2017 Australian Grand Prix: A Measured Response

The new regulations presented themselves with a few pros, but some deeply stark cons. It was great to see the drivers enjoying the grip and sensation of pushing every lap, but agonisingly discouraging to see the cars struggle in dirty air once they reached within 2.5 seconds of cars in front of them. The new, wider, harder tyre compounds witnessed cars on the limit through every corner on every lap, but it meant the race was restricted to one stoppers, so strategy was indistinguishable throughout the field. Fernando Alonso stated the drivers had to be incredibly sharp in their responses to any tank slappers or slides, “So you have half a tenth of a second to react. Last year you had four seconds – in the corner you could take a coffee in those cars!”

Whilst last year’s narrow track chassis combined with fragile Pirelli compounds proved monotonous and frustrating for the drivers, at least spectators were treated to close racing with opportunity for passes albeit at corner speeds adjacent to Formula 2. This cars have not only seen dramatic rise in corner speeds, but also drastically reduced braking distances, much more aggressive steering lock approaches, earlier re-application of throttle responses on corner exits, increased acceleration out of braking zones and heavily multiplied drag levels.

So what is the solution? It would be egregious to return to last year’s slower regulations, that was dismissed by fans, drivers and personnel alike as mickey mouse-like and regressive. However, a number of options for 2018 need to be considered and these include:

  • An increased power unit capacity, with a switch to either 2.0L- 2.4L V6/V8 turbo hybrids or 3.5L- 4.0L V10 naturally-aspirated internal combustion engines (although the latter option has been ruled void by FIA president Jean Todt)
  • A removal of the multiple elements on the front wings, with a rule mandating that only two separate elements with a single slot gap separating them. This is highly recommended, as this is a probable solution to the issue of the dramatically increased turbulence the cars have been suffering in the 2017 specs
  • A narrowing of the chassis from 2 metres to 1.8 metres, in order to decrease drag and force the size of the wings to be reduced by 10%.

Some fans heavily bemoaned the durable tyre compounds reducing the number of pit stops to just one during this year’s Australian GP, but the sight of Esteban Ocon and Nico Hulkenberg having confidence in their tyres to endure moving offline to overtake an ailing Fernando Alonso without last year’s worries of regular flat-spotting was very promising.

However, there also needs to be a technical change which can adversely affect the balance of the cars. Of course, some may argue that the sight of drivers losing the rear end of the cars may occur more commonly, as seen by Jolyon Palmer’s and Daniel Ricciardo’s crashes last weekend. However, others have argued drivers will eventually become familiarised with the handling and the limits in which they can extend the boundaries of their machinery. With that in mind, it is highly likely the necessity for the drivers to attack to maximum will see the margins between the top drivers and the merely good extend to much wider in comparison to last year: the time gaps between Haas’ Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, Renault’s Hulkenberg and Jolyon Palmer & Williams’ Felipe Massa and rookie Lance Stroll are proof of how much talent and experience will count this year. This is something that will be welcomed by certain fans, who have admonished cars of the past five years as little better than souped up GP2 cars.

The sight of at least a dozen elements on the front wings has had some fans criticising the technical aspect of the sport having become esoteric. Former prominent F1 supremos such as Flavio Briatore have been openly scathing in their criticisms about these issues, stating clearly that the sport should prioritise entertainment for viewers over what he saw as a self-indulgent pet project for engineers. The loss of downforce through the removal of elements and narrowing of cars and wings could be compensated with the return of ground-effects, albeit with a FIA-standardised venturi-shaped floor which every team must fit to the underneath of their chassis.

Practice on Friday saw Mercedes domination, which many saw as sad harbinger of what may follow this season. Non-Mercedes fans’ worst fears of a fourth consecutive seasons appeared depressingly real, but Saturday displayed the hallmarks of a Ferrari challenge. Although Lewis Hamilton grabbed the 62nd pole position in his 189th attempt, Sebastian Vettel hauled his scarlet Ferrari within 0.268 seconds of the Mercedes. It proved to be a miracle as qualifying was ran in mild conditions, with a sprinkle of rain appearing in the early minutes of Q3, which had threatened to kill off competition for pole ten minutes early.

