F1 preview: Quick cars and Hamilton vs Vettel set to dominate

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Hamilton and Vettel are fiercely competitive rivals.

Not since 1993 when Alain Prost won the world title before calling it quits has the Formula 1 grid been devoid of a defending world champion.

When Prost bowed out with a Williams win, he was 38 and his decision was far from seismic as the one made by Nico Rosberg just days after his crowning glory aged 31 and at the peak of his powers.

Pundits have pored over the decision but the reality is that for the first time in quarter of a century there is no hope of a back-to-back world champion.

The three-time F1 grand prix Johnny Herbert made the point this week that “Formula 1 moves on quickly” and the pondering of what might have been with Rosberg will quickly dissipate.

Quick has been the buzzword of F1 before the onset of the season in Australia, the cars five seconds quicker than last year, with Lewis Hamilton, bidding for a fourth world title, making the point: “It is definitely the fastest I have ever been in F1.”

While his comment centres on the increased speed, at 32 and arguably the peak of his powers – his pace at the end of the season where he won the four last races a testament to that – it is perhaps a nod to his own capabilities at the wheel.

Mercedes may well be matched for speed by Ferrari in winter testing – with Red Bull just marginally back – and Ferrari could well win the season opener, as perhaps Sebastian Vettel should have done a year ago.

But Albert Park can be an anomaly of a track – sometimes a bad judge of the season that lies ahead – and one that suits the Prancing Horse, while Mercedes and Hamilton go into the season knowing that their car habitually goes well everywhere. Ferrari cannot boast that same confidence.

But what winter testing indicated – and using that as a benchmark is never an exact science – is that a duel between the two dominant driving forces of the past decade in Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel look finally set to do battle in even machinery properly and consistently for the first time.

Vettel, at times a petulant child at Ferrari last season when the initial promise of the winter was not delivered, has given a far more positive vibe on the eve of the season, insisting a first world title for Ferrari since 2007 was a distinct possibility.

The four-time world champion knows he will have to contend with Kimi Raikkonen for No.1 at the team. A comfortable Raikkonen is a quick one, and having struggled to get to grips with the Ferrari previously, he looked more at one with it in the latter part of the season and likewise during testing in Barcelona.

The other unknown in the title race is Valtteri Bottas. Williams have nothing but praise for him and there’s is no doubt that, like Raikkonen, he is a flying Finn but it is another matter doing that down the grid with the spotlight off you rather than in the car of the defending champion having replaced Rosberg.

There are the doubters, 1996 world champion Damon Hill among them: “He’s good, very good but I wouldn’t say that he’s shown so far that he’s the hottest thing in F1. Can he put as much pressure on Lewis as Nico did? Some people step up, some don’t. He’s not won a race yet.”

And the third facet in a potentially pulsating title race are Red Bull, who in Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen may yet prove to have the best driver pairing on the grid, although both have suggested they’re not quite in a position to win races as yet.

The team’s in-season development is such that should not necessarily peg them back for long but the question is how much will rest on qualifying – where Mercedes have dominated – in a new era where it’s not clear how easy overtaking is.

The six realistically going for the world title are all aggressive in their own right, capable of making the most of an overtaking opportunity should one arise.

And the reality is that while 2017 may prove Hamilton v Vettel, hopefully gone are the dominant periods of the last two teams: namely Mercedes and before them Vettel’s former employers at Red Bull.

Melbourne will provide the first answers.

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F1 team-by-team guide

Sport360 staff 22/03/2017
Who are you supporting this season?

With the Formula One season about to get underway, we preview the ten teams competing in the 2017 World Championship.

Who are you backing to win the title this year?

Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

MERCEDES

Lewis Hamilton – GBR

188 starts
53 wins
104 podiums

Valtteri Bottas – FIN
77 starts
0 wins
9 podiums

The general consensus is that once more Mercedes will begin the season as the front-runners on the grid although with the gap closer than it has been for some time.

There may have been something of an upheaval since Nico Rosberg’s title triumph in Abu Dhabi – for one Rosberg has retired but more damaging, the team have lost Paddy Lowe to Williams.

Despite that, its 2017 car has proved to be incredibly consistent in winter testing and the team are confident Hamilton can drive his way to a fourth world title with new signing Bottas snapping at his heels.

Ominously for their rivals, both drivers say they have not yet got the best out of the car – Hamilton talking about being “yet to find the sweet spot”, Bottas bemoaning his failure, as yet, to “unlock the car’s full potential”.

Melbourne, what's good? 😎 🇦🇺🇦🇺🇦🇺

A post shared by Lewis Hamilton (@lewishamilton) on

REDBULL

Daniel Ricciardo – AUS
109 starts
4 wins
18 podiums

Max Verstappen – NED
40 starts
1 win
7 podiums

The team began the week with Verstappen claiming it was not quick enough to win races at the Australian GP nor for that matter in the early part of the season. How much that is a pre-season bluff remains to be seen.

Much rests on the Renault engine, which appears to have settled after early gremlins, and how successfully the team follows through its usually aggressive in-season development.

