It’s almost show time for the greatest travelling circus on earth.
The opening round of the 2017 Formula One season is days away. The cars, equipment and personnel are heading to, or have already touched down, in Melbourne. Over 700 tonnes of air freight and 200 tonnes of sea freight arrives at Albert Park today and the teams begin setting up their garages and compounds ahead of the 2017 Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
Thousands of hours of design and engineering have gone into the new-generation Formula One cars for 2017, followed by eight days testing at Catalunya.
Thousands of interviews have been conducted since the end of last season and countless stories written about what we may expect this year from cars with greater mechanical grip and more downforce. Some are optimistic; others less so. The cars will be faster, and hopefully harder to drive. Worryingly, overtaking will more difficult.
What the sport doesn’t need is another season of a supreme Mercedes-Benz tossing mere crumbs to Red Bull and Ferrari.
Testing certainly suggested that Ferrari has fundamental pace, with Mercedes F1 director Niki Lauda even suggesting that Ferrari is the fastest team on the F1 grid, based on eight days at Catalunya.
While Mercedes is chasing a fourth consecutive Constructors’ Championship having decimated the opposition by nearly 300 points last season, Lauda is anticipating a strong challenge from the Italian team.
"The Ferrari looks the fastest," Lauda told Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport. "It is like it's on rails.
"Our Mercedes is a little tighter in the corners. Ferrari is at the top of my list.”
Maybe though Mercedes was sandbagging, or running conservative engine mapping.
Mercedes has also confirmed it will use its latest-spec engine in Melbourne, despite some stories that it had a potential reliability concerns with the crankshaft. Force India and Williams will also run the upgraded power unit.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen told a Dutch newspaper “that personally, I don’t think we can fight for the win at the first race”.
He believes Ferrari’s improved testing pace was genuine – good enough to fight for wins - but that maybe Mercedes was not showing its true potential.
Daniel Ricciardo also warns not to expect too much from the Bulls in Melbourne but that improvements will flow later.
“It’s always good to be back on home soil and enjoy a bit of sunshine after winter testing,” added the Aussie.
“My home race is awesome in so many ways but it’s also super busy and full on, the week for me starts on Monday and doesn’t stop until Sunday night. It’s nice that there’s so much media attention at the start of the season and everyone is super excited to see how I go. I try and attend as many events as I can but I’m still there to do a job.”
What we can salivate over though is the prospect of some fiery clashes between Ricciardo and Verstappen, arguably THE quality combo of the 20-driver grid.
There is plenty of interest too in how Lewis Hamilton will deal with the arrival of Valtteri Bottas. No doubt Hamilton expects to be quicker.
The Finn admits he needs to get on terms with the Briton straight out of the box: "From the first race I have to be right there, even if I know that my learning curve is steep.
"Lewis is a real benchmark. For me, it will be interesting to see how he sets up the car and how his driving style works.
"I'm watching a triple world champion at work so to not use that opportunity would be stupid."
Oh, and F1 this year is a Bernie-free zone, the tough old autocrat having been eased out of any position of influence by the sport’s new owner Liberty, the US media giant promising to bring new excitement to grand prix racing.
Rather than moving forward this year, the McLaren Honda partnership seems at breaking point after disastrous testing results which highlighted a serious absence of pace and reliability when there were serious expectations that the union would move forward and give one of the best drivers on the grid, Fernando Alonso, a crack at winning again.
But no. McLaren instead was demoralised to discover promises unfulfilled, the team’s cars covering less than one third of the laps managed by the defending champion team, Mercedes. And not at a great speed either.
The new Honda power unit is reckoned to be 120 horsepower below the pacesetting Mercs. Respected publication Autosport, also reported that severe vibrations triggered electrical failures, and that vibrations detonated the engine at low revs.
The best the McLaren’s managed at the tests was about three seconds adrift of the fastest, meaning that it faces the ignominy of fighting to stay out of last place.
Honda won’t entertain any thoughts of a crisis in the partnership nor will it concede it has challenging engine issues.
McLaren, which is taking a big hit commercially due to its lack of success since 2013, is said to be frustrated by Honda’s capacity to react swiftly to issues, and by its unwillingness to bring flexibility into the culture.
Whilst the current contract between McLaren and Honda is a lengthy one – 10 years – and both parties have been respectful at least publicly, the relationship has reached snapping point.
No one seems to doubt the reports that McLaren has been in discussions with Mercedes for an engine supply agreement. It has been down this track before. Remember that at the end of 2014 McLaren dumped Mercedes for Honda…
Fernando Alonso has also demanded improvements, the implied threat being he will take a walk at the end of 2017, when his contract expires.
Another recent development was the announcement that Adelaide intends to try to get back the Australian F1 race from Melbourne. It ain’t gonna happen. The Adelaide City Council is the source of this silliness. It lacks the clout and the money to make it happen, and the SA State Government, struggling to keep the lights on there, has laughed away the idea.
Adelaide hosted the F1 grand prix from 1985 through to 1995, after which it went to Victoria, which agreed to pay more for the rights.
The current deal with the Victorian Government runs to 2023.
