Monday Morning Pit Stop – 2017 Australian Grand Prix

Choo choo.

That is the sound of the Ferrari bandwagon leaving the station. Quick, jump aboard!

Ferrari were a trendy preseason pick to finally topple the Mercedes hegemony of the past three Formula One seasons and Sebastian Vettel’s victory at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix will do nothing to dampen that enthusiasm.

Of course, the bandwagon was already haemorrhaging occupants on Friday and Saturday when Lewis Hamilton turned in the fastest lap in the first two practice sessions and claimed pole position for the race (Vettel did post the quickest lap in free practice three).

With a win for the Scuderia, though—their first in a year and a half—bet on hearing a lot more about Ferrari’s return to glory…at least until the Chinese Grand Prix in a fortnight. And make no mistake, it is a good storyline: The most successful and popular team in F1 history makes good after almost a decade of near misses and false promise. But that’s all it is for now, a story.

Are all those predictions of Ferrari’s resurgence based more on what the pundits think will actually happen, or what they hope will happen? Probably the latter.

Dynasties get old quickly and there is no denying that it will be refreshing for the sport if any team other than Mercedes wins a championship (drivers’ or constructors’) in 2017. Of course, it is even more important that the championships be close fights than it is to have new winners. Red Bull won four titles in a row from 2010 to 2013, but it did not take fans long to start complaining about a boring season when the upstart Mercs won the first six races of 2014. At least two of Vettel’s titles for Red Bull had been fights to the finish.

Mercedes have been so far ahead of their rivals in the hybrid V6 era that, even with the new regulations for 2017, it is difficult to imagine the Silver Arrows losing enough races to relinquish their titles.

And remember, there have been other false dawns over Maranello in the last couple years. In 2015, Vettel and Ferrari won the second race of the season—they finished the year 275 points adrift of Mercedes in the constructors’ standings. And last year, in perhaps a more apt comparison. Vettel should have won the Australian Grand Prix, but for a strategic error by Ferrari. Someone even wrote at the time that Ferrari had demonstrated the pace to challenge the Silver Arrows for the title.

So what happened? Mercedes won 19 of 21 races and Ferrari slumped to a third-place finish, 367 points behind the champs.

This year, Vettel won in Australia thanks to a good strategy call (combined with Mercedes jumping the gun on Hamilton’s pit stop) and a bit of help from Max Verstappen. Hopefully the Melbourne race is a harbinger of a closer title fight in 2017, but don’t count on Ferrari beating Mercedes over the course of a full season.

On to the fun stuff.

Vintage YouTube Video of the Week

Sky Sports’ Ted Kravitz tweeted this out last week: a 2008 feature on understanding Germans. Let’s break it down.

After opening with some mandatory establishing shots of stereotypical German fans, biergartens, Norbert Haug jamming on the drums (isn’t that Eddie Jordan’s bailiwick?) and Sebastian Vettel modelling what I believe is called a pixie cut (aka the inspiration for Kristen Stewart’s latest hairdo), we come to Adrian Sutil.

Kravitz corners Sutil in the media pen with a gotcha question: he asks him to share a German joke. But Sutil’s not a comedian, damnit…he’s an F1 driver! You can’t put him on the spot like that. Remember, though, that this was a few years before Sutil shanked the owner of the Lotus team with a broken champagne flute, so Kravitz didn’t yet know what he was capable of when backed into a corner.

Next up is Jenson Button, who at this time was spending his days sitting five inches from an underpowered but somewhat reliable V8 Honda engine revving at 19,000 RPMs (no offense to the current underpowered and unreliable V6 Hondas), yet still manages to grumble about the loud German fans and their “hard rock.”

Mario Theissen and pixie-Vettel both profess ignorance about the well-known German love for The Hoff, but they would say that, wouldn’t they? Then Haug puts down his drumsticks to tell us that Germans like to have a couple of beers, “but they are…but they are…they are good guys.”

Oh, look—Button’s back to talk a bit more about the noise. Airhorns!

