Pre-race favourite Lewis Hamilton strolled into Albert Park with a purposeful air on Thursday to begin his final preparations for Sunday’s keenly-awaited season-opening 2017 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
The three-time world champion, who finished second behind his now-retired Mercedes team-mate German Nico Rosberg in last year’s title race, has been strong again in pre-season testing – but not with quite the same swagger as in previous years.
In the build-up to the start of a new technical era with ‘fatter and faster’ cars, more aerodynamic down-force and wider and grippier tyres, his Mercedes team have been fast and reliable, but with Ferrari close behind in hot pursuit.
New team-mate Finn Valtteri Bottas, who delivered speed and promise in testing at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain, is yet to win a race, but may well be in the hunt when the 33rd Australian Grand Prix, and 22nd at Albert Park, begins.
Both Mercedes men, chased by the Italian scuderia’s four-time champion German Sebastian Vettel and Finn Valtteri Bottas, are expected to run at the front and set the pace as practice begins on Friday ahead of Sunday’s 53 laps of the 5.303-kms circuit.
Australian Daniel Ricciardo and his Red Bull team-mate Dutchman Max Verstappen should also be in the hunt, but after only eighth days’ testing it has been difficult to assess true potential ahead of the first contest.
Much higher cornering speeds will supply more thrilling action for the fans, test the physical durability of the drivers and threaten the Albert Park lap record held by seven-time champion Michael Schumacher.
Schumacher, in a Ferrari, clocked one minute and 24.125 seconds in the 2004 race – a time that compares with last year’s fastest race lap from Ricciardo in 1:28.997 – while fellow-German four-time champion Sebastian Vettel clocked 1:23.529 for the fastest pole with Red Bull in 2011.
Lap times are expected to drop by around four seconds, and possibly more, once the action begins, but it may not, alas, mean more overtaking.
“The feedback from my engineers says it could be harder to overtake,” said Hamilton. “The dirty air is far more powerful and far more turbulent than it has been in the past, but that’s where the extra tyre-grip will help.”
As to new team-mate Bottas, Hamilton was happy to welcome him to the champion team where, in other changes, technical director Paddy Lowe has left to be replaced by fellow-Briton James Allison, formerly of Ferrari.
“Valtteri has settled in comfortably in a short space of time,” he said. “He’s in a great frame of mind and he has a lot of positive energy. I can’t say how much of a threat he’ll be yet, but when he sees me at my most intense and I see him at his, that’s when we’ll discover the most about each other.
“I want him to be the best he can be.”
Hamilton knows he needs a robust Bottas to push him and the team as they repel the threat of Ferrari and Red Bull while keeping a wary eye on the rest in a field that features four past Melbourne winners.
Of those, Hamilton (2008 and 2015), Raikkonen (2007 and 2013) and Vettel (2011) will harbour hopes of adding another triumph while the seemingly luckless two-time champion Fernando Alonso (2006) has already written off his hopes.
The Spaniard’s McLaren Honda team struggled through a disappointing pre-season with a series of engine problems and Alonso predicting that they face a “very challenging weekend” in Melbourne where, last year, he crashed out. His new team-mate Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne will be making his Australian bow.
While Bottas debuts for Mercedes, his former team Williams introduce Canadian Lance Stroll, only 18, for his maiden race as the sport’s second-youngest starter after Verstappen.
He is partnered by back-from-retirement Brazilian, Felipe Massa, who will be 36 in April, in a Williams outfit that has recruited Lowe as technical chief from champions Mercedes.
Williams are likely to be in a hotly-contested midfield scrap with Renault, Toro Rosso and Force India, boasting new pink livery, who have recruited young Frenchman Esteban Ocon to replace German Nico Hulkenberg, who has moved to Renault to help the French team’s long-awaited resurgence.
Haas, in their second season, have signed Dane Kevin Magnussen to partner Frenchman Romain Grosjean while Toro Rosso remain unchanged from last season, following Russian Daniil Kvyat’s mid-season switch to partner Spaniard Carlos Sainz.
Following the collapse of Manor, there are only 10 teams on the grid with the Ferrari-powered Swiss Sauber outfit completing the field, German prodigy Pascal Wehrlein joining to partner Swede Marcus Ericsson.