For many, the first race of 2017 held plenty of promise. New cars, new management, and some critical driver changes to shake the field up suggested that Mercedes might not have the dominance it’s held the past several seasons. Valtteri Bottas moved to Mercedes from Williams, and as a young, hungry Finnish driver, he might have the pace to destabilize Lewis Hamilton. That’s what his times suggested in pre-season testing, where the Silver Arrows were seeing some real competition from the Scuderia.
Ferrari’s season was off to an auspicious start. Pre-season testing showed consistency and pace, with Kimi Raikkonen setting the fastest time of the second day of Barcelona testing. Despite feeling ill, the Iceman stayed typically reticent about his achievements and continued to charge; finding the quickest lap on the third day in wet/dry conditions. Their performance on all tire types was stellar, and set the fastest time of the entire preseason testing: a 1:18.634. That’s nearly 3.5 seconds faster than the 2016 pole position lap, so the wider tires clearly made a drastic effect on their overall performance.
However, speed is only as important as reliability, and thankfully, they had that too. During the second test at Circuit de Catalunya, Sebastian Vettel stole the spotlight with the fastest time and an impressive 156 laps completed on the third day. In total, Ferrari logged 956 laps in eight days of testing— just 140 laps shy of Mercedes. The Scuderia showed fine form and was clearly in contention for the first race win—but within the narrow confines of Albert Park, a sizzling pole lap is quite important.
Since it was Hamilton who snatched pole on Friday, it wasn’t exactly a stellar start to the the race. Raikkonen showed bursts of speed, and was not scared of flirting with the elevated limit offered by the wider tires; running boldly off the course at Turn 1. By contrast, Vettel kept a low profile throughout practices. He seemed slightly tense, but that eagerness to prove his ability belied a natural confidence in the equipment. His qualifying performance saw him split the two Mercedes, then have Bottas pip him momentarily for second position, only to regain his spot on the front row within the last few minutes of qualifying. With determination and his methodical means of chipping away at a lap, the German withstood the constant ping pong played in the last ten minutes and showed intelligence, patience, and pace.
He would need those three qualities in abundance to contend with the Mercedes drivers, his teammate, and the young Max Verstappen nipping at his heels in P5. At the start, Hamilton’s searing launch left Vettel dicing with Bottas for second place into the bottlenecking Turn 1. With a calm counterattack, Vettel kept his car in the middle of the track and gave his Finnish opponent nowhere to go; taking the prime real estate and breaking free from the gaggle of cars behind, which somehow emerged from Turn 1 without any incidents.
In hot pursuit of Hamilton, Vettel kept his head down. It was the Briton who reported of “struggling for grip,” and pitted first on lap 18; his car looked edgier and the rear end would yaw noticeably more than Vettel’s. Vettel maintained radio silence and appeared quite comfortable until he felt a new set of rubber was needed on lap 23. As Vettel rejoined the track, Hamilton charged down the front straight with a hungry, defensive Verstappen splitting the two. It was a jaw-dropping moment that could’ve been featured in an action film, since Vettel entered the track just feet ahead of the dicing pair behind him. The look of supreme frustration on Toto Wolff’s face had every Ferrari fan grinning ear to ear.
Vettel, admittedly, felt the pressure as the two of the best drivers nipped at his heels as he struggled on cold tires; the rear end slithered wildly as he applied the throttle early in the middle of Turn 2. However, the steely Vettel was determined to keep ahead of the Dutchman whatever it took, and complemented his unflinching drive with a nice show of car control for the public. This helped him build a cushion, but he still had to fight hard for the next lap.
Verstappen bravely late-braked and dropped his wheels in the dirt at the entrance to Turn 3, trying to squeeze Vettel by taking the better line through the corner. Vettel defensively held the inside, taking up that prime real estate, and managed to dictate the pace through the corner and into Turn 4, where he enjoyed a great exit and soared away from Verstappen, who was slowed by a nervous twitch from his Red Bull’s rear end.
It was imperative that Hamilton get around Verstappen; Hamilton’s race engineer, Pete Bonnington, deemed it “race-critical.” Unfortunately for the Englishman, his characteristic fearless driving was not on display that day, and he was kept at bay long enough for Vettel to start stretching a lead. With his incredible performance on super soft tires, Vettel simply rocketed away at that point; finishing the race ten seconds ahead of a frustrated-but-relaxed Hamilton. Bottas trailed in third, and Raikkonen came in a strong fourth after snatching the position away from Verstappen in the closing moments of the race. Though not on the podium, Raikkonen’s pace was never in doubt—he set the fastest lap—and looks just as capable of upsetting the Mercedes dominance in the year to come.
Away from the sharp end of the field, there was plenty of excitement. Not only were the cars faster, pulling as much as 6 g in some sections of the track, but they looked much harder to manage. With those wider tires comes a faster breakaway, and nervous twitches decorated the field, especially from some of the midfielders fresh out of the lower formulae. New talent Esteban Ocon battled fiercely in his pink-liveried Force India, muscling past Fernando Alonso in his orange McLaren by the slimmest of margins and certifying himself as someone to keep an eye on. Local boy Daniel Ricciardo demonstrated the temperamental nature of the cars, first by spinning in qualifying and then suffering a gearbox failure for the race.
For those who were concerned the bigger tires would hurt the racing, they were wrong. The added rubber not only makes the cars look more aggressive, but totally changes the physical demands placed on the drivers, who will struggle to endure nearly two hours of absurd cornering speeds and braking forces.
It seems that Vettel put in some serious training hours over the winter, as he was not visibly fatigued by the end of the race. Throughout the dicing and even while in hot pursuit, Vettel kept his cool, defended his position masterfully, and showed great consistence and composure. Keeping the hard-charging Dutchman behind on cold tires is no mean feat, and using a clever stop strategy amidst the commotion is no easier, but Vettel has shown before that he’s a driver who can think on the fly. Calm and analytical, though prone to the occasional outburst, Vettel is a paragon of analytical driving, and takes into account more than just speed. Clearly, it was a victory of brains over raw pace, though Vettel was not short of the latter trait.
To call him a calculator would be missing the point somewhat. Vettel has always been one to work closely with his engineers, and ensuring a good car underneath him was his first step towards beating the mighty Silver Arrows. As Vettel admits, having a confidence-inspiring car pays dividends at Albert Park, where the walls seem dangerously close and the lack of grip makes a driver really earn their paycheck. He might’ve kept quiet about his performance prior to the race, which some wrote off as sandbagging, but it would be more apt to describe it as a mild apprehension. Never content and very concerned about the constant improvements, Vettel could not rest easy. Contrasting his body language in testing to after the race, he looked remarkably relaxed and sure of himself. Of course, this was partly post-race euphoria, but it was also a realization that that Ferrari had a car that could blunt the Silver Arrows.
Of course, the season has just begun, but the knowledge that their car is a race winner is hugely motivating, and with Vettel having both speed and strategy, that their machinery is in good hands. What’s most important, though, is that the monotonously-successful Mercedes might not be as dominant as it’s been over the last several years. Perhaps 2017 will be a redeeming year for the 29-year-old Vettel, whose last two seasons have been somewhat frustrating for a racer of his caliber. He’s focused, alert, and totally committed to developing the new SF70H, which he’s named “Gina,” by the way. Not quite as raunchy as some of his previous cars’ nicknames, but this one will likely be even faster.