And now, since Kravitz couldn’t squeeze a joke out of Sutil, he tries again with Nick Heidfeld. Relentless reporter, that Teddy. Heidfeld deadpans, “There is no fun in German,” thus disproving his own point. It’s like when Jerry and George go on a double-date in “The Visa”—Jerry can’t not be funny.

Bratwursts!

Pixie-Vettel is back and he turns the tables on Kravitz and all the people in the UK laughing at this video by insulting British cuisine. Whether you’re eating brats or bangers, though, it’s all ground pork stuffed in some intestines.

Despite all the noise, Button admits that, “There are some beautiful girls, here.” How magnanimous!

Hey, there’s future world champion Nico Rosberg! He’s hiding his Britney locks under a Williams cap.

Last up is that urbane Frenchman, Sebastien Bourdais. However, he is too smart (those glasses are a clue) to get drawn into a critique of German fashion, despite Kravitz’s leading question. What do we think of that little giggle, though?

The closing shot, for some reason, is a waving Ferrari flag—basically Italy’s national team. Deutschland über alles!

(Shout-out to Sean McIndoe…I borrowed this idea from his fantastic NHL Grab Bag columns.)

Martin Brundle Grid Walk Review

David Coulthard is a better grid-walker, but Brundle usually has more entertaining moments. Here’s a review of Sunday’s pre-race grid walk.

An F1 starting grid is a chaotic place, even before the race starts. It is packed with engineers and drivers, team executives, celebrities and journalists. With all those people, it can be difficult to figure out who you want to talk to or find them. And if you do, they might already be busy.

That said, Brundle has a particular talent for being in the wrong place at the wrong time on his grid walks and not asking the best questions in the heat of the moment.

After following Vettel’s car down for a little while, Brundle peels off for a chat with McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, but he is nowhere to be found. The countdown to the race start is on, so Brundle heads further back on the grid (Vandoorne was starting 18th out of 20 drivers, so there isn’t too much farther he can go).

After dodging Magnussen’s car, he walks right past Jolyon Palmer before pivoting for what turns out to actually be an interesting interview. Palmer is just hanging out by himself—a rarity for a driver on the grid—so Brundle has the opportunity to ask more than one or two questions. After filling Palmer in on Daniel Ricciardo’s car stopping on the way to the grid, they talk about the new clutch regulations, which are intended to put more control back in the hands of the drivers at the start of the race.

Moving on, the grid actually looks quite empty. Usually people are bumping into each other like the dance floor of a club, but there appears to be lots of space in Melbourne. Brundle spies Antonio Giovinazzi, unexpectedly making his F1 debut in relief for Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber.

“Birthday and Christmas all at once for you,” Brundle says, which the 23-year-old Italian clearly doesn’t understand.

After a quick look at Ricciardo’s empty grid slot, Brundle finds Esteban Ocon who takes off for the front of the grid and national anthem after a brief response to Brundle’s “how are you feeling” question.

New McLaren executive Zak Brown is up next, after a quick search, and Brundle asks whether Fernando Alonso has already lost patience with the team and Honda after setbacks in testing. Brown basically ignores the question, putting on a happy face, to which Brundle replies, “I’m sure.”

As Brundle makes way up the grid, Force India boss Bob Fernley appears dressed in pink slacks to match the team’s new livery. Brundle makes a reference to the team selling out in changing its colours before moving on to Daniil Kvyat’s Toro Rosso, which has one of its internal fire extinguishers going off.

Rather than asking anyone what is wrong, Brundle compliments its colour scheme—as any five-year-old boy can tell you, blue is better than pink—before continuing on to find former driver and FIA race steward Derek Warwick, asking him an inane question about whether he expects lots of trouble in the race.

As Brundle finishes the grid walk, he mentions how he likes it that the drivers have to be on the grid five minutes earlier this year, giving him more time to talk to them.

In case you weren’t counting, he spoke to exactly three drivers. And not even one celebrity interview.

