Around this time last year, Sebastian Vettel shocked the omnipotent Mercedes team by winning the opening Grand Prix of the Formula One season in Australia. A title challenge followed, one that ultimately faltered as Ferrari micro-managed their own demise. Twelve months on, history has repeated itself – Vettel has once again bested Lewis Hamilton at Albert Park.
We have been here before. After the 2003 season, following the biggest threat to the Michael Schumacher juggernaut of the early noughties, hopes were high that a sport apparently cured of its predictability and staleness could upset the odds and see a new champion rise. Those hopes were shattered in the cruellest way by Schumacher and the Ferrari boffins, who in 2004 orchestrated one of the most dominant showings in the sport’s history… again.
Now, the prancing horse is the underdog, with a man who many see as Schumacher’s successor leading the charge. Last year, Ferrari maintained the closest challenge to the Mercedes team since their winning run started in 2014, but it was not enough to prevent Hamilton clinching a fourth world title, breaking several records on the way. Both Hamilton and Vettel are now looking to equal the great Juan Manuel Fangio with five world titles, and confirm their places in the history books. Following his victory at the Australian Grand Prix on March 25, it’s first blood to Vettel.
Or perhaps Red Bull will return to winning ways with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, arguably the strongest driver line-up on the grid. They have suffered from their Renault engine’s power deficit compared to the Ferrari and Mercedes, but pre-season testing suggests that Renault have worked hard to make that deficit up. Following Red Bull’s impressive show of pace in Melbourne, it looks like there could be a three-way fight for the title.
This apparent ‘Renault-sance’ could benefit McLaren too, and no team needs it more. They struggled to even finish races last year and were practically plum last in the races they did complete, such was the abysmal power and reliability of the Honda engine. Their star driver, Fernando Alonso, is still regarded by many as the best driver on the grid and is hungry for a third world title. So it proved in Australia, with pre-season reliability worries quickly forgotten as Alonso fought to an incredible fifth place. Not a victory, but the message is clear: McLaren are back in the hunt.
The midfield looks incredibly tight this season. Force India were surprisingly quiet over testing for a team that finished fourth in the constructor’s championship last season, and failed to impress in Melbourne either. The works Renault team look like they have made progress, as have Haas F1. Haas were the stars of the last Grand Prix weekend, only for their hopes to be undone by dodgy wheel guns during both Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen’s pit stops.
Toro Rosso seemed quite happy with their new Honda engine in testing but struggled for pace on race day, likewise Williams with their fresh-faced driver line-up. Sauber still seem like the slowest team and struggling for overall downforce, but their new driver Charles Leclerc was impressive from the word go in Australia.
This is a year of massive change for F1. The biggest change is the introduction of the ‘halo’ head protection device – a metal frame covering the cockpit and protecting the driver’s head. Many see it as necessary, and many more (including some drivers) think it’s an abomination. Efforts have been made to try and take away from the halo’s effect on the beauty of the cars, with the black coating given to it by Haas being the most elegant solution.
‘Grid girls’ are now a thing of the past, which has violently split opinion in the paddock and beyond. Standing restarts after red flag periods is another fascinating change, especially given how hard it is to get F1 cars moving even once. Other changes have come into effect too, such as a revision of the much-loathed penalty system. This is badly needed since the reduction in the number of engines allowed per season will see more grid penalties for reliability reasons given out. Most of the European races will also be starting an hour earlier to try and capture a bigger global audience.
Formula One, then, will look very different this year. The result however may not. Hamilton is still the favourite to win the title again, providing that his team mate Valtteri Bottas doesn’t beat him to it after one year with the German giants. Vettel will be reeling from his victory at Albert Park and ready to challenge, while his veteran rear-gunner Kimi Räikkönen seems more at ease with the car this year than ever before.
Yet if Mercedes have fixed the problems that made last year’s car such a “diva” as team boss Toto Wolff put it, they may equal Ferrari’s run of five consecutive titles from the early 2000s. We will have a better idea if this is the case after the next round in Bahrain on April 8.
Image courtesy of Artes Max