For 2017 we saw some big regulation changes– mostly around the chassis and tyre side. There are bigger wings, floors and tyres, all with the intention of making the cars faster and more dynamic on track. From what I saw at Melbourne, this has definitely worked. The cars are significantly quicker through fast and slow corners. They also look a lot better with the chunky tyres and lower rear wing– the front wing still needs work, but more on that later.
The other purpose of making the cars faster was to also challenge the drivers more. There has been a feeling since 2011– when Pirelli became the sole supplier to F1– that the cars have been too easy to drive with young rookie’s coming into the sport and being quick straight away. Think of Kyvat, Sainz and of course Verstappen (aged 17), who just came in and was explosive from the get go. This despite testing being severely limited during this period.
The early indication is that the cars are indeed a lot tougher to drive, with all the drivers unanimous in their happiness with having cars that challenge them to their physical and mental limits.
This data is also borne out with a number of drivers struggling in Melbourne. The most famous being Pascal Wherlein who made way for Ferrari’s third driver- Antonio Giovinazzi- due to fitness concerns. Wherlein injured his back in January during the race of champions and that set back his training to such a degree that he felt he could not race flat out for the duration of the race. It was a brave decision and I commend him for it. Driving around at the back a couple of seconds off his teammate per lap would not have done his reputation any good. In fact as a Mercedes junior driver that would have damaged him irreparably.
Other drivers to not show well in Australia with the new generation of F1 car were Lance Stroll (Williams), Jolyon Palmer (Renault) and Kevin Magnussen (Haas). It’s still early days for all of them of course, and I do expect them to come good, but it’s telling when you have experienced drivers such as Palmer and Magnussen struggling.
Where the new regulations have not been good is that the field has spread out quite a bit. This is to be expected really because whenever you have such big regulation changes it’s harder for the smaller teams to adapt quickly due to their lack of resources. This is not such a big issue because teams will catch up and the field will close up. Although I do welcome Jean Todt and Ross Brawn’s comments about addressing this inequality. For the sport to really grow we need smaller teams to be able to compete on a more equal footing with the bigger teams.
My biggest bugbear with the new regulations has to be the fact that they have still not addressed the biggest problem with F1 today, and that is the lack of genuine overtaking. In fact they have made it worse by making the front wing bigger than last year, which as we know is very sensitive to dirty air when following the car in front. I’d rather they have made it smaller and tried to generate more frontal down force from the floor, which is not sensitive to dirty air that would allow for more wheel to wheel racing. It’s not really acceptable and F1 really needs to address this next year otherwise the sport will bleed more fans to other forms of racing such as MotoGP, which is currently more exciting.
Thankfully, while the field may have spread out more in 2017, at the front it has closed up big time. For the first time in three years we have a new genuine contender for “fastest f1 car in the world”. Sebastian Vettel’s win in Melbourne for Ferrari was the first time in the new hybrid era that Mercedes was beaten on pure pace. This was a race that involved no accidents or tyre issues (such as Singapore in 2014 and 2015), this was a race that Ferrari (in Vettel’s hands) out raced and out paced them to the chequered flag.
It’s a big deal for the sport to have Ferrari back. It’s genuine and we should be treated to a big battle for the championship this year between Mercedes and Ferrari. And even though Red Bull are a bit further back at the moment, do not discount them getting closer to fight for wins once we get back to Europe. If two teams being close at the top is amazing, having three teams fighting for wins would be like manna from heaven.