Whether or not Lewis Hamilton has opened the 2017 Formula One season on Sunday with a Melbourne victory that would suggest he and Mercedes are very much re-establishing F1’s old order, the pervading sense of optimism for the future of the sport is still unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
Hamilton and Mercedes, who have dominated F1 for the past three seasons, winning all three drivers’ and constructors’ championships, looked strong in the buildup in Australia and the Silver Arrows were every gleaming inch the favourites at Albert Park. Hamilton clinched the season’s first pole – and 62nd of his career – finishing 0.268sec clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel after setting the fastest lap ever recorded at Albert Park.
More Mercedes hegemony was decidedly not what the sport ordered when it rewrote its rules and regulations for this season. For everyone outside the team from Brackley, there was a clear hope the field would be more competitive again, at least at the front. But even should Mercedes have converted last year’s advantage into this year’s car the feeling from the teams to the fans who are back filling the grandstands is that there is still much more to come in 2017.
First, there are the cars. Better looking, faster, more spectacular to watch and a far more physical proposition to drive, they have found approval among drivers. On Thursday, Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo and Vettel sat down together for their first press conference of the season and were glowing in their praise for the new formula.
“As drivers you want to drive the quickest cars in the world and you always want to go faster,” Hamilton said. “The cars are faster than they were last year. And exploiting that speed with your car on track is a great challenge. It’s more in the direction of how Formula One should be, in the sense of the physicality side of it. We are athletes, and Formula One should be the most physically demanding sport in terms of all the driving series.”
Paddy Lowe, back with Williams as chief technical officer, is settling into his new team with an equally positive view. “I’m very encouraged by the appearance of the cars, the performance of the cars and the feelings the drivers have for the cars,” he said. “That’s a personal thing for them – how much they enjoy driving but they reflect that in their reactions and their presentation to fans so it has brought a level of excitement back to the sport that is very healthy.”
These feelings have been reflected here, with the crowds up on last year at what is always a well-attended and well-organised event.
Richard Martin, an F1 fan who has been following the sport since the Australian world champion Alan Jones was racing in the 70s and 80s and has been coming to this race for 12 years, felt there was a new mood in the air and that a competitive edge would return. “The cars look a lot better,” he said. “There’s more excitement with the new regulations. I think Ferrari and Red Bull will be able to challenge Mercedes, while the new owners are bringing some new thoughts, younger people – it’s all a good direction for the sport.”
Another veteran fan, Frank Dargenton from Sydney, face-painted and bedecked in Ferrari gear, watched his first race at Monaco in 1972 and this year will also be travelling to Japan, Monza, Spa, Austin, Mexico and Singapore. “They are proper cars again, they look wider, more masculine, more spectacular,” he said. “This is a huge improvement, it should be a good season, the racing will be tighter. It will be a three-way fight by Spa and by then they should be right on the money. I am definitely optimistic for a good season.”
The expectation is that one team’s advantage will not be insurmountable. Andrew Green, the British technical director at Force India, predicts a season-long battle. “Development on the cars is going to be very big because they are immature relative to the regulations,” he said. “Developments will come thick and fast because the performance steps we find are going to be relatively big.”
Nor was he downhearted that the big three – Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull – would have far more resources to hurl at said development battle. “It is hugely motivating when they open up the playing field as far as regulations are concerned,” Green said. “It’s a real challenge – about being smart thinkers, a challenge we really enjoy, it’s what we are here for.”
Force India might be outgunned but there was no danger of the perennial midfielders giving up. “They only have to make a couple of mistakes on upgrades in the season and all of a sudden we could close the gap,” added Green, who believes the striving for improvements in performance will also make the midfield fight compelling and impossible to call this year.
Not a battle that is likely to concern Hamilton – who has secured pole here for the past four years, but converted just one to victory – but very much part of why F1 2017 will be about so much more than just Melbourne.
On Saturday, the 32-year-old said: “It’s a brand new challenge and a brand new championship to win. We’re all out there to beat each other. It is close between us all and as you can see it is going to be a tight race this year.”