Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton still hold the edge as F1 embraces new era

Faster cars and fresh challenges from Ferrari and Red Bull can be anticipated as the season starts in Melbourne but Mercedes are well placed to remain on top

“The world’s fastest cars just got faster” is the slogan emblazoned across the publicity promoting Formula One’s reboot in Melbourne this weekend and the tone is upbeat as anticipation builds towards lights out on Sunday. New regulations have been imposed dictating a formula that, almost everyone hopes, will spell an end to the domination Mercedes have enjoyed over the past three years.

So far it has already delivered lower lap times. Whether it delivers better racing is yet to be seen. The mind games have started early but are, hopefully, only an early sign of the competitive character that will define the new season.

On Thursday Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel thrust the mantle of being the team to beat on to each other’s shoulders. “Mercedes obviously have been in very strong form the last three years,” said the German. “I think it’s very clear who is the favourite.” Sitting next to him, Hamilton was having none of it. “I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment,” he countered. “I think they will definitely be the favourites.”

To which, of course, must be added the third player in this triptych at the front end of the grid: Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, never usually one to avoid getting involved in a good scrap when it’s offered up. “Personally, I don’t think we can fight for the win at the moment,” he said last week, adding: “Ferrari made quite a step forward from last year,” and “Mercedes will always be right there – I think they probably sandbagged a bit.” No one, it seems, wanted to declare their hand the strongest.

In truth Hamilton, his new team-mate Valtteri Bottas and Mercedes probably do hold the whip. They were rock solid on reliability in testing and their power unit – all-conquering to deliver three drivers’ and three constructors’ championships in the past three years – is a proven quantity.

Indeed Verstappen was probably spot-on to suggest they had been sandbagging to an extent in Barcelona. There Ferrari were quickest, but drawing conclusions from testing is a dangerous game and Red Bull have been careful not to exaggerate any importance from it – the false dawn of last year’s pre-season runs left some lasting scars. But the car is patently a decent, reliable ride with a decent set of horses under the bonnet, strong on all types of tyres, stable with good turn-in and excellent balance.

The early signs, however, before the real test of qualifying, had a remarkably familiar air. Hamilton was on top, fastest in free practice, one ahead of his team-mate and six-tenths clear of the two Red Bulls and just over a second ahead of the two Ferraris, albeit with times set on softer rubber. The second session was similar: Hamilton was quickest again this time, half a second up on Vettel.

Max Verstappen
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will be one to watch this season. Photograph: Diego Azubel/EPA

That Mercedes are in front is not wholly surprising, but it is race pace that is key and both Ferrari and Red Bull will still be looking to mount a significant challenge where it matters.

That challenge is also quicker, as the slogan boasts. The times from practice were five and a half seconds faster than last year. There then, the new regulations have been successful. The new fatter tyres, which look great on track, are supplied by Pirelli to a mandate of not degrading so fast, the success of which will only become clear as the season progresses. They will provide more grip however which, along with the focus on greater downforce through the aerodynamics, makes the cars faster through corners. This has reduced braking distances and made the cars tougher to drive. They are more spectacular to watch too and noisier, which the drivers like. That translates into excitement and enthusiasm for the sport, which the fans want to see – the best in the world tested by their steeds rather than managing them.

Sunday will reveal the potential downside of all this – that dirty air in the wakes created by the aerodynamics and wider cars will make close racing and overtaking more difficult. It is of critical importance to F1’s reset and no amount of lower lap times will make up for it.

Ross Brawn, appointed motorsport director by the sport’s new owner Liberty Media as part of its reshuffle having unceremoniously removed Bernie Ecclestone from his position, has already suggested Liberty will have to act to counter such potential problems.

Hamilton then, reinvigorated after the disappointment of defeat by his former team-mate Nico Rosberg last year and attempting to become the first British driver to win four world titles, is in a strong position to do just that. Bottas must prove himself, freed from the shackles of the midfield, and will need to start strongly to make his case for a long-term place with the team.

Should Red Bull’s challenge be serious in what will turn into a season-long development battle, the prospect of Daniel Ricciardo joining the fight with Hamilton and Verstappen is mouthwatering, while if Kimi Raikkonen can join that mix in the twilight of his career it would be a joy.

Vettel’s challenge is to bring his team with him and not repeat the frustration that he allowed to overshadow a lacklustre 2016. Hamilton has said he would relish a fight with the German and will have meant it. He is enough of a racer at heart to know that three more years of dominance would not be the restart F1 needs.

The title will be decided by the big three who will maintain their advantage over the chasing pack, where a tight fight can be expected in the midfield between Williams, Force India and improving Renault and Haas teams. This would leave McLaren once again all but out for the count – another woeful test for their new Honda engine has left them flailing at the back for the third year in succession.

Fernando Alonso walked away from a huge accident here in Melbourne last year and there is a real danger he will do the same to McLaren should the painful, slow-motion crash that has befallen the once mighty team continue throughout the season.

Contributor

Giles Richards in Melbourne

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