Ferrari’s winning start in Melbourne puts them at the top of the F1 world championship table, the first time since the opening race of the hybrid era in 2014 that a team other than Mercedes has done so.
The result has been warmly received across the board and has given the sport a shot in the arm, even if the race was not one for the souvenir book.
But while there is no doubt that the Scuderia has the pace at this stage of the season, the question is: can they keep it going across the next 19 Grands Prix and develop at the same rate as Mercedes and Red Bull?
The reason for posing this question is that in recent years, development at Maranello has not matched the pace set by rivals. It was a source of frustration for Fernando Alonso on occasions during his time with the team, while last year seemed to be going the same way.
With a major rule change for 2017, many teams stopped development early last year. Ferrari had to play a delicate game because they can never be seen to “give up” and they clearly kept going to some extent because they were competitive in the final race in Abu Dhabi. But there was upheaval internally with the changes of technical management and – as we now know, there was a massive piece of work going on in parallel, to develop the sophisticated 2017 car.
Red Bull got ahead after the summer break when the races came thick and fast and outpointed Ferrari.
So what do we know of the competitive picture today and the way things are likely to play out between now and November?
As with the overtaking debate, it is hard to draw concrete conclusions from Melbourne on the relative pace of the silver and red cars. There looked to be little between them on pace.
Because the tow is very big at this track, it is one of the hardest races to build a gap, as we saw with Hamilton. This is partly due to the double DRS zones and Hamilton struggled to get free from Vettel in the opening stint.
In Qualifying it is clear that the Mercedes still has an advantage on the extreme engine modes over Ferrari. Although Ferrari has done a great job on its engine, this is going to be difficult to overturn, which is likely to give Mercedes the advantage on track position at the start of races.
There are a certain number of laps that the driver is allowed to do in that mode, such as Q2 and Q3 laps, the start and after a Safety Car. It damages the engine and that is why they are restricted.
So that leaves Ferrari probably having to make the difference in races, unless Vettel or Raikkonen has a particularly strong day in qualifying, on a day when Hamilton and Bottas struggle.
What are the strengths of the Ferrari package?
Vettel and Ferrari looked more comfortable on the tyres in Melbourne.
Commentators in Italy have suggested that the relative amount of 2016 tyre development testing Vettel and Hamilton did may have played a part. Hamilton did less mileage than Vettel, who made a real point of racking up the miles in the Ferrari mule car and also visiting Pirelli’s base.
It looked rather like the early part of 2013, when Mercedes still hadn’t fully mastered the way to use the tyres in races. We will find out more in the next two races. Shanghai is a front limited circuit, meaning that the front tyres get a beating due to the long constant radius corners and that is the limiting factor. Bahrain is more about looking after the rears and at the moment Ferrari appears to have the edge on Mercedes and Red Bull in that department.
One promising sign was that the Ferrari was very quick on the soft tyre, which is set to be the most commonly used compound this season.
As for development on the chassis, Ferrari has gone for a different concept aerodynamically from the others, the area around the sidepods, bargeboards and the leading edge of the floor in that area are a clear signal of that. They have low wishbones, high sidepods and a low undercut on the bodywork, which helps to deal with and channel the dirty air off the front wheels. It is pretty complex and quite highly developed already.
Mercedes also has some highly developed areas on the car, while the front wing is not that different from last year’s which suggests that there is plenty to come from there, for example.
So it will be a case of making developments in areas that make a difference and doing so consistently.
What about Red Bull Racing?
Red Bull didn’t look on it in winter testing and their form in Melbourne was the same. The balance was an issue and although tyre temperatures this year are not as peaky and critical as last year, they still had a problem. The car looked nervous and the aerodynamic stability was questioned. Daniel Ricciardo crashed at the crucial moment in qualifying.
There was some discussion about whether they had suffered from the FIA clarification on the trick suspension systems which adapt ride height for corners and straights. To avoid a protest at the first round, they were told not to bring the advanced system, but it wasn’t the negative silver bullet that many made it out to be. It was about the same as others, just not a step ahead.
As well as needing more work on the aero set up, the team was also having to run the Renault engine in a sub-optimal mode pending a fix which is due on the phase two engine in May. The word is that Renault found 35kW of additional power from 2016 to 2017, which is worth half a second of lap time, but they aren’t able to run the engine at the limit due to an issue on the hybrid system.
So the view on Red Bull is that there were clear explanations as to why they were not on the pace in Melbourne and there is every reason to expect that they will develop strongly once these details are attended to.
They will be hoping that it doesn’t come too late to catch the other two teams, but if they are lucky Mercedes and Ferrari will take points off each other during these early fly away races and not get too far ahead.
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