The 2017 F1 season roared into life this past weekend in Australia. What looked like it was, at one point in the weekend, going to be a procession for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes turned into an absorbing race. After a winless 2016, Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel not only showed qualifying pace, but also race pace and, most surprising of all, sound, clever strategy. Vettel’s win not only puts him on top of the driver’s championship, but it also made Mercedes sweat. The pressure put on Mercedes by Ferrari saw them crack. They made a poor strategy decision with Hamilton that, arguably, cost them the race. With Mercedes not seeing outside competition in three years, it was fascinating to see how they reacted to a competitive rival.
Over the past three seasons, the only issues Mercedes have faced were internal ones, surrounding their drivers. Hamilton and Rosberg’s title tussles put a huge amount of strain and pressure on the German outfit, but by and large, they coped. Three constructors championships are a testament to the management of Mercedes and also a testament to their reaction under pressure.With Rosberg retired and new driver Valtteri Bottas settling in, possible internal tussles seem to have been abated. However, internal pressure is a totally different kind of to external pressure.
Ferrari has shown a fleeting possibility of competitiveness over the the preceding three seasons, but by the end of the last season, star driver, Vettel, spectacularly capitulated. Vettel’s rant over the radio in Mexico–one in which he even told race director, Charlie Whiting, to “go away” in slightly less flattering terms–was an uncharacteristic capitulation after a season of disappointment. To start this season on such a high after a successful testing period should see Vettel regain his composure. A composed and dedicated Vettel, in a fast and reliable Ferrari will put a huge amount of pressure on Mercedes and the equally combustible Hamilton.
Hamilton told reporters after the season-opening Australian Grand Prix “you are seeing the best against the best”. If this is a duel that will continue throughout the season, then Mercedes’ strategy mistake is a cause for concern. As Fernando Alonso has discovered to his cost, strategy mistakes can cost championships. This will not something Mercedes’ will want to replicate.
All teams make mistakes and Mercedes will go into the Chinese Grand Prix with a point to prove. In terms of points, and in psychological terms, it’s round one to Ferrari.