Race Weekend Central

F1 Slipstream Saturday: The Australian Grand Prix Preview; Hamilton Leads the Field

The Formula 1 season is finally upon us, the last of the major motorsports series to kick things into gear.  The sport again begins with the Australian Grand Prix, held on a temporary circuit in Albert Park in Melbourne.  As this is the opening event, it brings with it a decent amount of intrigue that goes beyond just the usual first race jitters.  

This race proved troubling last year, an anomaly and a harbinger, a calamity and a wonder.  It seemed to ask more questions than it did offer answers.

Things looked a bit normal from the onset as Lewis Hamilton had earned the pole with his new teammate Valtteri Bottas taking the third spot.  The Ferraris wowed by taking the second and fourth spots, positions they had seemed incapable of earning during the 2016 season. When the lights shut off, Hamilton raced ahead with Sebastian Vettel nipping at him but unable to pass.  Mercedes responded out of fear and brought Hamilton in out of the respect that Vettelʻs Ferrari seemed to have on the ultra-soft tyres.

The move proved a mistake and Vettel took the opportunity to scamper away while Hamilton had to fight through traffic.  The story that emerged from Australia, and held through the first half of the season was that Ferrari were finally able to challenge Mercedes for the championship.  This notion, obviously, did not play out in that manner, as Mercedes regrouped, settled their overactive, and reactive minds, and cruised in the second half of the year.  All of Ferrariʻs improvements for 2017 looked to be for naught and they started to fall into the clutches of battling Red Bull.

What made the 2017 Australian GP a bit of a dud was that for the 20 cars that started, only 13 even finished the race.  Thatʻs a third of the cars failing to make it. Sure, retirements happen and every now and then a race is just plagued by unfriendly circumstances but losing seven cars is a bit of an issue, especially when it is then set against the fact that only six cars finished on the lead lap.  

This year should be less of a mess as the cars, other than their Halos wonʻt be debuting a litany of modifications.  Letʻs hope for a smoother start to the season.

Odds & Sods

– From the discussions and analysis surrounding the GP, it seems that tyre fall-off is minimal and that most teams will be seeking to turn the race into a single stop affair.  With rain in the forecast, the issue may be compromised but that has little to do with how teams have strategized for the race.

This discussion either shows that Pirelli is working to bring a range of tyres that allow teams to think in a multitude of ways – or that they still havenʻt constructed a tyre to make race strategy that much more intricate or appealing.  Once again, a rainy race changes this whole debate.

– In a surprise to no one, Lewis Hamilton claimed the pole for the Australian GP.  Other than his teammate, Bottas, who wrecked out of the third session of qualifying, and in doing so brought out a red flag, the rest of qualifying went somewhat scripted.  The Ferraris followed Hamilton who were then followed by Red Bull. That seems about right. Perhaps the only hiccup in that ordering would be the fact that Kimi Raikkonen bested Sebastian Vettel for the second spot.  

– The Halo is making its debut this weekend.  While its arrival has already endured in-depth coverage, this race marks the first time it will be used in competition.  Thus far the drivers have been mum. Such lack of criticism would seem to indicate that they all got the memo not to offer any negative soundbites that would feed the press – or the fans.  

Because while the drivers may be keeping their thoughts to themselves, at the moment, the press has expressed some concern and the fans have been downright vigilant toward its use.  Check almost any article regarding F1, regardless of the platform, and the comments almost always veer off into denigrating the Halo and how stupid it looks. For now, it must be considered to be a recognition to improve safety and that the future may hold completely different devices.  

Toro Rosso versus McLaren.  One of the stories that will be worth following through the season will be the comparison between Toro Rosso and McLaren.  As the two teams essentially swapped engine manufacturers, with Toro Rosso taking on Honda while McLaren will now use Renault, there is reason to watch this story.  

The main question will e whether or not Honda was able to work out the kinks of an engine they have just spent two years trying to make feasible.  In comparison, Renault has been decent but not spectacular, which may be just what McLaren needs after two years of suffering. Early season foibles may not tell the whole story as both configure and work out aspects of the transition.  

– For fans in the US, the coverage of F1 has moved from NBCSN to ESPN, and something that got off to a bit of a disappointing start as the ESPN already bounced the coverage of one of the practice sessions off of the advertised network.  Gone are the familiar voice of Leigh Diffey, Steve Matchett, David Hobbs, and Will Buxton. The Sky Sports crew will see things out from here, and while they seem fully integrated into the goings-on at the track thereʻs something that feels borrowed.  

The Race

The first was held in 1928 and after gaps in racing has run each consecutive year since 1947.  Beginning in 1996, F1 moved to Melbourne’s Albert Park, a site that was contested by protest to save the park and a response to motorsport taking over a green space.  The temporary track is relatively flat and the course is comprised of 16 turns and is 3.295 miles in length. Michael Schumacher leads all drivers with four wins, while Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, and Lewis Hamilton are the winningest active drivers with two wins apiece.  

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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Seems like that the pecking order is about what we expected it to be, at least at the front. Further back McLaren and Hass are a bit better than we expected, but that could change during the race.

Bottas starting from the pit lane should add some excitement, particularly if it rains.

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