Lance Stroll Stalker

For the first time since 2006, there is a Canadian on the Formula One grid and, surprisingly, his last name isn’t Villeneuve. As a fellow Canadian, I feel it is my duty to chronicle Lance Stroll’s time in F1 in excruciating detail.

Lance Stroll did not have a great first grand prix weekend—there is no way to sugar-coat it—but there were some positives that the young Canadian can build on.

In the first free practice session, his best lap was 0.6 seconds slower than his teammate Felipe Massa’s. Stroll closed the gap in FP2 to just 0.2 seconds, but that was good for just 16th quickest overall, down from 13th on Friday morning.

On Saturday, the real problems began. Near the end of the final free practice session, Stroll lost the rear of his car at Turn 10. Although the car bounced off the wall a couple times, it looked like a relatively benign shunt. Still, the gearbox was damaged beyond repair, necessitating a change and a five-place grid penalty. Stroll’s best FP3 lap before the crash was more than a second slower than Massa’s.

With just two hours between the end of practice and the beginning of qualifying, the Williams engineers scrambled to fix Stroll’s FW40. They managed to get the teenager out for the first qualifying segment, but the results were uninspiring. Stroll only out-qualified one driver, Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, and his Q1 time was a full two seconds slower than Massa (who ended up seventh on the grid). Even fellow rookie Vandoorne, in the much maligned McLaren-Honda, was 0.3 seconds quicker.

After all that drama on Saturday, though, Sunday was a different story—at least at the beginning of the race.

Starting from the back of the grid, Stroll got away impressively and passed Palmer, Vandoorne and Giovinazzi by the first corner. With his adrenaline racing for his first F1 start, Stroll came into Turn 1 hot, but skillfully (or luckily?) managed to avoid contact with the Saubers.

“I had a good start, which was risky although I didn’t plan on it being quite so risky,” he said after the race. “Some guys braked quite early in front of me and I managed to gain some places.”

Then Kevin Magnussen and Marcus Ericsson collided at Turn 3, promoting Stroll to 14th place. He remained there until Lap 5, when he was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop after flat-spotting his tyres while locking his brakes when he took evasive action at the first corner. After pitting, Stroll slowly made his way back up the field and was running a strong 13th before a brake failure led to his retirement on Lap 40, ending his first F1 weekend.

The gaps to Massa are not a worry at this point—Stroll was three years old when the Brazilian made his F1 debut, so there is a huge experience deficit between them. The key will be for Stroll to show ongoing improvement relative to his teammate as the season progresses and he gains more experience with the fastest cars in the world.

Likewise, his FP3 crash was just a small mistake which, unfortunately, had rather large repercussions. And Stroll was not the only driver to visit the barriers in Melbourne—most notably, local hero Ricciardo crashed out of qualifying in a similar incident.

In the race, Stroll showed some of the skill that helped convince Williams to give him a race seat this year. His first lap—the first racing lap of his life in F1—he maintained his composure and was rewarded. Starting from last on the grid (Ricciardo started from the pit lane), he would have been close to a top-10 finish were it not for the brake failure.

Weekend rating:

Screen Shot 2017-03-27 at 11.44.43 AM

Two Jacques Villeneuves (out of five)

Reading List

Here are the best F1 stories I read this week:

ESPN F1’s Nate Saunders had an interesting interview with Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo.

Jim Weeks of VICE Sports UK wrote an entertaining, in-depth examination of Alan Partridge’s love of F1.

I was intrigued by Craig Scarborough’s (ScarbsF1) informative piece about a mundane part of F1 cars: the bottom.

The BBC’s Andrew Benson had a detailed analysis of the McLaren-Honda relationship and what’s next after another difficult race.

Bonus story (i.e. shameless self-promotion):

I wrote a story for VICE Sports Canada about what to expect from Lance Stroll’s rookie season and the relative impacts of car competitiveness and driver skill in modern F1.

Tweet of the Week

I guess Lewis was right.

(Look at Martin Brundle redeeming himself after a disappointing track walk with the Tweet of the Week!)

Next up: the Chinese Grand Prix on April 9.


(Featured image via Scuderia Ferrari on Twitter)

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