Sunday saw Daniel Ricciardo ominously break down in front of his home crowd on a warm-up lap, thanks to an electronic sensor locking his transmission in sixth gear. He was fortunate the rescue crew extricated his stricken Red Bull and returned it back to the pits, but when he re-ignited his Renault power unit, his car had already been lapped twice. Toro Rosso stablemate Daniil Kvyat faced the threat of an extraordinary third consecutive DNS in-as-many-events at Melbourne due to a fire extinguisher emptying itself, but his mechanics saved his bacon in prompt manner. Nico Hulkenberg embarrassingly parking his Renault two inches ahead of his demarcated grid slot, enforcing a second formation lap, which may have frayed a few anticipatory nerves. The race start was clean, but the collision between Magnussen and Marcus Ericsson at Turn 3 was the result of the Dane clipping his rear right tyre over the kerb, causing a sudden tank-slapper that left him nowhere to go but clobber the startled Sauber driver.

The race for the lead was a cat-and-mouse affair between Hamilton and Vettel. Taking a cue out of the 2016 strategy book, the Briton pitted early on lap 17, as the Mercedes tacticians naively believed the undercut would work like last year despite Hamilton still having 30% tread remaining on his first stint compounds. With clean air to scythe through, Vettel duly capitalised, whilst Hamilton emerged behind a beguiled Max Verstappen, who made his struggling Red Bull as wide as possible for five laps before the Briton inevitably used DRS to speed past. Unfortunately for Mercedes, Vettel pulled enough of a margin so that when he cleared a confused Lance Stroll and pitted, he had a comfortable enough margin which he never relinquished. Hamilton would spend the remainder of the race complaining of dirty air, something which his Mercedes cars of previous years undoubtedly proved inferior in terms of dealing with in comparison to the opposition (but rarely mattered due to its absolute domination). With the improvements Ferrari have made intertwined with the new regulations, this is an issue which will provide many headaches at Brackley during breaks between races.

Valtteri Bottas fell progressively behind in the initial stint, but his second stint proved more productive, where he eventually finished less than 1.5 seconds behind his illustrious team-mate. Kimi Raikkonen, sadly, seemed to flounder as the race progressed, as fifteen laps from the race’s end his arch-nemesis of last year, Max Verstappen, closed in ominously, but could not even attempt to facilitate a consideration to overtake the embattled Finn due to the excessive turbulence in following the wake of the rejuvenated Ferrari package. The Iceman’s P4 is a solid start, but already his critics were condemning his performance, slamming it as half-arsed, lazy and other slurs which have become all-too-commonly aimed at the 2007 world champion.

An “un-retired” Felipe Massa drove as if he’d never retired, as he brought home a vital 8 points. Motivation will be key for the 35-year-old Brazilian, as Williams cannot be sure his dilettante team-mate Lance Stroll is capable of scoring points whatsoever judging by his underwhelming Grand Prix debut. Running 13th, the young French-Canadian eventually parked his car in the pits with failing brakes, but whether this was a genuine mechanical gremlin or a result of his inexperience with handling carbon F1 brake discs remains to be seen.

Despite an overweight new VJM10 chassis, where drivers Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon were forced to lose weight before the race, they respectively finished 7th & 10th, proving the Silverstone squad had not regressed on last year’s remarkable results. Toro Rosso debuted their STR11s with drivers Carlos Sainz & Daniil Kvyat finishing eighth & ninth, however both questioned the handling and balance of their chassis throughout the weekend, so tweaks could be forthcoming.

Stand-in Antonio Giovinazzi drove an impressive Grand Prix debut, admitting he had pace to spare after finishing P12 due to lack of experience with this year’s durable Pirelli compounds. Hulkenberg tried to overtake Ocon in the closing laps, but yet proved an umpteenth driver unimpressed with the dirty air produced in the wake of a fellow competitor. Stoffel Vandoorne finished P13 and last, clearly unable to adapt to his MCL32’s dreadful package, as his far smoother driving style could not correct the understeering tendencies which his illustrious team-mate Alonso has famously combated with stunning success thanks to an infamously aggressive initial turn-in. The Spaniard had been running an awe-inspiring P10 before debris caught under his car’s floor would leave him as a sitting duck for the advances of Ocon & Hulkenberg. A resultant broken floor would force an unsurprising retirement from Alonso, who made no secret of his frustration at McLaren & Honda’s apparent regression in development over the winter.

The Turn 3 incident between Magnussen & Ericsson would see the Dane retire 11 laps from the end with suspension damage, whilst the Swede would soldier on with hydraulics damaged in the incident that failed after 21 laps. Daniel Ricciardo would see his car retire after 25 laps, thanks to a fuel pressure issue unrelated to his pre-race electronic sensor failure or his crash in qualifying the previous day.

Jolyon Palmer, who had the weekend from hell, retired with his brake-by-wire system failing to register his car’s electronics and hydraulics together properly after 15 laps. Star of qualifying Grosjean saw a water leak end his day with just 13 laps completed, having started 6th, an all-time best for Haas.