Melbourne: Moments of truth

Melbourne: Moments of truth

Postby meteorite » Sat Mar 25, 2017 6:12 pm

It's a saying ever racer knows: when the flag drops, the bullshit stops.

When Nico Rosberg hoisted the Championship trophy in Abu Dhabi, thoughts and talk immediately shifted to the 2017 season. Who would go where, and what would the new cars be like? The silly season had come and gone, and some drivers had shifted teams (and vice versa). Towards season end, some chassis and engine tweaks were showing promise; would they work in the new formula? And what would happen in testing, and before the lights went out at Melbourne?

The answers were plenty and fast. Nico Rosberg shocked everyone by announcing his retirement a few days after winning the championship. The surprise caught Mercedes flatfooted; who could they get who would fit as a teammate to Hamilton? They solved that problem by poaching Valterri Bottas from Williams for a year, letting Williams have top engineer Paddy Davis as compensation. To replace Bottas, they persuaded veteran Felipe Massa to unretire, which did not seem difficult to do. His veteran presence and ability to set a benchmark should be a major help to Williams new budding Canadian star Lance Stroll. And after Paul Wehrlein damaged his back in an recent off-season race Sauber has borrowed young Italian Antonio Giovinazzi, Ferrari's number 3, to fill in. The rumour mill is already grinding out speculation as the what happens if Wehrlein is out for a longer time.

The new cars are faster, and Melbourne will show if passing is a problem. Liberty Media, the new owners, want a more exciting show on the track. The two four-day test sessions in Spain were inconclusve. Different teams went out on the track for different run durations, on different tires, with different fuel loads, and different engine and chassis adjustments. The teams got binders full of information for their own use, but little that the competition could usefully observe. Mercedes looked to have speed when they wanted it, setting fastest time of day twice. Ferrari seemed very close. Red Bull was hard to judge but might or might not have the legs of Williams. Honda engines continue to disappoint McLaren fans, and Sauber likely have a lock on last now taht Manor has given up the fight. Still, who was fighting for impressive results to impress prospective sponsors, and who was sandbagging? Tomorrow the truth will out.

Meanwhile Hamilton has his sixth Australian pole with Vettel squeaking in beside him after edging Bottas in a see-saw battle. The second Mercedes will have the second Ferrari, Raikkonen, as his companion on row 2. Daniel Ricciardo fell off the road and broke his car in his first session 3 run and Lance Stroll did in session 1, so both could be moved back in the field if designated parts have to be replaced. That left Max Verstappen to coast to fifth and Felipe Massa to grab seventh, deprived of his expected sixth place when Roman Grosjean put in one of his occasional "impoxssible" laps to snatch sixth with the Ferrai-powered Haas. Looks like those Ferrari engine test laps were the real thing; will they be competitors in race trim? The balance of the field is as follows:

24 26 Mar 2017 Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit, Melbourne

Pos No Driver Car Q1 Q2 Q3 Laps
1 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:24.191 1:23.251 1:22.188 14
2 5 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 1:25.210 1:23.401 1:22.456 17
3 77 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:24.514 1:23.215 1:22.481 13
4 7 Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari 1:24.352 1:23.376 1:23.033 19
5 33 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer 1:24.482 1:24.092 1:23.485 18
6 8 Romain Grosjean Haas Ferrari 1:25.419 1:24.718 1:24.074 17
7 19 Felipe Massa Williams Mercedes 1:25.099 1:24.597 1:24.443 16
8 55 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 1:25.542 1:24.997 1:24.487 16
9 26 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 1:25.970 1:24.864 1:24.512 16
10 3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer 1:25.383 1:23.989 DNF 10
11 11 Sergio Perez Force India Mercedes 1:25.064 1:25.081 13
12 27 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 1:24.975 1:25.091 12
13 14 Fernando Alonso McLaren Honda 1:25.872 1:25.425 15
14 31 Esteban Ocon Force India Mercedes 1:26.009 1:25.568 16
15 9 Marcus Ericsson Sauber Ferrari 1:26.236 1:26.465 15
16 36 Antonio Giovinazzi Sauber Ferrari 1:26.419 8
17 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas Ferrari 1:26.847 7
18 2 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren Honda 1:26.858 6
19 18 Lance Stroll Williams Mercedes 1:27.143 7
20 30 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1:28.244 7

Q1 107% time - 1:30.084

And so the truth is exposed. For now.