But in Verstappen and Ricciardo, team principal Christian Horner believes he has the best driver pairing on the grid, which might well be a reality.

Red Bull have gone for a very different approach to rivals with regards to the design of the car – an extreme nose-down attitude, a concept the team believes drastically improves driving the airflow.

Red Bull look likely to be the kings of consistency once more – they finished in the top three of 14 of last season’s races.

Hello Melbourne! 🏁🇦🇺#AusGP #keeppushing #f1isback

A post shared by Max Verstappen (@maxverstappen1) on

FERRARI

Sebastian Vettel – GER
178 starts
42 wins
86 podiums

Kimi Raikkonen – FIN
252 starts
20 wins
84 podiums

Ferrari have been the ultimate poker players in the build-up to the season, Vettel setting tongues wagging as he eased off on the home straights on his hot laps at the final pre-season test in Barcelona.

It understandably got rivals concerned about the true pace of the car over a single lap. There is a good feeling coming from the Prancing Horse but the same could have been said a year ago in winter testing only for them to slip down the pecking order and go from the closest challengers to third place in the constructors’ championship and ending the year winless.

Vettel has not been one to hide his frustrations at the team and it is telling that all the right noises have been coming from the German’s mouth, waxing lyrical about how the team has grown and how the struggles of 2016 were a thing of the past.

FORCE INDIA

Sergio Perez – MEX
114 starts
0 wins
7 podiums

Esteban Ocon – FRA
0 starts
0 wins
0 podiums

This season has the ability for the team to take a potential step back after the best season in their history to date. They leapfrogged Williams to be best of the rest behind the top three by a reasonable margin.

Perez got the edge over team-mate Nico Hulkenberg with his podium finishes in Monaco and Azerbaijan while Hulkenberg was no slouch with 14 podium finishes. But the German has jumped ship to join Renault and, in his place, comes debutant Ocon.

He has piled on the pounds – 5kg in all – in order to be prepared for the greater physicality but the team have high hopes for the F3 and GP3 champion.

Arguably the most eye catching thing about Force India going into Melbourne is the car’s new pink, magenta and silver livery along with a bizarre chink in its nose connecting to the chassis.

WILLIAMS

Felipe Massa – BRA
250 starts
11 wins
41 podiums

Lance Stroll – CAN
0 starts
0 wins
0 podiums

Williams will be marking its 40th season in Formula 1 this season, whether it proves a cause for celebration is quite another matter.

There are reasons for promise, Paddy Lowe’s career having come full circle by rejoining the team in which he started in F1 as chief technical officer.

Lowe clearly sees the potential having left a similar post at championship winners Mercedes to buy a stake in Williams and a place on the board, and the car looks quick.

But there is no denying the team have been dented by Bottas going in the other direction, but Massa, who had driven into the F1 sunset, coming out of a retirement to give the team much-needed stability.

The addition of Stroll looks like it might be a gamble following his two spins and a crash as he struggled to get to grips with the car in pre-season testing.

Mandando ver hoje !Pushing hard today !! Thanks @christos_fiotakis and @alexazevedopersonal @worldclassmonaco

A post shared by Felipe Massa (@massafelipe19) on

MCLAREN HONDA

Fernando Alonso – ESP
273 starts
32 wins
97 podiums

Stoffel Vandoorne – BEL
1 start
0 wins
0 podiums

How the mighty have fallen. You have to go back five years for a last victory for McLaren, for so long a dominant force of the sport, while there has not even been a podium finish since the 2014 season.

Honda has been making all the right noises, saying it is 100 per cent committed to McLaren and F1 but yet still a company of its size has not been able to make an engine that works and his powerful enough.

So bad is the current situation that McLaren bosses have held talks behind the scenes about potentially coming to agreement on an engine supply by their former partners Mercedes.

The concern is that this will force Alonso out of the team, disgruntled at the ongoing malaise, while the car in its current state gives exciting newcomer Vandoorne little opportunity to prove himself.

Melbourne 👌🏻. #f1 #fa14 #14 #australia

A post shared by Fernando Alonso (@fernandoalo_oficial) on

TORO ROSSO

Daniil Kvyat – RUS
57 starts
0 wins
2 podiums

Carlos Sainz Jr – ESP
40 starts
0 wins
0 podiums

Have ambitious plans to finish in the top five this season. On pre-season testing form alone, it is hard to ascertain entirely whether that will be possible.

Having switched from year-old Ferrari engines to new Renault ones, there have understandably been a litany of gremlins but, come the end of the final Barcelona test, the suggestion was that increasingly such problems are being ironed out.

Sainz Jr made the point that the problems were not solely Renault-inflicted and that Toro Rosso needed to carry the can for such setbacks too.

Quite whether that remains a rallying cry to those at the team’s Faenza headquarters is another matter but there is no denying Sainz Jr is quick if given the car at his disposal, likewise Kvyat, who has recovered well from being unceremoniously ditched by Red Bull early last season.

