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One of the latest season openers in a long time finally reaches us from Melbourne, Australia. Even before the weekend started it was set to be an interesting affair, with Ferrari edging Mercedes on raw testing pace from Barcelona, Red Bull not yet showing their hands and of course the regulation changes forcing teams to take a new approach to certain elements. The shark fins made a comeback, as did the old McLaren “midwing” from the 1990s, now renamed the T Wing.
As the weekend dawned, one driver was notably absent from proceedings: Pascal Wehrlein, having suffered an accident in the 2016 Race of Champions, cited insufficient time to train for the Australian Grand Prix as his reason for not taking part in the weekend, instead ceding his Sauber seat to the team's reserve driver, Antonio Giovinazzi. Personally, this is the driver who should have Pascal's seat all year on the basis of both drivers' achievements in 2016, but for now I'll settle for a single race. Either way, that's a car to watch for sure.
At the sharp end of the grid, both Mercedes and Red Bull were reported to have had to change their suspensions since testing due to illegal designs or components. Mercedes claimed their new version was actually faster, but Sunday should provide the litmus test.
Practice saw the usual combination of testing the limits of reliability and adhesion, Massa suffering an electrical failure and Palmer slamming into the wall at the last corner on Friday. Ericsson found himself in the gravel too.
An FP3 crash for Lance Stroll ended the session 10 minutes early, and left the Canadian rookie facing a 5-place grid penalty for a gearbox change after his drive shaft penetrated the gearbox.
Mercedes headed up Q1 ahead of Vettel and Perez with 8 minutes remaining. 6 cars still hadn't run, including Stroll's not yet repaired Williams, meaning the drop zone was impossible to call. The Williams got an initial lap in, qualifying 18th out of 18 runners thus far.
Giovinazzi just fell in Q1, starting 16th ahead of Magnussen, Vandoorne, Stroll and Palmer, although Palmer jumps to 19th ahead of the Williams rookie thanks to the latter's penalty.
Q2 was a little less dramatic, the previous session making the second drop zone seem fairly predictable. Alonso parked in the garage with a lack of power, sitting 14th ahead only of Ericsson. Once the final laps shook out, Perez fell ahead of Hulkenberg, Alonso, Ocon and Ericsson, leaving Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Massa and Grosjean to fight in Q3.
Q3 commenced with rain at turn 13, as well as in the paddock. The Mercedes and Ferrari drivers, however, ran on slicks as the session opened. Hamilton took provisional pole from Vettel, Bottas and Raikkonen. Ricciardo then backed into the wall at turn 13, bringing the red flag out. The odds of damage to the gearbox were high too, effectively dropping Ricciardo to 15th between the Saubers. The remaining 9 cars took to the track once more after the Red Bull was cleared. Hamilton took an easy pole from Vettel, Bottas, Raikkonen, Verstappen, Grosjean, Massa, Sainz, Kvyat and Ricciardo – assuming he could keep 10th.
Ricciardo's Sunday, however, went even worse than his Saturday: not only did the gearbox need replacing, the new one stopped the car on an installation lap and left him stranded on the track, his 'race' seemingly already run. Kvyat then suffered a small fire on the grid.
The Toro Rosso was sorted for the start, but Ricciardo was still having repairs done on the car as the rest of the field left for the formation lap.
19 cars saw the first start of 2017, which was sadly aborted thanks to reasons unknown. If this was Liberty Media's first attempt to increase interest, consider this fan unimpressed.
The first proper start of the year was largely clean, until Magnussen tagged Ericsson and was lucky not to cause a retirement. The new relatively lax rules regarding investigations meant that both drivers got away unpunished.
Perez managed to clear Kvyat, while his former teammate now at Renault lost a position to Alonso's McLaren.
Magnussen was last on the track thanks to replacing his punctured set of tyres – until Ricciardo came out of the pits a couple of laps down.
Vandoorne reported a lack of functioning dashboard, although McLaren assured him he was “doing well”. With 54 laps left, however, that wouldn't be an easy fact to maintain. Further forward, Hamilton was also having issues, in his case with a lack of grip.
Vandoorne had to pit to do the F1 equivalent of a system reboot, with both dashboard problems and a loss of power to combat. It seemed at least the power issue was solved. Again, this was followed by a complaint from Hamilton – this time that the tyres were overheating.
Palmer's Renault was having braking problems. Ericsson, suffering with a lack of rear downforce after his impact with Magnussen, passed him with ease.
Grosjean pitted on lap 14, retiring with a smoking engine. Palmer's brake problem was getting worse, causing a spin at turn 13 on his 15th lap.
Hamilton was the first to blink at the front, stopping on lap 17 for his mandatory stop, swapping the ultras for the softs. He rejoined 5th, behind the lapped Giovinazzi. Palmer also came into the pits, looking like a retirement as about half the teams pulled a car in at the same time.
Perez muscled his way past Sainz but clipped the Toro Rosso's front wing as he did so.
Hamilton was being told to pass Verstappen for the win, but the triple champion was less than confident he could do it. Meanwhile, despite traffic Vettel still wasn't pitting.
Ericsson, having been lapped by the top 5 cars, had to park his ailing Sauber.
As soon as the gap to Hamilton was over 22 seconds, Vettel pitted. He dropped behind Bottas and Raikkonen but held position over Verstappen and, critically, Hamilton.
Bottas and Verstappen both pitted on lap 25, while Hamilton reported the soft tyres had no grip left. Verstappen switched to supers while Bottas followed Hamilton and Vettel to softs.
Raikkonen pitted on lap 26, rejoining 4th behind Bottas on the same strategy as the cars ahead.
Ricciardo ended up parked in the runoff at turn 4 just shy of half distance, his Red Bull's Renault engine deciding not to run any further. In theory this left the Australian with only 3 engines for 19 races.
Stroll was the next to retire, making about 75% distance before the car broke.
Once again Hamilton was unhappy with the car, now reporting an intermittent loss of power. Behind him, Bottas was closing steadily.
Magnussen parked his Haas, ending the day early for the American team with suspension failure. Meanwhile Kvyat was in the pits with only 8 laps left, to refill the penumatic system.
Ocon took 10th from Alonso, Hulkenberg scything through for 11th and just barely holding on as Alonso retaliated. Alonso then reported his car was pulling to the left. The McLaren then became the 7th retirement of the race.
Vettel took a steady win from Hamilton, Bottas, Raikkonen, Verstappen, Massa, Perez, Sainz, Kvyat and Ocon. Beyond the points were Hulkenberg, Giovinazzi and Vandoorne. Alonso, Magnussen, Stroll, Ricciardo, Ericsson, Palmer and Grosjean failed to finish.
Ferrari's 225th win on Vandoorne's 25th birthday signalled the possibility for a 2-team fight for both titles. Ominously for a lot of the field, only the top 6 cars were on the lead lap at the end.