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Insight: Moving quickly - Reflections ahead of the first F1 Grand Prix of 2017

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Insight: Moving quickly - Reflections ahead of the first F1 Grand Prix of 2017
Mar 25, 2017, 12:37 PM

This has been a very interesting weekend on many levels, from the competition at the front between Mercedes and Ferrari, to Red Bull's failure to p...

This has been a very interesting weekend on many levels, from the competition at the front between Mercedes and Ferrari, to Red Bull's failure to perform, through to the complete change of atmosphere within the F1 paddock with the new ownership of the sport.

Dealing with the racing matters first, we said in our analysis of the F1 testing in Barcelona that we thought that Mercedes was masking between 0.3s and 0.6s of pace. They were 0.3s slower than Ferrari in Barcelona and here they are just under 0.3s faster than them in qualifying.

Ferrari F1

So we certainly have a battle on our hands and hopefully Ferrari has the development programme in place to take the fight to the Silver Arrows all season long.

The Albert Park circuit doesn't suit the Ferrari as well as Barcelona, as this is a track which is all about the front end of the car, as China will be in two weeks. The Ferrari is more about the rear stability, so Bahrain and Spain offer a chance to challenge for the win.

But Vettel on the front row is a dream ticket for fans looking for a competition as I suspect Vettel will get the better start in the race. I stood at pit exit throughout FP3 and saw Hamilton getting plenty of wheelspin on his practice starts, while the Ferrari and Red Bull had cleaner getaways with less wheelspin. If that were played out in the race, Vettel would have the lead at Turn 1.

Daniel Ricciardo

Red Bull have not had a great weekend. Verstappen damaged the car on his qualifying simulation on Friday afternoon and so was not able to do any race preparation, while Ricciardo has looked like he's not 100% comfortable with the car this weekend. The technical directive around the suspension has certainly knocked Red Bull back a bit and they have some work to do to get the car up to the pace of the front runners.

Ricciardo's accident was interesting; Mark Webber was working alongside me for Australian TV host coverage and he thought it looked like the aerodynamics were tricky and the centre of pressure moved forward, causing hims to lose the rear end in a spin. Either way it's going to be a tough road forward for the Aussie in the race.

The new cars were around 2.5 seconds faster than the 2016 models, but they will be quicker relatively in the race. Interestingly the low speed corners are taken at 20km/h faster than last year and the high speed corners at 30km/h faster. Hamilton was delighted with the feel of the new cars in the corners,

Hamilton

"It’s incredible. It’s the best that I’ve ever experienced here," he said. "Obviously the grip is fantastic, the aero .. just makes such a drastic difference. You can really push deep into these corners. It’s amazing to not have the car skating around on the low grip kind of tyres that we had in the past. So, very exciting and fun to drive.

"Our job is to put the car where it is most uncomfortable. We’re not there to make it sit on rails so we’ve got to take it over the edge or just hold it on the edge of that cliff through the whole lap and that’s the fun of what we do."

Fernando Alonso

McLaren came into the weekend with very low expectations; the word from the team was that they didn't expect to be able to do many laps or be able to get higher than P16 on the grid. Fernando Alonso had an inspired session and managed to qualify 13th, ahead of a Force India, a Haas and a Williams which is remarkable. He told Australian TV that he hoped for 'a miracle' and he got one. It appears he had some parts on the car which were not on Vandoorne's car and the Belgian only had one run in Q1, which was somewhat compromised after a fuel pressure issue

"After such a tough winter testing we can be relatively satisfied with our improvement, " said Honda F1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa. "Fernando drove incredibly to extract everything out of the car."

Another creditable performance came from Antonio Giovinazzi, the first Italian to race in an F1 Grand Prix since 2011. Parachuted in at the last minute after Pascal Wehrlein said that he was not fit enough after missing training through injury, the Italian took his chance well and made Marcus Ericsson sweat.

Giovinazzi was ahead going into the final runs, but whereas Ericsson found some time, the Italian made a mistake on his final run and finished behind his team mate.

It's a one stop race for most people tomorrow with around 22 laps on ultra soft then the rest of the distance on supersofts. There is an alternative strategy for the cars outside the top ten to start on supersofts and then have the faster tyre at the end to attack in the closing stages.

The other really notable thing about the weekend is the change of mood and atmosphere in the F1 paddock and around the circuit. With Bernie Ecclestone no longer in charge there is a very much lighter tone to the paddock and far more buzz as many more passes have been issued.

F1 fans

The level of fan engagement in the public areas is far greater, the drivers are spending a lot of time signing autographs on the way into the track and also appearing on official F1 Facebook Live sessions, taking questions from fans. Some of these things were beginning to happen last year, but the thing has moved to the other end of the scale. There is a lot more freedom being granted to stakeholders, especially drivers and teams to do more with video and social media in the paddock.

There is not universal joy about this; some of the major sponsors are concerned that the premium that comes from the exclusivity of F1 is under threat, echoing Ecclestone's jibe that under Liberty Media F1 is moving from being a "Michelin star restaurant to a McDonalds."

Brawn, Bratches

And some of the broadcasters paying tens of millions of pounds in right fees have also been heard to grumble. But this is all normal for the scale of change that is taking place.

The key will be the depth of the partnerships that the management trip of Carey, Bratches and Brawn make with promoters, sponsors and broadcasters, which is aimed more at deeper partnerships rather than bilateral restrictive contracts on high tariffs. Singapore Grand Prix is looking likely to be re-signed and there is even talk that a revival of the idea of a race in New Jersey, with New York City in the skyline could be in the offing.

It's all moving very quickly; on and off the track.

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