Melbourne was strewn with broken cars
It was another afternoon of attrition around Albert Park. With only 13 finishers, reliability proved to be a real problem at the Australian Grand Prix. We really haven’t seen so many car failures over the last couple of seasons. The increased speeds are clearly putting a lot of stress on the power units, it will be interesting to see just how much of a factor reliability is going be.
Home favourite, Daniel Ricciardo suffered the worst of the problems, albeit due to the mistake he made during qualifying. The damage to his car stipulated a gearbox change before the race start. Then, on his way round to the grid prior to the race, a sensor problem on his car caused the gearbox to stick in 6th. That virtually ended his race, although he did manage to put in some laps before ultimately retiring.
A fascinating battle at the front
Sebastian Vettel was back in the kind of form that saw him win 4 consecutive Championships. He controlled the race perfectly, holding on to the back of Lewis Hamilton during the opening stint before benefiting from the ‘overcut’. At that stage, I don’t think it mattered whether Hamilton pitted earlier or later, Ferrari’s pace was simply stronger than Mercedes. Hamilton got caught behind Max Verstappen, but Vettel was much faster after the pit stops anyway. The German always had a lap time to match his rival if he needed it.
I think Seb would have been able to find a way past, even if Lewis had managed to stay ahead of the Ferrari. There were a couple of worrying remarks that Hamilton made throughout the race. He seemed to struggle constantly with his tyres and a lack of grip. While on the other, we hardly heard a peep out of Vettel for the entire race. That Mercedes does not seem to be anywhere near the level it was at 12 months ago. Valtteri Bottas also struggled during the opening stint. He managed to keep in touch with the leaders, but his pace wasn’t outstanding. Although, following his pit stop, he hit a purple patch, closing to within 2 seconds of Hamilton during a spell of blistering pace. With that performance, Valtteri showed he belongs at front.
The consistency of performance through the race was extremely refreshing. Drivers were continuing to set fastest laps right until the very end. Raikkonen eventually set the fastest lap on lap 56. I’m wondering where he managed to find that pace, considering he spent the entire race in a distant 4th. Vettel beat him comprehensively. I am sure Raikkonen will improve on this weekend, his team mate has proven the potential of the car. I want to see Kimi win again this season, he needs to find a setup he is happy with.
Haas were another team blighted with poor reliability. From a starting position of 6th on the grid, it was looking to be a promising afternoon of points for the team, although the car was not up to the task. Magnussen had a poor weekend. He was the best part of a second and half behind his team mate Grosjean in Q1. By the end of Q3, Grosjean had set a lap time 2.8 seconds quicker than the Dane. That is a huge margin, and Grosjean was ultimately unlucky to have his race cut short with a suspected water leak. The race didn’t get any better for Magnussen, a clumsy collision was Ericsson’s Sauber was the only highlight.
Not enough points to go around
For me, the most under-stated driver of this weekend was Felipe Massa. While youngster Stroll was spreading carbon fibre around the place, Massa delivered the kind of solid performance this Williams team are going to need. The decision to bring him out of retirement has already been justified. With Force India and Toro Rosso finishing both cars in the points, Williams are going to need Stroll to pull himself together if they want any chance of finishing 4th. That midfield battle is going to be fluctuating all season long.
Force India and Toro Rosso shared the final points positions, just edging out Renault and McLaren. The gap to the front appears to have grown however, as they all finished a lap and half down on the leaders. Sergio Perez had a quiet race in his new Pink machine. He kept himself out of the midfield melee and held off the late charge of Daniil Kvyat to take 7th. Kvyat managed to use his tyres better than anyone, with a ridiculous 34 lap stint on the ultrasofts. That gave him a real shout in the second half of the race as he spent a series of laps running quicker than the Mercedes’.
Little hope for the teams at the back
The most exciting racing of the day came with the battle for 10th place. Alonso struggled with a broken car and found himself being swarmed by Esteban Ocon’s Force India, and Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault. They went 3 wide into turn 1 in spectacular fashion and Ocon managed to come out on top. The youngster managed to hold off the challenge of Hulkenberg for the remainder of the race to take his first career points. Alonso duly retired having lost out on points yet again. He made it clear that he thought Stoffel Vandoorne’s last place finish was more representative of their current performance. Although neither car broke down, there is still a lot of very hard work to do for that team.
Although Sauber were not last, I hold little hope for them this season. Their 2016 Ferrari engine is horribly under-powered. Ericsson for me is a nothing driver, who will not provide any flair to the team. Antonio Giovinazzi drove brilliantly though, and there is the one positive for the team. The circumstances of his debut didn’t even seem to affect him. The GP2 series runner up got in the car for qualifying and just drove. He could have, and would have out-qualified Ericsson but for a single mistake, and his performance in the race was admirable. He kept his nose clean, got his head down, and got absolutely everything he could have out of the car.
This was the best possible start to the 2017 season. A win for Ferrari has opened the Championship right up. Red Bull look as though they beginning to find some pace. I am very optimistic that we are going to have an exciting Championship battle.