Verstappen and so kept the gap to Vettel at 21sec. But just as Vettel was reaching Stroll and having to find a way past him on the in–lap, so Hamilton was finally hard-up against the Red Bull’s rear wing. Hamilton was delayed more than Vettel, the Ferrari switch to soft tyres was 0.3sec quicker than Hamilton’s had been – and Vettel exited just in front of them.
On cold tyres he had to defend, Verstappen hard into his slipstream out of the first corner on the run to turn three. They raced wheel-to-wheel up through the kinks to the tight right hander of six, Verstappen on the outside getting a rear wheel on the dirt and catching the twitch – but Vettel retained track position. With the rubber now up to temperature, he was up and away. Hamilton watched in frustration. By the time Verstappen finally came in on the 25th lap, Vettel was 6sec up the road from Hamilton. Game essentially over. “We need to understand our tyre usage issue,” said Hamilton afterwards. “We just did not have their pace in the high temperatures on the ultra-soft.”
Even though that’s undoubtedly true, Mercedes did surrender track position to Vettel. With the easy benefit of hindsight, did Mercedes succumb to the pressure by bringing in Hamilton too early? Here’s how it looks in numbers:
On lap 16 (one before Hamilton pitted) he had just 18.5sec margin over Verstappen and was lapping 1.5sec faster. So that gap would’ve been around 20sec by the time he came in on the 17th lap. That was always going to bring him out 2-3sec behind the Red Bull (which might have been about to pit out of the way, but then again may not have). With Hamilton’s tyres falling away Vettel was within 1.3sec on lap 16 and already lapping a couple of tenths faster. To clear Verstappen would have required Hamilton staying out until at least lap 19.
By that time Vettel would likely have been within 0.5sec. Alternatively, if Vettel had come in on lap 17 while Hamilton stayed out on fading tyres, there’s every chance that Vettel could have undercut his way past, as it later turned out the soft tyres were switching on just fine. Mercedes’ concern was totally legitimate. It traded off that concern against the possibility that Verstappen might not pit out of their way if they came in on lap 17. They gambled that he would because to do otherwise seemed certain to see them lose the position. At least this way, they might not lose. As it turned out, Verstappen didn’t pit. But in hindsight, they were going to lose the lead either way. The real point was that Vettel’s speed had put them into this awkward position.
Bottas came in from a temporary lead on lap 25, Räikkönen following him in a lap later. On the soft tyres and cooling track, they both found their cars vastly improved. They were separated by around 7sec and soon lapping very competitively – faster, in fact, than Hamilton once the team had advised him that Plan B (a two-stop) was not going to work because a) there was no lap time fall-off from Vettel and b) it would have brought them out behind Räikkönen and required him to overtake on-track. “Because I’d come in so early I had to make my second set of tyres last and I was unsure how much I could take from them.” It was a legitimate concern after his first stint experience. Bottas, on tyres eight laps newer, quickly closed his team-mate down. Valtteri was then informed that Hamilton had been instructed to turn down his engine. The understanding was clear: call off your attack.
Räikkönen backed off for a few laps and was being rapidly caught by Verstappen. Red Bull had risked fitting him with super-softs and he was taking full advantage of their greater grip to close the Ferrari down, albeit at the expense of his brake wear – clouds of carbon dust blowing from the Red Bull’s front wheels.
Massa remained an ever-more distant sixth, well clear of a tight little dice behind between Pérez’s Force India and the Toro Rosso pair. They in turn were running a long way ahead of the McLaren of Alonso who continued to fend off Ocon’s Force India and Hülkenberg’s Renault. With seven laps to go Ocon got a run going through the final corner, running off line partly overlapping the McLaren so as to be able to use his better acceleration. This brought Hülkenberg right up to them both. They screamed down the pit straight as an orange, pink and yellow blur, Ocon diving out of the McLaren’s slipstream, DRS deployed, milliseconds before Hülkenberg did the same to him. It was a stunning demonstration of judgement and nerve from all of them and saw Ocon come out of turn one from Alonso and Hülkenberg. This pushed Alonso out of the points and a lap later he was complaining that the front suspension seemed awry, pulling the car hard to the left. He was brought in and retired but later reckoned that holding off the faster cars for so long had been one of the greatest races of his life. ‘Just in case you missed that, Mercedes’ seemed to be the implicit message.
The Toro Rosso drivers were on transposed tyre strategies, Sainz coming in early for softs, Kvyat getting his ultras to last for 35 laps and switching to super-softs. He came out just behind his team-mate but on much faster tyres and, with Pérez still in reach up ahead, Sainz was instructed to allow Kvyat through. Daniil’s tyres were 18 laps newer than Pérez’s and he was just about to get within DRS range when – for the second time – he had to pit to have the hydraulics re-pressured. He rejoined back behind Sainz for an eighth place finish. Ocon held on to take his first point, Giovinazzi completed his first Grand Prix, Stroll retired from his with a hydraulics problem, Vandoorne finished last.
Vettel took a comfortable victory, confirming that Ferrari is back – and that we may have a championship contest between drivers from two different teams. Hamilton and Bottas flashed across the line together, some way ahead of Räikkönen, with Verstappen still chasing. The once-retired Massa brought home the sixth-place bacon for Williams, Pérez doing a similarly good job for Force India in seventh.
“It’s difficult to realise from the outside what this team has done in last six months,” said the elated Vettel. “It’s been really tough [for the management] to manage the whole team. The new car is fantastic, which is a great relief. The foundations though, were laid a long time ago.”