The waiting is finally over. After one of the busiest winters in the sport’s history, Formula 1 finally bursts back into life this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.
The city of Melbourne has played host to the race since 1996, acting as the curtain-raiser in all but two years since then, offering a real ‘back to school’ feel for all in the paddock.
2017 marks the beginning of a new era for F1 in a number of ways. Not only do we have a raft of new regulations to contend with for this season, prompting a radical change in the appearance of the cars, but the sport is also under new management following Liberty Media’s takeover in January.
For the first time since 1994, we head into the new season without the world champion following Nico Rosberg’s sensational decision to retire from racing just five days after his dramatic title success in Abu Dhabi.
As a result, the irons are stoked nicely for the new year: every driver starts from zero, none having the honor of racing with the No. 1. There is everything to play for.
So what can we expect from the start of F1’s latest chapter in Australia? Here are a few things to look out for this weekend.
2017 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points
Will Mercedes really be second-best?
The biggest surprise through pre-season testing was the pace shown by Ferrari. Coming off the back of a winless campaign in 2016, both Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were rapid in Barcelona, while the SF70H was a reliable steed. Over one lap, it looked like the rest of the pack couldn’t get close.
Mercedes has been here before. We’ve seen the Silver Arrows stroll through testing before turning things up to 11 for the start of the season, having won over 50 races in the past three years. Lewis Hamilton enters 2017 as the overwhelming favorite for the drivers’ title, while new teammate Valtteri Bottas is expected to add his name to the list of F1 winners.
Yet Ferrari’s pre-season pace has Mercedes worried. Despite its best efforts towards the end of testing, it couldn’t get close to the times that Raikkonen and Vettel were setting. As a result, we’re looking at the very real prospect – perhaps for the first time since 2013 – that Mercedes may not be the fastest team at the start of the season.
Sandbagging is part of the game in testing, but come qualifying in Melbourne, we’ll see Mercedes and Ferrari show their true colors. It could make for a mouth-watering fight at the front of the pack.
Bottas gears up for his big break
When the F1 paddock last convened in Abu Dhabi in November, Valtteri Bottas was facing the prospect of a quiet winter. With a Williams contract extension all sewn up for 2017, he’d spend the off-season training and spending time with his family and wife, Emilia, in Finland.
And then Nico Rosberg dropped his bombshell.
Despite a number of drivers being linked with the Mercedes seat, Bottas was always the sensible option. Through his four years at Williams, he has proven himself to be an adept and fast grand prix racer, leading its charge to third in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015.
The Finn now has his big break, though. With Williams, he stood little chance of becoming an F1 winner. Now at Mercedes, it would surely be a knock-out blow to his hopes of staying in a top seat if he doesn’t claim at least one race victory in 2017.
Bottas has the kind of opportunity that is rare to find in F1. It is one that was never due, yet with just a one-year contract on the table, he is very much in a ‘sink or swim’ situation. If he doesn’t impress, Mercedes has no shortage of options to replace him in 2018.
Bottas was impressive through pre-season testing, and will be hoping to match new teammate Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne despite it being his first race in the white Mercedes race suit. How he handles the pressure of the big time will be fascinating to watch.
Overtaking, strategy option fears linger
The push to introduce new technical regulations for 2017 came as part of a bid to make F1 exciting again. Faster cars equals happy drivers and more on-track action, equalling happy fans – right?
Well, maybe not. Although the significant increase in downforce has seen lap times increase by the desired five seconds from 2015, it is not conducive to overtaking. Drivers have complained time and time again about not being able to follow cars closely in recent years due to the loss in aero grip, and the issue will only be worse this year. As a result, don’t go expecting more overtaking this year. If things are really bad, qualifying could be the settler for races.
Another worry for some in the paddock is tire management – or the lack of it. Pirelli has introduced new, wider tires for 2017, increasing in size by around 25 per cent. While they look awesome and offer a throwback to a bygone age of the sport, the reports from testing was that they were also far more conservative than last year’s offering. They will last much, much longer.
Drivers will appreciate the chance to push more on their compounds, having previously been nursing them from the very first lap in some cases, but these may have gone the other way entirely. There is a risk we could get an array of one-stop races this year, much as we did in 2010, the final year of Bridgestone’s F1 supply. That combined with the possible lack of overtaking is a worrisome prospect.
How bad are things at McLaren-Honda?
Uh, bad. Very bad. Unless something has been magicked up between testing and Melbourne, McLaren could be marooned at the back of the grid come Sunday following a tortuous testing program in Barcelona.
Honda entered 2017 hoping to make big gains following the removal of the token system for engine updates and a change in the layout of its power unit – but appears to have taken a big step backwards.
The McLaren MCL32 car completed a maximum of 11 straight laps in pre-season testing, such were the issues with the power unit, leaving drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne frustrated and exasperated. Neither arrives in Melbourne with much confidence of doing more than making up the numbers.
Honda has a big task on its hand to rectify things before the season is too far gone, while McLaren will continue to ponder the future of its relationship with the Japanese manufacturer, having already made an approach to former partner Mercedes over a possible supply in the future.
The relationship that served the likes of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost so well in the late 1980s and early ’90s is at breaking point. A flop to start the season in Australia will only lend more fuel to the forest fire.
How will F1’s young guns fare?
While the new season typically brings with it a batch of new drivers, there is just one rookie making his first F1 start in Melbourne.
At just 18 years old, Lance Stroll will become the second-youngest driver in F1 history, having stepped up from a title-winning Formula 3 campaign last year that was enough to secure him a seat at Williams.
Stroll endured a mixed pre-season, suffering three crashes in the first week that cost Williams some much-needed mileage before going a long way to making up for it in the second week. The critics may dub the Canadian as ‘just another pay driver’, yet his talent has been clear in junior series. Quite how he copes with his first race situation in F1 will be of particular intrigue.
If F1 had the same ‘rookie’ classification as IndyCar, we’d also be putting (R) next to Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne this year. Ocon made his debut in Belgium last year, taking part in the final nine rounds of the year for backmarker Manor. His efforts were enough to secure a seat with Force India for 2017, replacing Nico Hulkenberg and leapfrogging Pascal Wehrlein in the Mercedes junior pecking order.
Vandoorne also has an F1 start under his belt already, having appeared in Bahrain last year as a replacement for Fernando Alonso who was forced out through injury. Vandoorne smashed his way to the GP2 title in 2015 and was in Super Formula last year before taking Jenson Button’s McLaren seat for the forthcoming campaign. He is one of the most exciting talents to hit F1 in recent years, but may not have the car to show what he can truly do in 2017.
2017 Australian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Albert Park
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:24.125 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:23.837
2016 Fastest Lap: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:28.997
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T2 to T3
2017 Australian Grand Prix – TV Times
Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 9pm ET 3/23
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1am ET 3/24
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 11pm ET 3/24
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 3/25
Race: NBCSN 12am ET 3/26