The F1 Fight to Come: Scuderia Ferrari v. AMG Petronas

Here’s a quick recap of the 2017 Australian Grand Prix: Ferrari is back, Lewis Hamilton can drive the hell out of anything, AMG Petronas tactician Toto Wolff was the weak link, watch out for Valtteri Bottas, and Red Bull Racing had better get over early season mechanical problems.

The Australian Grand Prix, like many season openers, is a test of machine. Coming out of formal testing at Barcelona, the newly minted F1 cars go to a real shakedown Down Under.  At Albert Park teams and cars are put to their first full test under actual racing conditions.  It isn’t a surprise to see mechanical failures or sudden breakdowns.  Sometimes these breakdowns are attached to lesser teams.  Other times, as in 2016, the big names get caught by the failure bug.  Sebastian Vettel’s racer failed before the race started.  In 2017, Red Bull Racing bore the brunt of the failure bug.  Daniel Ricciardo battled a buggy car through qualifying and into race day, before having to withdraw early.

The big story was Ferrari.  Sebastian Vettel, aided by a silly move by the race bosses at AMG Petronas, drove a brilliant new car to victory.  Last year the story of Ferrari was either mechanical failure or a lackluster car.  If Australia is the pattern, the engineers at the Prancing Horse have got their mojo back.  Or their s%it together, take your pick.

The new Ferrari racer was powerful and quick.  Upon lights out, Hamilton roared to a lead.  But Vettel’s Ferrari not only caught up, it easily stayed within pouncing distance.  The new car had the power and agility to stick within 1-1.5 seconds of Hamilton at any time.

Which brings us to Toto Wolff, Executive Director (and 30% owner) of AMG Petronas. With Vettel all over Hamilton’s bum, he relented to his driver’s complaints and approved an early pit for ultra softs. Where Wolff shot himself in the foot was with timing.  Wolff put Hamilton into the pits at an interval that not only left him behind Vettel, it put him behind Red Bull’s Max Verstappen; who gladly ran interference.

Could Hamilton have gone a few more laps on his super-softs?  Yes.  Was there time to plan a better pit?  Yes.  Should the team have started on ultra softs? That one is an exercise in hindsight.  Will Wolff make the same mistake again? Maybe not. But…this is the same team that has made a few glaring strategic errors every season, ones that have cost them podiums.

If Ferrari is truly back, then AMG Petronas rookie Valterri Bottas is the new key figure in Formula One.  Bottas ran with Hamilton all race.  To the point where one could see Bottas making the case for passing his teammate.  If Bottas is as good as he was last Sunday, then Petronas has a new world-class 1-2 combination ready to go after Ferrari.

The Chinese Grand Prix is up this weekend, and the talk is either Ferrari or what Mercedes has to do to beat Ferrari.

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