Have F1’s worst fears been realised… and can they be fixed?

Full article published on Crash.net

With new regulations comes great opportunity… but also some responsibility.

As is the same with every F1 curtain raiser, this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix has generated great excitement as weeks of testing, talking and predicting was finally condensed down to 58 laps of hard facts.

More than usual however there was also great curiosity

Questions over whether the much anticipated new regulations would improve the racing or leave the sport with another set of flawed adjustments have peppered journalist’s questions over the course of the weekend and the anticipation was certainly palpable as the lights went out to mark the start of F1’s brave new era.

The answers, however, few will want to hear as the sparkly new cars delivered less than sparkling racing in Melbourne. Of course, processional races are ten a dozen in F1, but what was concerning about this first display was that – in terms of spectacle anyway – it lived up to the fears and not the promise.

Much has been made of the broader, more aggressive looking cars (fin or no fin) and enthusiasm has risen on the back of giddy drivers expressing their delight at having a car they can push to the limit from start-to-finish. However, while we were certainly in awe as they took Turns 11 and 12 at pelt during Friday and Saturday, come Sunday the ‘one line fits all’ action looked rather flat in a racing context.

Last year Alex Wurz said ‘happy drivers’ make better racing, but while the former of that statement was certainly true – after all, when was the last time Fernando Alonso waxed lyrical about driving in F1? -, fans seem less enamoured.

So, the question begs… will the new generation of F1 threaten to make Saturday a more enjoyable watch than Sunday?

The facts

For 2017, the Pirelli tyres are 25 per-cent wider than last year’s specifications, which in part gives the cars their more aggressive look, but it also increases mechanical grip to assist with the major aerodynamic changes. Another adjustment Pirelli has made is changing the compound of the tyres – as requested by the FIA after pressure from teams and drivers – to ensure they are more durable and can be leaned on harder for longer in races.

The result is, on the evidence of today, going to be a season of one-stop races as several drivers made even the ultra-soft go to remarkable lengths – a mammoth 34 laps in Daniil Kvyat’s case. Given they barely held up after a lap last year it is a rate of gain that by way of definition should have seen the compounds completely rebranded.

Speaking to Mario Isola on the final day of testing, the Pirelli motorsport boss says he was very happy with the way the manufacturer has delivered on its objectives to make the tyres more durable for drivers to really push on. However, this was his somewhat evasive answer to the question of ‘are fewer pit-stops good for the racing?’. Read between those lines.

Fundamental issues

Beyond the limitations of the strategic options, fears about a lack of overtaking in cars generating substantially more downforce appears to have been realised.

Worryingly, Lewis Hamilton says he gave up trying to challenge Sebastian Vettel when he lost the lead after the pit-stops because it was futile trying to fight through that dirty air to get close enough to mount an attack. Worse still, he labelled the limitations ‘fundamental’ and says it won’t get better.

“It has been the fundamental way the cars have been since I have been in F1, but it is worse now than it has ever been. It definitely has not got any better. So it is going to be the same for the rest of the season for sure”

Indeed, it is telling that Toto Wolff remarked it was clear Vettel was faster than the Briton during the first stint despite that generated turbulence stopping him from getting closer less than a second (ie. DRS range).

Perhaps the biggest demonstrator, however, came from Esteban Ocon who on his way to a maiden points finish spent 34 laps stuck behind Fernando Alonso’s visibly underpowered McLaren-Honda.

It was only on lap 50 when Ocon got a good enough run behind Alonso onto the straight that he could dispose of the ailing McLaren and only then because the Spaniard was down on power and heading for retirement.

In fact, even though Vettel was evidently fastest in isolation it is entirely possible that Hamilton would have won the Australian Grand Prix on the strength of his better start had he not underestimated how much life his tyres had left to run.

According to Pirelli, Hamilton had 30 per-cent tread left in his tyres before he pitted on lap 17. The Briton complained that he was losing grip in the tyres which led him to pit earlier than expected, handing Sebastian Vettel the clean air he needed to get the overcut. It is a misstep he is unlikely to make in the future as he familiarises himself with the operating windows.

That clean air also allowed the German to run the full life of his tyres to lap 23 whereas Hamilton, after pitting early, came out behind Max Verstappen who was yet to make his stop. Had this occurred last year with the greater disparity in the tyre life and the benefit of DRS, Hamilton would have probably scythed past the Red Bull easily, so it is reasonable to assume the prospect of ‘undercuts’ if there is a threat of returning to track in traffic will become increasingly unlikely strategic plan.

 

The big test

Naturally, it isn’t prudent to dismiss the changes on the evidence of one race alone. In fact, Albert Park isn’t the greatest reference point when it comes to action if you consider its classic races have arguably been defined more by crashes and attrition than actual on-track sparring.

However, round two in China does represent a BIG test for F1. Last year saw a record number of pit-stops and a myriad of overtakes as different strategies played out making it a perfect reference point for this new generation.

Indeed, that long straight should ensure good overtaking chances too with the more efficient benefit of DRS, but the Shanghai International Circuit is also littered with long, fast bends and following will arguably be much harder in China than it was here in Australia.

Change could be on the horizon as the FIA considers tweaking those DRS zones, though this shouldn’t alone be made to account for exciting racing.

Of course, one race doesn’t make a season – and I’d very happily be proven wrong – but it is hard to ignore the feedback from the drivers when you consider their thrill of driving these ‘monsters’ is tempered by the difficulties they are experiencing to actually race them.

Felipe Massa summed it up concisely when he was asked if he thought overtaking was more difficult, the experienced Brazilian raising his eyebrow before replying ‘what do you think?’ in an unintentionally deadpan manner.

He’s right though. This was warned but we have been prepared to give F1 the benefit of the doubt.

At the very least, the sport’s new owners may be about to face its first proper challenge since taking the reins…

Additional reporting by Ollie Barstow

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