F1 prepares for record-breaking season
There are certain inevitabilities in Formula One, and its European journalist corps crowing of their departure from their winter-ravaged continent for the warmer climes of Australia is amongst the most predictable.
F1’s northern scribes were to be disappointed in 2017, however; during grand prix week a month’s worth of rain thudded down onto Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit, and just in time for their arrival.
But even the typically inclement weather has failed to dampen enthusiasm for the opening race of 2017. Instead the change in climactic conditions could be better read as a hopeful metaphor for the season: sudden spectacular change, the promise of thunderous politicking, and an inundation of competition at the front of the field.
These hopes for 2017 are behind the unmistakable buzz around the circuit as sport and city anticipate the first race of a new year.
“We expect the cars to be five to six seconds a lap quicker,” beamed Australian Grand Prix CEO Andrew Westacott. “We expect Michael Schumacher’s race record of 2004 to be broken.”
Quicker cars, aggressive designs, and the echo of one of the sport’s greatest icons — things don’t get much better than that in Formula One.
The cars that arrived in Melbourne through the storm are almost completely overhauled compared to their 2016 siblings, having been rebuilt from the ground up to comply with rewritten technical regulations.
The tyres are fatter to generate more grip in the corners.
The cars are wider and flatter, hunkering down to the road to produce more downforce, the aerodynamic effect that sucks them onto the track at high speed.
Engine development has been let off the leash, allowing Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault, and Honda to completely reimagine their hybrid V6 turbocharged engines to maximise power.
The combination of these factors has created a Formula One that is theoretically faster than ever.
Off-track there are unresolved matters aplenty ready to be challenged before the Australian race stewards.
Potentially controversial is the clever suspension design employed chiefly by Red Bull Racing and Mercedes — already queried a number of times by rival teams throughout the preseason, the stewards could be forced into making a binding ruling this weekend.
There’s ongoing suspicion, too, that some teams are illegally burning oil for fuel, and that’s before considering the new parts being brought to the race that will undoubtedly seek to bend the new rules to just about breaking point in the pursuit of maximum performance.
But F1 in 2017 isn’t merely a technical showcase; the drivers are being pushed back to the centre of the frame thanks to cars that are harder to drive and regulations designed to put them back at the centre of the show.
More difficult clutch control mechanisms, standing starts in extreme wet conditions, and higher g-forces will punish mistakes and allow exceptional feats of driving to shine — and enliven what could be a six-way fight for the drivers championship.
If preseason testing pace proves instructive, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas from Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen from Ferrari, and Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen from Red Bull Racing are poised to do battle for victory as early as this weekend in Australia.