Vettel on top as F1 season gets underway

A new era in Formula One has brought a change in the guard at the top of the championship table, with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel topping the standings after three races of the 2017 season. Vettel has outperformed Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton amidst new challenges to the sport after the introduction of new regulations in the close season.

One of the main worries ahead of the season opener in Australia was the ability of the cars to overtake. With extra downforce and wider tyres, the cars were rumoured to be three to five seconds a lap faster than their previous incarnations, allowing for shorter breaking zones but slower speeds on the straights, making overtaking more difficult.

That threat was realised early on in Melbourne when Jolyon Palmer slammed his Renault into the wall in practice. Elsewhere, Antonio Giovinazzi temporarily replaced Pascal Wehrlein, while Daniel Ricciardo’s crash in qualifying left the Aussie at the back of the grid in his home grand prix. Mercedes pair Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas qualified first and third respectively, with Vettel splitting the duo into second. The race itself confirmed the early worries regarding overtaking. Rookie Lance Stroll briefly dispelled those fears on the opening lap by moving up five places, but the race only saw 13 overtakes in total on an afternoon devoid of wheel-to-wheel action. Ricciardo, meanwhile, who had qualified at the back of the grid failed to make the start at all and when his car eventually did get going was limited to just 26 laps before an impromptu retirement.

For Hamilton it was human error that cost the three-time world champion the opener at Albert Park, Mercedes opting to pit the Stevenage-born driver earlier than planned, which left him stuck behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen. Vettel, on the other hand, pitted at the optimum time and emerged just in front of the battling pair of Hamilton and Verstappen to breeze home and secure a first race win since taking the flag at Singapore in 2015.

Vettel could not continue his Australia dominance in China, however, Hamilton resurgent in securing his first victory of the 2017 season to move level on points with the German at the top of the fledgling standings.

The Chinese Grand Prix also saw the first ever running of the newly modified cars in wet conditions along with the first ever time a practice session had been postponed due to smog. Nevertheless, an interesting qualifying saw Stroll qualify in the top 10 for the first time while it was a repeat of the top three that lined up two weeks previous in Melbourne, Vettel once again splitting the two Mercedes drivers.

A wet Sunday morning meant that the majority of drivers began on intermediates, but not Carlos Sainz Jr who chose slicks. That decision was not rewarded and the Spaniard fell back through the grid before eventually spinning and putting his car into the wall. Going in the opposite direction was Verstappen, the Dutchman moving from 16th to 10th by the end of an impressive first lap. Stroll continued to find F1 no walk in the park following a clash with Perez, while Sainz’s gamble eventually paid off, the Toro Rosso driver moved up to seventh after a positive start.

Verstappen and Vettel both quashed any fears of a dull race by pulling off a series of overtakes as the current and former Red Bull drivers moved up to third and second respectively. There was to be no repeat podium for Bottas, however, the Finn floundering behind the safety car while attempting to warm his tyres before coming home in sixth place. Hamilton on the other hand was supreme across the whole afternoon to claim a record-breaking fifth victory in Shanghai to move onto joint points with Vettel at the top of the drivers table.

The most recent race in Bahrain saw the return of Pascal Wehlein to the starting grid for his Sauber debut and the return of Bottas’ form after an out of character slip in China. Again, though, it was Hamilton and Vettel who led the pack, the pair exchanging places for the third race in a row as Vettel claimed his second victory of the season to take sole charge at the top of the standings.

The Mercedes race strategy was thrown into doubt at an early stage. Bottas, who had qualified on pole for the first time in his career, held up the field and allowed Vettel and Verstappen to undercut the Mercedes drivers and gain crucial time in the pit stop window. Unfortunately for Verstappen the Dutchman enjoyed little luck with his brakes failing shortly after. Vettel’s plan was almost scuppered following the introduction of a safety car after a collision between Stroll and Sainz, but a five second time penalty for Hamilton bought the Ferrari driver some much needed leeway. It allowed Vettel to take out a commanding lead over his title rival and claim his second victory of the season.

Aside from the ongoing battle between Vettel and Hamilton, one of the biggest talking points has been the performance of McLaren, with engine supplier Honda under considerable scrutiny after a poor start to the season.

The poor engine reliability has led to question marks over the willingness of Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne to remain at McLaren, with Alonso taking the surprise move to compete in the Indianapolis 500 over the Monaco Grand Prix next month.

While it is yet more misery for McLaren, this season is shaping up to be an intriguing contest between Hamilton and Vettel as to who will take home the drivers’ crown once again. It is Vettel that currently holds the advantage with 68 points to Hamilton’s 61.


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January 2022
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