The debut race of Formula 1’s new era saw Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel beat Mercedes Formula 1 team to victory, which involved Ferrari putting Mercedes under immense pressure until the Silver Arrows conceded the lead.
During qualifying, it became clear that Mercedes had the upper hand on pace when it comes to a single lap – which could prove key in 2017, thanks to a building concern of a lack of overtaking opportunities – however, what was clear is that Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton couldn’t get the same stint lengths as Ferrari’s Vettel.
Vettel, who maintained second place off the line, was quickly onto the gearbox of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes once the race got underway, and through the first ten laps, the gap hovered at around 1.5 seconds. Theoretically, with these new 2017 cars, there should be more turbulence coming off the car behind, proving key to shorten the life of tyres. However, following the back of leader Hamilton, Vettel seemed to have much more in his tyres during the first stint, as he had the pace to leapfrog Hamilton on his old set, whilst Hamilton took on new softs.
This indicates that Mercedes were running a more aggressive set-up, with higher emphasis on out-right lap-time and speed, and such evidence could be Lewis Hamilton’s record setting pace. The Ferrari meanwhile, trailed Mercedes in qualifying, but from the get-go, was able to match, if not beat the race-pace of Mercedes.
Through the lap-charts of the first stint, it is more and more eminent that Mercedes have work to do tyre conservation front. One of the key changes for 2017 was the increase in durability for the Pirelli tyres, however Mercedes may have over-calculated on this front, pushing them at a disadvantage to rivals Ferrari.
“I was struggling with grip from the get-go,” said Hamilton.
“Sebastian was able to always answer in terms of lap time. Towards the end [of the stint] I got a bit in traffic and the car started to overheat the tyres.
“I was struggling with grip and it was to the point that I needed to come in. The gap was closing up and I was sliding around. It was my call, because otherwise he probably would have come by anyway.”
Mercedes softer compound struggles
One of the reasons why Mercedes weren’t able to extract pace out of the first stint could simply be that the Mercedes W08 could not get the ultra-soft tyre to work. This comes of no surprise, as the team have a history of failing to bring softer tyres in the operating window. For example, the Singapore Grand Prix in 2015, where Mercedes were defeated by rivals Ferrari and Red Bull, the team had found post-race that they simply struggled to dial in the super-soft tyres, and didn’t get the same pace delta from soft to super-soft.
As Hamilton said over the team radio and in his post race interview, his ultra-soft’s were “overheating” during his first stint, which meant he had the back off more, and eventually forced him into pitting early as he lost most of the grip on the tyre – which fed the Mercedes driver behind Max Verstappen, which arguably lost him the grand prix.
The problems for Hamilton during the first stints eminently pushed the world champion into the pits much earlier than rivals Ferrari, which meant Hamilton was soon on the back of Max Verstappen, who was lapping significantly slower than Vettel. This then allowed the Ferrari driver to put in a few quick laps, and gain enough time to pit and come out in front of Hamilton. Once the Ferrari driver emerged out of the pits in front of Verstappen and Hamilton, the race for the lead was effectively over, with the knowledge that overtaking was a rare circumstance.
Despite Ferrari claiming victory in Australia, the true pecking order is yet to be established, as little conclusions can be made from the second stint after Hamilton revealed he didn’t push to chase Vettel, as he knew that the victory was gone, with overtaking ever so hard with these new era of Formula 1 cars.
“They [Ferrari] definitely have more pace on the ultra-soft tyre,” said Hamilton. “I think I had more pace in the second stint, [it’s] just I stopped so much earlier that I really didn’t know how long the tyres were going to last.
“I didn’t want to push to close the gap knowing I couldn’t really overtake, and then find I run out of tyres at the end and lose second. Once I came out behind Sebastian, it was really about damage limitation.”