Season Openers!

Sooooo you may notice that there’s a bit of a hole in my team preview articles. They kind of stop at Force India and Williams. Take my word, this isn’t because I don’t think there’s anything to say about the lower field teams, it’s more that life got in the way a little bit. BUT now I have time, so now I will write.

I’ll skip the rest of the teams for now; it’s a bit late to do a preview when we’re already 2 races into the season. To summarise my feelings quickly – keep an eye on Toro Rosso, I’m sure they’re going to be nosing their way into the higher end of the points now and again. Haas and Renault seem to be pretty evenly matched so far, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Renault pull ahead slightly as the season goes on; they have a slightly stronger driver line up with Jolyon Palmer and Nico Hulkenberg and they’re a works team, so by default they’ll probably be more successful. Forget about Sauber – a weak team with one driver who’s only there because he’s mates with the owners and the other seems to be a delicate little flower who’s still upset he didn’t get the Mercedes drive. And before I forget, McLaren. Pray for McLaren – after last season seeming like the beginning of their renaissance, they’ve slipped back down again. They’re almost unrecognisable as the winners of 8 constructors championships that we know and love. Though there’s some hope – Alonso has been doing better than many expected. Hopefully the engine troubles can be sorted out by the mid-season, and we can see them battling with Williams and Force India for some decent points.

After 3 months of literal winter darkness (I live in Scotland…), what a joy it was to see the lights go out in Melbourne back at the end of March. What a joy it also was that Mercedes a)Didn’t qualify 1st and 2nd b)Didn’t shoot off into the Aussie sun by themselves and c)Didn’t get a 1-2 finish! I’m not hating on Mercedes, but it’s much more exciting to see teams battle for the win after 3 seasons of it being a choice of Hamilton or Rosberg. The opening laps were surprising – sure Hamilton got away well off the grid, and it seemed to be business as usual, except that there was a streak of red following closely behind him A streak of red that didn’t seem to be disappearing as Hamilton may have gotten used to: Vettel was on his tail.

That was how the race was won. Certainly more of a ‘Mercedes throwing it away’ than ‘Ferrari winning it’ situation. If the Silver Arrows had kept Hamilton out even for a few more laps, he would have been in front of Verstappen. But the fear of Vettel pitting first and pulling off the undercut was too great to risk, and that’s what cost them the victory.Not unusually, the victory deciding moment came at the pit stops. Hamilton only managed to take his ultra-soft tyres to lap 17 before coming in for a new set. That was after complaining about the levels of grip he had too. Vettel managed to be easier on the tyres and got another 5 laps out of them before pitting. In theory, Hamilton should have been able to make up more than enough time with his fresh set to close the gap to Vettel to retake the lead, but after coming out of the pits behind 5th place Verstappen, he got stuck. The Red Bulls didn’t have the best weekend, certainly not the weekend they or anyone else would have been hoping for. But with the new aerodynamics on this year’s cars meaning it’s harder to follow someone, Hamilton could not find a way through the field. That led to Vettel coming out of the pits ahead of Hamilton AND Verstappen.

The podium for Australia was Vettel on top, Hamilton, then Bottas rounding it up. This was the first victory for Ferrari and Vettel since Singapore 2015, and the best possible way for them to start their 2017 campaign.

Aus GP
Gold – Stand in driver. Grey – DNF

Two weeks later and we were in China, one of Hamilton’s most successful tracks. He’s won 5 out of the 14 races held at the Hermann Tillk designed track in the north-east of Shanghai. He must have come into the weekend feeling hopefull – he loves the track, he loves the car and, maybe most importantly, the Chinese love him!

After a farcical Friday practice sessions (only twenty minutes of running on Friday) due to the medical helicopter not being able to fly in the bad weather/smog, teams were underprepared for the qualifying session on Saturday. Going into qualifying with less than a third of the data that you’d usually have understandably affects how well you can do. Not that that stopped Hamilton from securing pole quite emphatically with a lap time nearly 2 tenths faster than second place. A late spin for Wehrlein’s stand-in, Antonio Giovanazzi at the end of Q1 caused headaches for Verstappen, Grosjean, Ocon and Palmer, who all would have stood a good chance of getting thorugh to Q2 (and Q3 for Verstappen). Ironically, Giovanazzi still made it though to Q2, despite putting his car into the barriers on the home straight!

With the starting grid set (set below for final positions after various penalties were awarded), it was time to race. It rained, but not all the time before the race, so the track was a mix of dry and wet. That said, Toro Rosso’s Sainz was the only driver who opted to start on a dry compound. The rest of the field stuck with the green intermediate tyres, and that seems to have been the wise decision as Sainz only made it to turn 3 before ending up in the gravel. Perez’s Force India had a wee bump with new boy Lance Stroll’s Williams which unfortunately pushed him into the gravel and out of the race. That’s 2 out of 2 races that the young Canadian hasn’t finished for one reason or another – I wonder if Williams still think he’s worth the $20 million his dad has given them…

Giovanazzi had a spin on the home straight (again), and this brought the safety car into play. As the track had begun to dry out, many drivers opted to pit in for slick tyres, including Vettel from second place. Strangely, Bottas managed to spin his Mercedes while trying to keep his tyres warm while the safety car was out, and then spun again as he tried to correct where his nose was pointing. This landed him down in 12th place, and effectively out of the running for any serious points.

When the safety car came in the running was Hamilton – Ricciardo – Verstappen – Raikonnen – Vettel. Vettel became frustrated at Raikonnen not getting past the Red Bulls, and so glided by his team mate on lap 20. By this point though, Hamilton was some 15 seconds up the road, so Vettel would have his work cut out for him if he wanted a second victory. As Verstappen had passed Ricciardo for 2nd, Vettel quickly closed the gap to the Australian and passed him on lap 22. He then caught and passed Verstappen after the Dutchman made a mistake on the penultimate corner, allowing Vettel to pass. It was all too little too late though for Vettel, as Hamilton, and victory was just out of reach. The gap at the chequered flag stood at 6.2 seconds to Vettel, then a massive 45.1 seconds to third place Verstappen.

Big shout out to Verstappen, who rightfully earned the fan-voted driver of the day award. He started 17th on the grid, passed 9 cars on his first lap and ended up completing the podium! A future world champion if there ever was one, I’m sure.

China GP
Gold – Driver stand in Grey -DNF

So as it stands going into the third round, Vettel and Hamilton are joint top with 43 points, and Mercedes are a single point ahead of Ferrari in the constructors with 66 and 65 respectively. Things are shaping up to be very exciting this season, lets hope it continues as it starts!

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