THIS F1 LIFE
Pat Symonds on the new season
On Sunday 9 April, sports psychologists must have thought the world had tilted on its axis. The essence of sport is competition, and the essence of competition is a desire to humiliate your opponent. By definition, therefore, sport is intensely competitive and any participant’s self-esteem is of paramount importance. This fact alone leads to a burning desire to win that should preclude the possibility of friendship with a fellow competitor lest it dull the killer instinct that is so vital to success.
Yet in Augusta we saw Justin Rose genuinely pleased to see his great friend Sergio Garcia win the Masters, and, on the opposite side of the world, we saw an unusual kinship between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton as their finishing positions from Australia were reversed in China. How this rivalry might develop will undoubtedly become one of the fascinating aspects of what promises to be a thrilling season.
Speaking of competitors, the news that Fernando Alonso will miss the Monaco GP to compete at Indianapolis is further proof that it is not just politics where the unexpected is becoming ever more commonplace. I, along with most others in the sport, would never have predicted such a thing. While it is true that an F1 car is the ultimate open-wheel racing machine and the top F1 drivers are the best in the world, we should never underestimate the professionalism and the subtle differences that are required for success in other series. It will not be an easy transition. That said, if ever there were a driver whom I would consider capable of succeeding after such a paradigm shift in his environment, it is Fernando. He is a natural driver who is always at the limit and I suspect that finding that limit on a high-speed oval in a car with very different aerodynamic and tyre characteristics will be a challenge that he will rise to and relish. In a broader sense, it is great to see a scenario such as this which is beneficial to all. McLaren have gained admiration, and fans on both sides of the Atlantic get a chance to see a great driver tackle a unique race. It is reminiscent of those days so long ago when F1 drivers would drive anything going. They needed to do so in order to earn a living, and the real winners were the general public who had a chance to see their heroes at many venues and in different situations.
Looking ahead, I am sure the new regulations will accelerate the relentless development race that has been at the core of F1 in recent years. There is no doubt that Barcelona will see a raft of new aerodynamic features as teams are able to realise the fruits of their labours after a period of consolidation. Their focus until now will have consisted of bringing spares levels up to full operational quantities and, for some, recovering from the accident damage that plays havoc in the early part of the year. Ferrari however gave an unmistakable notice of intent by bringing four of their new front wings to Bahrain. A remarkable feat that can be achieved only with a great deal of confidence and an even greater budget.
However, some interesting things have already emerged from the season-openers. There is no doubt that Pirelli have achieved the objectives set for them by the teams and the FIA last year. The wider 2017 tyre appears to be a very different animal from its delicate forerunner. We have seen that it certainly has lower degradation than last year, which may or may not be a good thing for exciting racing, but, more importantly, we have also seen that it is able to recover from abuse in a much more normal manner. This means that drivers have had far greater confidence to push their cars to the limit over longer periods, knowing that any slight overexuberance will not spell an end to their afternoon. Couple this with a reasonably generous fuel allowance for 2017 and we, the fans, can expect, and indeed have seen, some full-on competition this year. The downside of this is that the tyres are rather hard and therefore the potential lap-time reduction expected of the high downforce 2017 cars has not been realised.
I am always cautious of trying to predict outcomes from the evidence portrayed by small samples, but if we are to believe that these first races may define the season
ahead, then we can look forward to excitement by the bucketful. Interestingly, these first races provide a spectrum of different conditions. In Australia, we see a circuit where front tyres provide the limit of performance and track temperatures are around average. We moved on to China where the front limitation still applied, but the cooler temperatures differentiated between those who use tyres hard and those who are more gentle on the use of this precious rubber. In Bahrain, the emphasis switched to the back of the car as rear tyres become the limiting factor for performance, while Russia has always exhibited low tyre degradation and limited overtaking opportunities. With some evidence that the 2017 cars have a much narrower sweet spot of setup, we may well see close racing swing to favour different teams as these varying circuit characteristics come into play. The battle between Ferrari and Mercedes is titanic and we saw the trajectory of the first races dictated by tyre usage, ambient track temperatures and the brave strategic decisions that are necessary when the gaps are close.
For the past three years it has generally been all too easy for Mercedes. They have some of the best strategists in the pitlane, but I know from experience that the easiest way to determine a good strategy is to start with a dominant car. They have enjoyed their domination and I admire them for it, but now we’re seeing Ferrari are more than capable of challenging them, and I am sure it won’t be too long before Red Bull, who have had slow starts to the past couple of seasons, join them.
The one area where Mercedes remain unchallenged is qualifying. Their ability to wind the power on for Q3 (and indeed the first lap of the race) is stunning. The speculation is that they use a different piston material that can better cope with the huge cylinder pressures. Perhaps when the others get their power units to near parity, the battle will become even closer.
Alonso’s IndyCar stint is reminiscent of the old days, when drivers would compete in many series
The 2017 Pirelli is much more robust than in previous years, giving drivers the longed-for ability to push hard