Joe feels that 2017 has all the ingredients of a vintage year.
What makes a fine wine? It’s a combination of different things – including the weather – the earth, the care of the winemaker, and so on and so forth. It’s pretty much the same thing with Formula 1. Most years, the product is drinkable and enjoyable. Some races are better than others, but it’s rare that there’s nothing interesting at all.
Formula 1 history is based largely on cycles – a team builds up what’s required to win and then, if all goes well, it wins. The others respond, build up what they need to win and get back ahead. The loser then builds up again, and the whole process is repeated. Sometimes the winners, who are knocked from the top, sink further and struggle to get back. Sometimes a new team will rise up from nowhere. A few years back, we thought that we would be stuck forever in a situation with Williams, McLaren, Renault and Ferrari winning forever, but today the winning teams are a different lot – apart from Ferrari of course, which has an unfair advantage in that it gets far more money from the sport than all of its rivals.
Formula 1 is at its best when these different winning and losing cycles collide and we end up with a classic season with two or more teams fighting for victory. We lost that somewhat when the rules changed and the previously dominant Red Bull Racing dropped back behind a dominant Mercedes. Mercedes domination was never dull however, because the team had two drivers capable of winning and fighting one another. The rest did their best to catch up, but Mercedes had it all under control. Until this year…
The pain of failure and the fear of ridicule led to a revolution at Ferrari. The team has ceased to communicate much with the media, which seems to be a deliberate strategy rather than incompetence (although one is not entirely sure). When the team wins, a statement from the chairman is rushed out and most of the media, fed up with being treated like mushrooms, ignores it. Formula 1 is a communication business and if a team doesn’t communicate, it’s failing – even if it’s winning on the track. Clearly, the team needs better thinking in its strategy. One day, soon enough, Ferrari will need friends and, right now, it has none. But, it is winning and that’s a good thing for the sport – even if access to the people responsible is blocked.
Still, there is a question this year as to which is the faster car – the Mercedes or the Ferrari, which is what makes it interesting. After three races we’ve seen the Ferrari win in Australia and Bahrain, while the Mercedes won in China. It’s clear that the two cars – one in the hands of Lewis Hamilton and the other in the hands of Sebastian Vettel – are very finely balanced. In qualifying, it’s clear that the Mercedes is the quicker car, but in the races it’s been much more difficult to judge. It depends on the tyres, the strategies and the things that go wrong. And the races can go either way, as we’ve seen.
The question itself is a bit misleading, because there are two kinds of fast – fast in qualifying and fast in the race. And they are different things. The Mercedes is better in qualifying. It has an extra boost of horsepower and this gives the team a few tenths over Ferrari, but there’s no question that the Mercedes is a more difficult car to drive. It’s more extreme and closer to the edge. The Ferrari is easier to drive. It’s more forgiving, but not as fast. Over a long stint, however, the Ferrari is better. And it’s gentler on its tyres. So, the Mercedes is the faster car, but you can win more easily with the Ferrari. And that means that the races are going to be great this year because, while Mercedes may be on pole more often, the Ferraris will always be looking for ways to get ahead in the races. For the moment, it looks like a two-horse race because Valtteri Bottas is still learning and isn’t able to match Lewis Hamilton – except over the occasional blistering qualifying lap, while the ageing Kimi Raikkonen seems to be in a curious place in which he never looks like a threat to Sebastian Vettel and yet is still capable of pulling out a fastest lap in a race when you don’t expect it. He looks like a man on a glide path to retirement, but Ferrari are not too bothered as long as he keeps bringing in points – because having two drivers fighting to be the number one in a team is difficult to manage. Ferrari has generally not bothered, giving one driver the number one status and making the other obey the rules. It’s easier that way, but it’s not as good for the fans – as we saw in the Michael Schumacher era, where he beat lots of records but a lot of people turned off the sport because the results were too predictable.
For the moment, we can only hope for two teams to win. Red Bull does not have the engine it needs – Renault is still being rebuilt after its disastrous era as Lotus – while McLaren is troubled by its Honda engines. The customer teams cannot hope to win, because if you cannot design your engine to integrate with your chassis, you start out with a disadvantage.
Still, the sport is in a pretty healthy state, with new owners who want to build it up, with a new feeling of purpose and a willingness to accept new ideas and to try new things. All these things will make F1 more popular again…
Joe Saward has been covering Formula 1 full-time for 29 years. He has not missed a race since 1988.