As the Formula 1 circus jets off to Melbourne ahead of the first race of the 2017 season, Mercedes’ motorsport boss Toto Wolff has expressed his belief that the gaps at the front of the field have closed up over the winter.
This season will be the first since F1 introduced new chassis regulations designed to make the cars faster, alongside the re-introduction of wider tyres to increasing grip levels and cornering speeds.
Throughout F1’s history, regulation changes have usually increased the margins between the teams as they offer an opportunity for different approaches. This has also often led to periods of catching up as rival squads try to develop their own versions of the innovations that prove to be most effective.
But following the two pre-season tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and an analysis of the race simulations completed by the teams during those sessions, it appears that the gaps at the front of the grid have actually closed up – particularly between Mercedes and Ferrari – ahead of the 2017 season.
This is because the Mercedes engine has maintained its place as the best power unit in F1, while the new aerodynamic rules have given Ferrari the chance to catch up with an aggressive car that is kind on its tyres during long runs.
Speaking ahead of next weekend’s Australian Grand Prix, Wolff explained how Mercedes had approached the new rules and outlined its expectations for 2017, as well as his thoughts on the fight to be first on the grid in Melbourne.
He said: “We have tackled with determination the challenge of the new regulations. We have been very successful over the last three years through stable rules – but no team has ever maintained its success over such a big regulation change before. In a way, it’s just what the doctor ordered. To have such a challenge is good for the team.
“There is an art to managing expectations. You must not set them too low – but you must also keep them under control. With new regulations, everyone starts with zero points. It provides opportunities as well as risks for every team on the grid. You only need to look back to 2009 to see how unpredictable Formula 1 can be, with Brawn winning the Championship after being on the brink of extinction.
“We enter 2017 with that mindset. We take every one of our rivals seriously and respect every team’s ability to find that magic bullet. What we’ve seen from Barcelona is that the margins at the front of the field have shrunk. We’ll see how that pans out in Melbourne, because we still don’t know about the fuel loads, weights or power settings of the other cars.”
Wolff’s comments could well be an example of the art of managing expectations that he mentions, particularly if Ferrari really has produced a car that can challenge for the win next weekend. But they could also be interpreted as a warning that Mercedes did indeed mask its true performance in testing (which could also be said of Ferrari at times) and is still expecting to be F1’s dominant team.
Either way, we don’t have long to wait to find out.
Hamilton vs Bottas
Wolff also offered an early glimpse into the rapport between his new driver pairing – Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Hamilton often had a strained and hyper competitive relationship with his former team-mate Nico Rosberg, who retired just five days after clinching the 2016 F1 world title late last year.
But Wolff believes Mercedes’ new line-up is “in a great place” early in their partnership after sharing the workload of developing the WO8 for half a day each across the eight days of winter testing.
He said: “Lewis and Valtteri are in a great place. They have a respectful and friendly relationship from what we’ve seen in our team briefings so far.
“It’s an exciting time for them because these new cars are a real physical challenge. Both felt from testing that the G-Forces are enormous and they are embracing the new challenge of F1 2017.”
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