Same podium faces but different formula at Melbourne

Formula 1 got the start it wanted in Melbourne last weekend, as Sebastian Vettel became the first person other than a Mercedes driver to lead the championship since… Sebastian Vettel.

Mercedes and Ferrari seemed to switch strategists over the weekend, as Lewis Hamilton struggled to find a way past Max Verstappen after his one and only pit stop. However we didn’t quite expect to see Red Bull flip the strategy coin, which is what ultimately cost Hamilton his track position as Vettel was able to stay out without losing too much time on his Ultra Soft Pirelli tyres.

The peak performance of the tyres were said to be a lot longer than last year, in order to allow drivers to push for lap time and not drive to a delta time. The result was pretty evident; drivers were pretty giddy in the interviews when asked about the new cars and as the race went on, they were able to produce quicker lap times on lighter fuel loads.

While Sunday’s podium didn’t see too much of a change in faces, it did showcase the course of the title battle this year now that Ferrari have regrouped over the winter after a winless 2016 season – building on the basic mistakes they made last year.

The same can’t be said about McLaren, who looked more like shadows of their 2015 selves than the form they built on over the course of the 2016 season. Fernando Alonso did his usual ‘nothing to see here, our pace isn’t that bad’ flattering of the car’s pace during the race, but it was pretty evident from Stoffel Vandoorne’s weekend how far away the team is from podiums.

Talk of them ditching the Honda donkey for a Mercedes Power Unit has been thrown around, alongside the prospect of Alonso not seeing out the full season if they don’t start performing miracles.

Either wouldn’t surprise me at this stage, but I have the feeling management are keen to see this through given the lack of taunting like we saw between Red Bull and Renault (which ultimately led to Red Bull rebranding their engines to TAG-Heuer). Honda also seem keen on having another team run their engines, something which has helped Ferrari with their engine development.

It was a good weekend for the rookies of the field, including Antonio Giovinazzi who after just spending an hour in the car on Saturday nearly managed to get the Sauber into Q2. A modest 12th place after staying out of trouble throughout the race is a good showing, and will be a benchmark for Pascal Wehrlein to try and achieve.

Lance Stroll even impressed on the opening lap by overtaking four cars, despite his crash on Saturday which significantly hindered his weekend. Whenever I looked at the onboards, Stroll just didn’t look relaxed in the car. The wheel movements were nearly constant and it is perhaps what is leading to him overcorrecting his mistakes, but it illustrates how much harder these cars are to drive stepping up from Formula 3.

Esteban Ocon also gets my vote for best overtaking manoeuvre of the weekend. His colourful battle with Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg for the final point looked pretty aggressive, but had it not been for Alonso’s suspension issues I think he would’ve put up a bigger fight. Still another good showing for Ocon, who propped up team mate Sergio Perez nicely for Force India to finish in the points.

Bit of heartbreak for Haas who after their brilliant debut last year looked on course for another top ten finish, had it not been for the water leak that stopped Romain Grosjean’s race. He was comfortably in the top ten after a pretty impressive qualifying that left most of the other teams stunned at their pace, especially after a modest performance during testing. I look forward to seeing what they can pull off in future races.

Daniel Ricciardo also had a mare at his home race, crashing on Saturday which caused him to incur a gearbox change penalty, then a gearbox glitch meant he re-joined two laps into the race. He needed a Safety Car period to get back into the game, but just over half race distance his car gave up the ghost again. A shame but given where his team mate ended up, it would’ve been difficult to fight for podiums.

And so Formula 1 begins its new era in Melbourne. I’m assuming Ross Brawn and co. will use the opening four races to determine what needs changing (if anything) for the future, and one key area will be overtaking.

Albert Park has never produced that many on-track overtakes over the years, so with China’s long back straight we should see the real effects of DRS and whether overtaking is as difficult as the drivers say it is.

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