With new cars competing for the first time under revised regulations, and with new drivers at many of the teams and the sport under new management, this weekend’s 2017 Formula One World Championship season opener taking place in Melbourne, Australia is one of the most anticipated grand prix in quite a few years.
The Australian race itself is one of the best on the calendar, not only because it’s the first time that we get to see how the teams perform with their new setups, but also because of the friendly atmosphere, normally fine weather, and challenging Albert Park street circuit.
The big news, of course, is the design of the cars. They’re bigger, have more dramatic wings, and of course there’s no missing the much wider tires. Although the hybrid power units carry over largely unchanged from the previous three seasons, the changes made to the chassis are expected to result in significantly faster lap times. Mercedes AMG boss Toto Wolff has already stated that he expects the 2017 cars to be the fastest in the history of F1. The physical toll on the drivers is also expected to be much higher that in previous seasons.
It’s hard to judge the performance from the past couple of weeks of testing as most teams would have been sandbagging their cars. The good news is that Ferrari’s SF70H is showing some real promise, but Mercedes is still the clear favorite. Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo conceded during testing that his team will still be in catch-up mode this season.
Mercedes no longer counts Nico Rosberg in its ranks. Replacing the reigning world champion is former Williams driver Valtteri Bottas. He will be driving alongside Lewis Hamilton who is chasing his fourth title. Williams could be a dark horse as the team managed to snag former Mercedes Technical Director Paddy Lowe. The team’s drivers include Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll. Massa is holding off retirement to drive with Williams, and Stroll, the Canadian youngster and son of billionaire fashion mogul Lawrence Stroll, has crashed three times during testing and has a steep learning curve ahead.
Albert Park, home of the Formula One Australian Grand Prix
Stroll isn’t the only rookie at a major team. Jenson Button has finally stepped aside at McLaren to make way for Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne. Joining Vandoorne will be Fernando Alonso. Unfortunately for them, the Honda power unit fitted to their McLaren race cars had a lot of problems during testing. They ended testing with the fewest laps of any teams.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that there will be one less team this year. Manor (formerly Marussia) ran into financial trouble and has been disbanded.
After Friday’s practice in Melbourne, Hamilton was the fastest in his Mercedes while his teammate Bottas was third fastest. Splitting them was Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. Further down it was fellow Ferrari driver Kimi Räikkönen, and then the two Red Bull drivers Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. The good news is that the top five drivers were all within a second from each other. There weren't many issues on the day although Massa suffered some transmission problems. Renault's Jolyon Palmer also crashed into a wall.
Sole tire supplier Pirelli has nominated the soft, supersoft and new ultrasoft compounds. With Albert Park being a street circuit, there should be significant rise in grip levels throughout the weekend as the rubber goes down. The 16-turn track’s length is 3.3 miles, and with a combination of short straights, second and third gear chicanes, it requires medium to high downforce and good traction. Drivers will have to make 58 laps.
Looking at Melbourne’s weather for this weekend, there could be some scattered showers during Saturday’s qualifying, but conditions for Sunday’s race are predicted to be fine. The top temperature on both days should be a pleasant 82 degrees F (28 degrees C).