The Australian Grand Prix will be the first held since the official takeover of the Formula 1 Group by Liberty Media and plays host to the debut of the new technical regulations, promising to make the cars around 4 seconds-a-lap faster than in 2016.The season opener to the 2017 Formula 1 season promises to open a new era for the sport.
Defending champion Nico Rosberg stole the headlines in the off-season with the shock announcement he was to retire from F1 having fulfilled his lifelong dream to win a World Championship. Replacing the German at Mercedes is former Williams star Valtteri Bottas. The Finn faces a stern test competing against his 3-time world champion teammate Lewis Hamilton, who undoubtedly comes into the 2017 season as the favourite for his third title in four years.
That said, the two weeks of testing held in Barcelona suggested that Mercedes might face their toughest test for the constructors’ crown since the move to V6 turbo hybrid cars in 2014, in the form of Ferrari. Both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were impressive, with Raikkonen comfortably setting the fastest time of the 8 days with a 1:18.6, nearly four tenths faster than Vettel, and around seven tenths ahead of the Mercedes’ of Bottas and Hamilton. Whether Ferrari can back this up in Melbourne is hard to call, as both of the front-running teams claimed they had more speed to extract come the opening race weekend.
Red Bull, the team many suggested would test Mercedes’ challenge in 2017, endured a quiet pre-season, suggesting they may not be challenging come Australia. The team have kept a low profile, running times in race trim over half a second slower than Ferrari and fastest times nearly a second down on Raikkonen.
Despite this, Red Bull boss Christian Horner has insisted there are no concerns and he is happy with the team’s progress ahead of the opening Grand Prix. “We are content with our pre-season, we are pleased with the way the car is reacting, the drivers feel confident – they like the feel of the car. So we are ready.”
There will be two rookies to watch out for in Australia, Lance Stroll and Stoffel Vandoorne. Stroll will be making his race debut and his arrival at Williams has already been met with some criticism. The 18-year-old crashed twice in the first week of testing, struggling to match the pace of his experienced teammate Felipe Massa. The Canadian youngster will be looking to prove his critics wrong in Melbourne with a solid points finish.
Vandoorne meanwhile will be taking part in his second Grand Prix after impressing with a tenth place finish in last year’s Bahrain Grand Prix having substituted for the injured Fernando Alonso.
The chances of him repeating that feat in Melbourne seem slim however, after McLaren-Honda suffered a nightmare pre-season. Both Vandoorne and Alonso lapped around 3 seconds off the pace and due to terrible unreliability, completed a combined total of just 425 laps, comfortably the worst in the field. If McLaren are going to score any points this season, they will need to solve their reliability issues.
The big question at the Australian Grand Prix is how the new technical regulations will impact the racing. Whilst the cars do look more dramatic this season and will be a lot faster through the corners, excitement levels may not increase unless overtaking is achievable.
DRS remains for 2017, though potentially less effective than before thanks to the new cars producing increased drag. Drivers have already mentioned during testing that they can feel the effect of turbulence more so than last season, so it’s important that Pirelli’s 2017 tyres are more durable. This should stop tyres from overheating behind another car as quickly, thus allowing for easier battles and less processional racing. This, however, remains to be seen.
The Australian Grand Prix is always a fantastic spectacle to watch when new cars battle for the first time. Can Mercedes win at Albert Park for the 4th year in a row? Or can Ferrari upset the apple cart and take a stunning victory? Find out this weekend!