It’s been an unusual start to the F1 season so far, with the two-week testing period serving as something of an indecisive phony war amid challenging conditions in Barcelona and the use of wildly different tyres by each team.
One thing that was clear during testing was that Ferrari continue to hold a speed advantage over their close rivals Mercedes, which should afford them a clear advantage in dry conditions and on tracks with more pronounced straights.
This was borne out on the opening weekend of the new F1 season, as Sebastian Vettel steered a slightly superior Ferrari to a hard-earned win despite starting second on the grid behind Lewis Hamilton. Below, we’ll look back at the race and ask what we’ve learned ahead of the next outing in Bahrain this weekend.
The Aussie Grand Prix – What did we Learn?
For the first part of last season, the consistent Vettel capitalised on the raw pace of his Ferrari to quell the challenge of the incredibly gifted but occasionally erratic Hamilton. This enabled the German to build an early lead on tracks that suited both him and the Ferrari team, with the Australian Grand Prix setting the scene for Vettel’s initial domination.
This year continued this trend, with Vettel recovering from the last-gasp loss of pole position to record his third consecutive win in Australia.
As well being an important (if slightly fortuitous) win, Vettel’s triumph enabled the German to have the last laugh after a challenging and helter-skelter weekend. After all, Hamilton had told reporters that he’d deliberately saved his best effort until late during qualifying, specifically so he could “wipe the smile from Vettel’s face”. While this may have been tongue-in-cheek, it will have served as motivation for the mild-mannered Vettel, while it undoubtedly left Hamilton red-faced when his rival took the chequered flag.
Of course, for the most part, it looked as though Hamilton’s blistering, last gap qualifying lap would ultimately propel him to an impressive win. This was until a virtual safety car period, which enabled Ferrari to benefit from their pit stop strategy and afforded Vettel a key advantage at the end of the race.
Having trailed in third and struggled to pass teammate Kimi Räikkönen for most of the race, Vettel opted to stay on the track for a much longer stint than either of his main rivals. Had the safety car not come into play, this would have left the German trailing in fifth or sixth after he had eventually pitted.
However, the arrival of the safety car ensured that this gamble paid off, as the field slowed and the time lost for pitting became far less relevant. Vettel subsequently exited the pits a fraction ahead of Hamilton’s Mercedes, with a lead that he would relinquish as he coasted to an ultimately untroubled win.
Just as Hamilton was left to bemoan his bad luck, so too Räikkönen had every right to feel aggrieved to have finished another race behind his teammate. After all, he had qualified ahead of the German, and comfortably held off Vettel’s attention for long periods in the race. So, he was forced to settle for third, as he joined Hamilton in thinking what might have been were it not for the introduction of the safety car.
From Vettel’s perspective, however, he launched his quest for a fifth Drivers’ Championship in the best possible way, vanquishing his main rival in the process. He also became only the third man to lead more than 3,000 laps in the history of F1, joining the aforementioned Hamilton (3,536) and the great Michael Schumacher (5,111).
What About Bahrain? Will Ferrari Press Home their Advantage?
The teams will head to Bahrain this weekend, where Vettel also held off Hamilton to record his second straight win of the Grand Prix season in 2017. The Brit will be hoping to avoid such a fate this time around, as he will not want to spend the second half of the new season chasing down another healthy Vettel lead.
However, Vettel himself is adamant that his Ferrari is not yet where it needs to be, as he conceded that his opening weekend win owed more to good fortune and superior team tactics that driving skill or genuine superiority.
Still, Ferrari will be buoyed by the fact that they ground out a hard-fought win here last year, on a track that offers potential benefits to both them and Mercedes. The track in Bahrain is dominated by low-speed corners, which could, in theory, negate Ferrari’s slight speed advantage.
Conversely, the management of rear tyre temperatures in crucial in Bahrain, where traction and temperatures have a dramatic impact on lap times. So, while both Mercedes and Ferrari (along with Red Bull) have made similar tyre choices for the race, the former have a history of struggling on the softer compounds in the Pirelli range and this could impact negatively on Hamilton and Räikkönen.
If Ferrari can capitalise on this and manage their own rear tyre wear effectively, this could provide Vettel with the competitive edge that he needs to secure the win.
This could also play into the hands of Red Bull, who will be looking to challenge for a place on the podium after a slightly disappointing start to the new season.
The Last Word
Let’s start with a basic assertion; this years’ F1 season is already shaping up to be a two-horse race between Vettel and Hamilton, as both look to win their fifth Drivers’ Championship and join Juan Manuel Fangio in second on the all-time list.
While the Aussie Grand Prix provided an important win for Vettel, however, it told us little about the real pecking order and the early favourites to claim the Drivers and the Constructors Championship.
In terms of Bahrain, however, there’s no doubt that Hamilton will start as second favourite behind Vettel, while he will be reliant on his time to develop the right strategy and manage any rear tyre wear effectively. Without this, Hamilton will struggle to win despite his immense talent and he could once again find himself staring down the barrel of an early Vettel lead.