Formula One racing has been pretty much of a processional the past few years. Each race weekend, the only real question was which of the two Mercedes Silver Arrows race cars would finish first and which would finish second. In terms of a pecking order in the pit lane, it was Mercedes on top and then a fight for “best of the rest” status.
Formula One Rules Changes For 2017
This year, things are different. The cars are wider and lower. The front wings are wider; rear wings are wider but 5″ lower than last year. Perhaps the biggest difference this year is the tires which are 25% wider both front and rear. The cars have more mechanical grip and more aerodynamic downforce, making them up to 3 seconds a lap faster than last year. Pirelli has also made the tires more durable, which should mean fewer pit stops.
During winter testing at the Circuito de Catalunya outside Barcelona, Ferrari topped the time sheets consistently. It is always difficult to compare testing results to race performance but there was little doubt that Ferrari had made a significant step forward. Today in Melbourne (Well, yesterday, actually. It’s always tomorrow in Australia), the gloves came off, any sandbagging that might have been part of winter testing ended, and the cars took to the track in earnest for the first time in the new season.
Qualifying In Melbourne
Ferrari didn’t blow Mercedes into the weeds. Lewis Hamilton still topped the time charts at the end to take pole position. But Sebastien Vettel, driving for the Maranello squad, shoved the nose of his Ferrari in front of Mercedes’ other driver, Valteri Bottas, by 0.05 second to snatch second place on the gird. His time was just a quarter second behind Hamilton’s. Last year in Melbourne, the Ferrari was three quarters of a second off the pace.
How much did that half second improvement cost? Rumors suggest that Ferrari poured over $100 million into developing the new car. The team has also undergone a metamorphosis with regard to its public persona. Last year, Sergio Macchinone was telling anyone who would listen, and several who wouldn’t, that Ferrari would be winning races by mid season. This year, Ferrari is maintaining radio silence. It is content to let its cars do the talking on track.
Last year, Lewis Hamilton just missed out on another world driving championship mostly because of difficulties getting a clean start in several races. Time and again he was slow to get going, got passed by other drivers on the way to turn one, and had to spend his entire race trying to claw his way back to the front.
Will that happen again this year? If so, it is going to open the door for Vettel and his Ferrari to surge into the lead. Among the rules changes this year is a revised regulation covering how the drivers control the clutch. In prior years, there were two clutch levers on the back of the steering wheel. This year there is only one. Ferrari actually switched to the one paddle system last year. With the faster pace of the Ferraris this year, any tiny mistake could let the red car jump into the lead and it will be much more difficult to overcome the error.
The Season Ahead
There are many new drivers in the field this year, all of them racing for teams at the back of the field. The Manor team has gone out of business, so there are only 20 cars on the grid. Honda has had a disastrous pre-season. It’s new engine is down on power and unreliable. The situation has gotten so bad there are rumors that McLaren has reached out to Mercedes asking if they can supply engines to the Woking squad.
Before the lights go out tomorrow at the start of the race, it looks like Mercedes and Ferrari will be in a dog fight at the top of the field. Red Bull is slightly behind, followed by a good scrap between Haas, Toro Rosso, and Force India for mid-field honors. Formula One teams are constantly developing their cars as the season goes along. The cars that finish the season will be only distant cousins to those on the grid at the beginning, so who takes home the Constructor’s Championship will depend on which teams develops their car the best over the course of the season.
Is the Ferrari challenge real? Will Lewis Hamilton fumble the start? Will Valteri Bottas raise his game to match or even challenge Hamilton? Will Felipe Massa retire again at the end of the season in Brazil? Those and many more questions will be answered over the next nine months. The 2017 Formula One season begins at midnight EDT Saturday. Thank heaven for DVRs!
Photo credit: Motorsort.com