24 26 Mar 2017 Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit, Melbourne

Pos No Driver Car Laps Time/Retired Pts
1 5 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 57 1:24:11.672 25
2 44 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 57 +9.975s 18
3 77 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 57 +11.250s 15
4 7 Kimi Räikkönen Ferrari 57 +22.393s 12
5 33 Max Verstappen Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer 57 +28.827s 10
6 19 Felipe Massa Williams Mercedes 57 +83.386s 8
7 11 Sergio Perez Force India Mercedes 56 +1 lap 6
8 55 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso 56 +1 lap 4
9 26 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 56 +1 lap 2
10 31 Esteban Ocon Force India Mercedes 56 +1 lap 1
11 27 Nico Hulkenberg Renault 56 +1 lap 0
12 36 Antonio Giovinazzi Sauber Ferrari 55 +2 laps 0
13 2 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren Honda 55 +2 laps 0
NC 14 Fernando Alonso McLaren Honda 50 DNF 0
NC 20 Kevin Magnussen Haas Ferrari 46 DNF 0
NC 18 Lance Stroll Williams Mercedes 40 DNF 0
NC 3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer 25 DNF 0
NC 9 Marcus Ericsson Sauber Ferrari 21 DNF 0
NC 30 Jolyon Palmer Renault 15 DNF 0
NC 8 Romain Grosjean Haas Ferrari 13 DNF 0

Ferrari was not bragging or sandbagging in their circuits of Barcelona. When Lewis Hamilton tabbed them as the team to watch out for in the new formula, he called it correctly. Not that things were that simple.

Hamilton got the clutch just right at the start from the pole, while Vettel jumped too eagerly after him and lost critical microseconds bringing a minor dose of wheelspin under control. The Mercedes and Ferrari took off into the lead with Bottas, Raikkonenn and Verstappen stringing out behind, the latter two losing touch rather quickly and Bottas sort of holding station to see what would happen with his tires and fuel supply. Raikkonen seemed more interested in keeping out of the clutches of Verstappen, who did not have quite the leaders' pace, than mixing it with the group ahead. Hamilton could keep Vettel out of DRS range but found his set of supersoft starting tires losing grip in an unnerving manner, forcing him to give up and pit early on lap 17. As a result he came out from the tire change just behind Max Verstappen, and the Dutch youngster was in no hurry to let him pass for position.

Hamilton was less than fully happy with the new tires, even asking the pit at one point if the telemetry was showing any undertray damage on his car. Vettel, with no such problems, was pulling out his lead to the 22 seconds needed to compensate for a pit lane time loss, at which point he coasted in to a super-fast precision pit stop by the Ferrari crew. This put him back out still in the lead, just in front of Verstappen still pursued by Hamilton, but neither was in position to pass. Hamilton did eventually get by Verstappen when the teenager pitted but by then Vettel was long gone.

Meanwhile Raikonen, running his own race in fourth, emerged from his own pit stop behind Verstappen, but managed to work his way by the Red Bull driver quickly and efficiently, putting an exclamation point on his effort by setting the fastest lap of the race. But by this time Bottas, running his own calculated race in third, was up very slowly closing on Hamilton, who would extend the gap by a fraction of a second when his teammate got too close. Well back from these. Felipe Massa ran a solitary sixth for Williams, the Toro Rosso pair continued their entertaining rivalry bracketed by the Force India cars. Perez showing quite a feisty turn of speed.

This year's formula allows each car four engines for the season, with draconian penalties if any ore are fitted. Ferrari could be nervous as, although the two team cars finished, both Haas and one Sauber among their customer cars lost their power units. Lance Stroll went out with a brake problem as did Palmer's Renault, while Alonso's McLaren-Honda departed in a sudden smokescreen. After a formation la gearbox problem and a lap late start from the pit lane, Daniel Riccardo tried hard to give the home crowd something to cheer for, but his Red Bull expired on the 25th lap. Complete results are above.

In their first trial by combat, the new formula cars pleased most everybody. They are bigger and faster and noisier and sexier-looking, and more closely matched. Mercedes will noy have everything their own was this season. The fans of course welcome this. They are a heavier workload but the drivers say they are more fun. Let's hope the fun lasts the season.
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