Pre season testing done , next up first race in Australia 👌🏾🚀

A post shared by Daniil Kvyat (@danydk1) on

HAAS

Romain Grosjean – FRA
102 starts
0 wins
10 podiums

Kevin Magnussen – DEN
40 starts
0 wins
1 podiums

The American team have quite literally put the brakes on their 2017 ambitions with their ongoing issues with the Brembo brakes currently supplied.

It is hoped a potential switch to Carbone Industrie ones will cure their current ills, something Grosjean has been pushing for repeatedly.

While the brake issues are clearly a major gripe, the vibe from the team is that they have made a massive step forward and Magnussen looks a good addition alongside Grosjean, who on his day is one of the quickest drivers on the grid.

Much of the positivity comes from the Ferrari power unit, which has been devoid of the reliability issues of the past and appears to have the required grunt to match the other teams on the straights.

As things stand, the team appears to be in the midfield, quite where is unclear.

When on your walk back from lunch it starts to rain very very heavily.... 🌧🌧🌧

A post shared by Romain Grosjean (@grosjeanromain) on

RENAULT

Nico Hulkenberg – GER
115 starts
0 wins
0 podiums

Jolyon Palmer – GBR
20 starts
0 wins
0 podiums

Compliant and drivable were the words Palmer first used to describe Renault’s 2017 challenger, hardly words to throw fear into opposition drivers.

Similarly, new addition Nico Hulkenberg has hardly been glowing with his praise, saying “I don’t think we matched our expectations” with regards to the preseason tests at the Circuit de Catalunya in the lead-up to the Australian Grand Prix.

Hulkenberg has a point in that there were more issues with the engine recovery system than expected but the Renault power unit looks a big step forward on last year’s in terms of pace.

A driver of his calibre is a major boost after the team managed just three top-10 finishes last season but the car manufacturer is serious about making a success on its re-entry to F1 and, as previous world champions, they are confident of getting up to speed with their in-season development.

G'day Australia! Weathers good, acclimatisation all going to plan! #Melbourne #boreoffjetlag 🇦🇺

A post shared by Jolyon Palmer (@jolyon_palmer) on

SAUBER

Marcus Ericsson – SWE
56 starts
0 wins
0 podiums

Pascal Wehrlein – GER
21 starts
0 wins
0 podiums

It is no small achievement that Sauber have made it to the starting grid for Australia. The team has made no secret of its financial struggles and there were concerns at one stage it might even be forced to fold.

Sauber may have been the first team to unveil its challenger on February 20 but, as much because of their finances, they look likely to be the ones propping up the back of the grid along with McLaren.

Technical director Jorg Zander, however, has promised “a clear improvement compared to last year” as the car is once again driven by Ericsson alongside Wehrlein, who at one point had been tipped for the vacant race seat at Mercedes.

This season marks quarter of a century for Peter Sauber’s eponymous team in F1 and, with the finances now seemingly sorted, the hope is the team can again climb up the grid.

Feeling more and more confident with the car, starts and all the procedures. @sauberf1team @f1 @mercedesamgf1

A post shared by Pascal Wehrlein (@pascal_wehrlein) on

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Speed is king in F1 this season

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The cars are much quicker this season.

It has ever been thus but quicker cars has been at the core of the rule changes deliberated over long and, at times, acrimoniously, before being put in place for the opening race of 2017 at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

The cars will be quicker – much quicker in fact at five seconds a lap faster than their 2016 predecessors – and much of that has come as a result of pressure from drivers, who for some years have been pushing for more beast-like machinery at their disposal.

So what’s been done to get to this more pacey point? For one, the cars are two metres wider – their widest since 1997 – the tyres are wider by 60mm at the front and 80mmm at the rear, the rear wings are lower and the rear diffuser is bigger and longer, plus the cars are heavier by 25kg.

In part, that means the drivers can be heavier – by about as much as 5kg – so that physically they are capable of tackling this newly discovered brute force.

Understandably, the drivers are happy. As Sebastian Vettel put it: “From a driver’s point of view it’s better pretty much everywhere. Braking is better, cornering is better, you’ve got much more grip. It’s a different animal, a different beast.”

But the issue with creating greater speed is that overtaking – forever F1’s bug bear – may yet be harder than last year in which it was hardly rife. And that’s where the sport pays the price.

For Hamilton, it is the great unknown: “It is now worse to follow another car. I don’t know how that will work out in a race.”

Basically, the technical regulation changes mean the cars might be slightly slower on the straights but they will be infinitely quicker in the corners and also wider, which means regrettably that overtaking may well be at a premium from the outset of the season start.

So what of the other new-for-2017 alterations?

Teams can now just use four power units for the course of the season and the cost of each unit has been reduced by $1m each in a bid to help the financial strugglers on the grid.

Plus there are new tyres from Pirelli, which will improve their durability, which was something drivers repeatedly moaned about. But that too comes at a price – more durability means less pitstops and hence less uncertainty.

Going into Melbourne, there is uncertainty as to how all the new rules with properly manifest themselves on the race track. Only time will tell.

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