Uh-oh. There are nervous twitches evident among F1 fans as the 2017 season opener in Melbourne looms large in the motorsport calendar.
It’s one of the most hotly-anticipated seasons I can remember, thanks to a raft of significant rule changes that, in pre-season testing, looked to have brought Ferrari into play as a genuine threat to Mercedes’ utter dominance of the sport.
But, with the passing of the first free practice sessions of F1’s new era, as some have been calling it, there was a familiar feel about the pecking order.
A very, very familiar feel.
On your Mercs
It’s a given in F1 that pre-season tests aren’t the most reliable way of benchmarking teams against one another and, to be honest, it usually takes a race or two to get a real feel for how things might pan out.
This weekend a very particular dynamic will be in evidence, as Lewis Hamilton moves early to establish beyond any doubt his No.1 status both at Mercedes and in F1 in general.
Remember, but for his poor start last season – mechanicals, lacklustre drives by his standards, the odd bump with drivers including new team-mate Valtteri Bottas – he would (probably) have run off with the title.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the Friday track sessions where everyone was looking for evidence that Ferrari really was the real deal this season.
Well, Ferrari managed to post the second-fastest time, Sebastian Vettel edging out Merc new boy Bottas by a modest 0.009 seconds.
Out in front, though, way out in front, was Hamilton, a full 0.547seconds ahead of Vettel.
In the longer stints with heavy fuel loads, which are more representative of race pace, Ferrari were, if anything, even further adrift.
And, remember, Mercedes (and Red Bull) had been told to change their suspension, as scrutineers reckoned it was being used to affect aerodynamics, which is illegal.
OK, Bottas is still settling into his new team as well as learning how to drive the heavier, faster, angrier cars of 2017 but he was still able to mix it comfortably with the Ferraris.
And Hamilton… will be happy with nothing less than pole and maximum points from the Melbourne weekend.
Red alert No.1
By the standards of recent years, Ferrari are playing a blinder. By the standards of recent years.
They were fastest in pre-season tests last year too (not as fast as this year but still impressive enough) and then we all know what happened as their season frayed, unravelled and tumbled, unloved, into a Maranello bin.
Any hint of a repeat will spell the end for team boss Maurizio Arrivabene and some of his lieutenants and so he will have been keen to show the car in its best light from the word go, unlike some of those sandbaggers on the grid.
The good news is that the new Ferrari looks planted on track, its aero package is perhaps the best-looking and most adventurous in F1, and the power unit is, on the face of it, pretty good.
The bad news, for now at least, is that Ferrari’s very best still doesn’t look close enough to Mercedes’ very best.
And here’s a thing: with only four engines per driver to last the whole 20-race season, the risk for Ferrari is that they will have to stress their power units to keep up with Hamilton, while he will be able to dial down the power at times and preserve his power units.
Meanwhile, loitering just over the horizon, Red Bull’s RB13 with its plethora of new parts has finally broken cover…
Red alert No.2
If Ferrari have the feel of a team who have done everything they can to make their car appear relatively fast, Red Bull have been much more conservative, talking down their early-season potential and managing expectations.
So new are some of the RB13’s parts that it appeared mechanics were drilling out parts of the floor to stop it snagging on the rear wheels as Friday practice got under way at Albert Park.
The Bulls are a second off the Mercedes pace – Daniel Ricciardo was a full second behind Hamilton on Friday, and Verstappen a further 0.4seconds back.
They’re close enough to trouble Ferrari but it’s hard to imagine them challenging Mercedes for the title with such a gap to make up on day one of the season proper.
Still, despite the gap between Ricciardo and Verstappen, there’s a good chance that they will provide the best in-team rivalry of the season.
Best of the rest
Williams, Toro Rosso, Force India and Renault are shaping up to have a battle royale. Early indications are that Carlos Sainz has what it takes to pilot the Toro Rosso to the front of this group on a regular basis.
Over at Williams, the focus has been on 18-year-old Lance Stroll, who brought a ton of sponsorship money to the team as well as raising a lot of eyebrows from those who question his readiness to race at this level.