Bates (Harry that is) creates history in ARC opener
Youngest winner of an Australian rally Championship round
Toyota S2000 driver Harry Bates has created a slice of history, becoming the youngest driver to win a round of the Australian Rally Championship, taking out the very hot and dusty opening round of the 2017 national series, the Eureka Rally based around Ballarat.
Bates was 22 years and 10 days when he took the win.
It was the first ARC round victory for Bates, the son of four-times Australian rally champ Neal.
His was a triumph soured somewhat by the fate befalling young brother Lewis, whose own Toyota caught fire and was burnt to a crisp early in the rally. Lewis, the youngest son in the rallying family, drifted wide on a corner and was stuck on an earth hump, where the dry grass caught fire from the hot exhaust. It was the 2003 Corolla in which that Harry began his own rallying career.
Harry Bates snatched the win in Saturday’s Heat One on the day’s last stage from runner-up Nathan Quinn, the final margin being 14.8 seconds. Eli Evans was third in a Peugeot 208 Maxi.
Quinn held sway over Bates until lunch, but honours were shared across the first four stages in the afternoon – two wins apiece.
Saturday’s final stage was the cruncher, with Quinn suffering a mechanical problem that slowed his Mitsubishi Lancer Evo. He could only finish seventh in the stage, handing Bates the Heat One win.
Sunday’s Heat Two was a different story, with Evans and the Peugeot winning a tight one from Quinn by 6.5 seconds, with Bates a close third, ahead of the fired up Taylor, still struggling with dust but with her Subaru right on song again.
The third was enough to give Bates the overall Eureka Rally round win – and the championship lead.
Even the family bonfire couldn’t spoil the victory celebrations.
“We did it! My first Australian Rally Championship round win!” a delighted Bates posted on Facebook. “Thank you to John [McCarthy] for doing a perfect [co-driving] job all weekend, and to the best team around for preparing an unbelievable car. The feeling in the Corolla S2000 was amazing from SS1.”
Reigning Australian Champion Molly Taylor had a tough start to her title defence, battling a differential drama with her Subaru to finish seventh on Saturday, followed by a fourth overall on Sunday.
Star-packed GT field for Albert Park
Capelli to strut his stuff in front of old F1 confreres
Former Formula One star Ivan Capelli is among a bunch of internationals joining the GT championship pack for round two of the series on the Australian Grand Prix support card next weekend at Albert Park.
A quality 30-car field across seven of the world's leading brands including Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes will take to the 5.3-kilometre circuit with the F1 Formula 1 regulars looking on.
Ex-Ferrari star Capelli will add to the flavour and interest driving the Pirelli/Trofeo Motorsport Lamborghini Huracan GT3 alongside Jim Manolios.
Capelli never raced at Albert Park during his F1 career, having retired from grand prix racing in 1993.
Two more Lamborghini Huracans will also take to the circuit, with Adrian Deitz and Cam McConville set to debut the Timken Zagame Motorsport entry, and Andrew Macpherson to give the AMAC Motorsport car its first taste of race action.
Lamborghini will be represented by eight cars, the same number as Audi. Victorian racer Gary Higgon will make his Australian GT debut aboard the KFC Audi R8 LMS.
Audi has some strong pairings with Geoff Emery and Kelvin van der Linde again combining in the #74 Valvoline entry and stablemate James Koundouris, a winner at Albert Park in 2016, again joined by Ash Walsh in the Supabarn Supermarkets Audi R8 LMS.
Making his first Australian GT appearance since 2007, Dean Fiore will join Marc Cini in the Hallmarc Constructions Audi R8 while for the weekend Tim Miles will switch into the #75 Valvoline Audi R8 LMS in place of Steve McLaughlan.
Fresh from success in Adelaide, Championship leader Tony Bates will race solo aboard the Moveitnet/AFS Mercedes-AMG GT3 as part of a four-pronged assault from the German marque.
Mark Griffith will be joined by Jake Camilleri in the Hog's Breath Café/Griffith Corporation Mercedes entry while Scott Taylor Motorsport has again entered two GT3s.
Taylor and Craig Baird, winners last year, will share one STM Merc, Max Twigg piloting the other
There’s a change in co-driver for Fraser Ross, with the Tekno Autosports driver joined by McLaren factory star, Scotland’s Lewis Williamson.
Together, Ross and Williamson make a formidable pairing for Tekno Autosports, which last year claimed a race win courtesy of Nathan Morcom.
Twelve months ago McLaren took out the weekend thanks to Klark Quinn, with the Darrell Lea McLaren 650S GT3 this year set to be driven by Tony Quinn, while the Objective Racing entry will again be steered by street circuit expert Tony Walls.
Expanding its operation to two cars, BMW Team SRM earlier this week welcomed Danny Stuttered to the team.
Stuttered will take charge of the DJS Racing BMW M6 GT3 which will run alongside the sister car driven by Steve Richards and James Bergmuller.
The GT title weekend format has been tweaked from 2016, with the higher rated driver taking part in the opening qualifying session, with the second driver stepping into the car for the second 20-minute qualifying session.
The four 25-minute races follow the same pattern, with the higher rated driver set to compete in races one and three, and the team’s second driver in races two and four with no pit stops or time added post-race.
Teams electing to run a single driver will take part in all sessions.