After a disappointing Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, many were quick to conclude that the new regulations for 2017 had put F1 a step further back, however Graham Keilloh feels this is the return of ‘real’ F1 racing, after an action-packed Chinese Grand Prix.
Following the Chinese Grand Prix you may have experienced something unusual. You may have felt contentment. Even optimism.
You would have felt these for various reasons. For one thing, in Shanghai we got our confirmation that the title battle for the ages is indeed on in 2017 – Sebastian Vettel vs. Lewis Hamilton; Ferrari vs. Mercedes. While Lewis won out in Shanghai the red effort in race conditions at the very least pegged the silver, and this on a track that in theory suits Mercedes and Lewis. Ferrari’s Australian season-opener triumph was therefore no one-off related to Albert Park’s many peculiarities.
Yet often in F1 even the reasons to be cheerful can be bittersweet, and so it was after the Melbourne round. Yes we got a shock result and heavy indication of the alluring championship fight before us. Yes we also got cars much quicker and drivers much more content with their driving lot – which like it or not is important in how the sport is viewed more widely (i.e. it cannot help for current and potential fans to hear protagonists saying how awful the cars are).
But the false note was that the Melbourne race seemed barely to have an on-track pass in it. Nico Hulkenberg – far from alone in his concerns – said that overtaking was “almost impossible”. Sergio Perez thought an advantage of two seconds a lap was required to make a place.
It had been seen coming, as many surmised for months that loading cars with more downforce as per the new regulations was hardly going to alleviate the perennial problem of being able to run in another’s turbulence. And whatever the aims of the new regs improving the quality and regularity of wheel-to-wheel action was not explicit among them. Tougher Pirellis meant less passing via pace variation from varying tyre performance too.
Some urged caution though, noting that Melbourne was but a single race. And one with hardly any variables from tyres or safety cars, on a circuit that isn’t big on overtaking at the best of times.
And while there is of course an obvious flipside to this note of caution of not basing too much on a single Sunday’s fare, on the evidence of China our worries were misplaced. That F1, by accident or design (probably the former), might just have got the balance right.
The Shanghai race didn’t have the total number of overtakes of last year’s – at 54 it was dwarfed by the 181 apparently in 2016 – but somewhere therein lies the point. Had the race been replete with old style cruises past another with the DRS flap open we’d likely not be nearly so cocky. But, crucially, it wasn’t.
The DRS effect seemed minimal (and indeed only 10 of those 54 passes were in a DRS zone). But many of the passes seen in Shanghai this time will live long in the memory – Max Verstappen’s ambush of his team mate Daniel Ricciardo; Romain Grosjean’s stunning change of direction and stamp on the anchors to displace Jolyon Palmer; and especially Sebastian Vettel’s pass of Riccardo, set up expertly for a few corners and achieved around the outside via some wheel banging. They took your breath away, and left you in no doubt as to the drivers’ personal contribution.
None of these cited were in a DRS zone. And returning to the 2016 China race can you name and describe a single one of those ‘181’ overtakes without going back and checking? You’re doing better than me if you can.
It underlines also the importance of context and challenge, just as football matches no doubt would lose their allure with 100 goals a game and the defence and goalie having little or no means of stopping them.
Martin Brundle afterwards summed it up: “There were probably 100 overtakes less than last year but the ones we did experience were much better to watch and much more memorable, because they quickly had to get pretty feisty and brave on the brakes,” he said.
Kevin Magnussen put together the beginnings of an explanation too. “It was fine today,” he outlined on the subject of overtaking. “I mean, you had to fight for it, it’s not easy and it is more difficult than last year. But you also have grip so that you can take different lines and get close in alternative ways. It’s just different.”
You can add too that the tyres as designed aren’t now getting irretrievable Pirelli heat degradation following another car. And in China it helped that we didn’t quite have the run-all-day Bridgestone-style strategies that we had in Australia.
And we all seemed happy. “Old school Chinese GP today,” tweeted Tom Clarkson after the chequered flag. “All about quality, not quantity – as F1 should be. Quality driving, quality overtakes. More please.”
Alex Wurz concurred. “Overtaking this year is a matter of size of balls!,” he tweeted. “Mega! I don’t need 135 easy overtakes, I love the real mega moves like Max and Seb showed.”
As outlined optimism and contentment are rare feelings for the F1 follower for various reasons. Maybe too it will pass as quickly as it arrived. But in China this time the sport, however tentatively, developed a real pulse.