Well, not only did he not wreck his car in the Friday sessions, his best time was within 0.2seconds of his un-retired team-mate Felipe Massa.
Still, they’ll be keen to improve on 14th and 16th-fastest. The Williams are around three seconds off Hamilton’s pace and it feels like the car is better than that gap suggests.
Force India’s new pink livery is the talk of the paddock – but it’s the result of a sponsorship deal that should keep the team in development funds, so don’t be surprised if they hit a purple patch as the season progresses.
Watch, too, for Romain Grosjean, whose on-off relationship with his Haas and, particularly, its brakes, can’t disguise a package which should be in the points aplenty in 2017.
No sniggering at the back
Sauber continue to struggle. Enough said.
Which leaves the McLaren-Honda clown car. McLaren are a race team who also have their name on road cars, Honda a car manufacturer who also race.
It is hard to fathom how the present shambles can continue without it starting to damage not just McLaren’s already battered reputation as a great team, but also both companies’ reputations in the wider commercial world.
In Friday practice, the war-weary Fernando Alonso managed to drag his chariot up to 12th in the timing sheets, a mere 2.6seconds behind Hamilton – a genuine surprise, and more than likely a reminder that he is still a driver of remarkable talent.
His new team-mate, Stoffel Vandoorne, settled into 17th position. And the rumours that McLaren will soon be switching to Mercedes power, whatever the cost, continued to blow up and down the pit lane, tossing Honda’s reputation around like litter in a slipstream.
A special welcome back to the TV teams, whichever channel you get your F1 fix on.
Particularly welcome was the insight from former Williams technical boss Pat Symonds, a pundit who genuinely knows what he’s talking about.
Symonds isn’t quite as glamorous as other TV types – it’s not true that his beer belly has its own Sky contract – but at least his trousers weren’t as unpleasantly distracting as Martin Brundle’s. Oh mine eyes.
Even at stupid o’clock in the morning, if you’re watching the Aussie action back in Blighty, this year’s Sky team have it, by-and-large, nailed.
Oh, the cars
Get up for this race on Sunday morning. The clocks go forward so you’ll be knackered anyway, and the new cars look awesome.
The direction changes of Hamilton’s car in particular are unbelievable from some angles and the whole sport looks like proper F1 again. Oh, you have Bernie Ecclestone to thank for that – he may have been sidelined in F1 but it was on his watch that the requirements for more aggressive-looking cars, that were harder to drive, were developed.
So much has been written about the new cars already that there’s not much to add – but here are a few things to watch out for.
- Brake wear – braking zones have been shortened and some have disappeared entirely, such are the grip levels of the 2017 cars. But the grip means that, where braking does take place, it is brutally hard on car and driver. Think 6g of force, squeezing the driver forward against his belts, and nuking the brake discs, which are thicker on many cars than they’ve ever been.
- Knackered drivers – the physical demands of driving the 2017 cars are huge and drivers have been training accordingly. But after a long, hard day at the bumpy Albert Park, fatigue may start to play a part in the race.
- Tyres v fuel consumption – Pirelli’s new tyres should last well enough to slash the number of pitstops we get treated to but it remains to be seen if the heavy, fast cars have to be driven at reduced power to conserve fuel, even if they are now allowed to carry 5kg more petrol than last season.
- Big spins – cornering forces approaching 6g mean that, when a car lets go, it will let go in a big way. Larger tarmac run-off areas have been built but high-speed spins into barriers are a real possibility, and they’ll hurt.
- The start – drivers have to operate their clutches entirely manually this season and that is going to see some spin their wheels up, others bog their car down and, perhaps, the odd start-line shunt as a result. Given how important it is to enter the first corner in a good position in modern F1, this change more than any other may introduce some surprises to races – and right at the beginning too.
- Crazy details – from Force India’s eye-catching pink livery to the Haas ‘shark fins’ with mini T-wings that flap and wobble so much at speed, it looks as if something must surely break; from Ferrari’s fantastic-looking sidepods to Red Bull’s secretive new front wing; there is a ton of new stuff to savour in the 2017 season.
- McLaren-Honda’s AA Homestart sponsorship deal. Come on, you know it would make sense.