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FORMULA ONE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD

Frankie might have gone there first, but with Liberty Media’s takeover of Formula One, the sport is heading towards Hollywood as well. Driven takes a look at the seismic shift that will shape F1’s future – and we’re not referencing Ferrari’s sensational win Down Under.

All revolutions involve change.

But not all change signifies a revolution.

In Formula One, for instance, it is very difficult to topple the old guard, regulatory changes notwithstanding. Since 1974, the constructors’ championship had virtually been monopolised by McLaren, Williams, Ferrari, Red Bull, and Mercedes.

Renault, Lotus, Benetton, and Brawn all had sneak peeks, yes. But the latter three are history, while McLaren and Williams have been relegated to second tier teams, even if Williams might be on the cusp of a renaissance, having prized technical wizard Paddy Lowe off Merc.

Lowe was instrumental in developing the Brackley outfit’s so-called ‘trick suspension’, utilising hydraulics and a heave spring to create a consistently stable aerodynamic platform to promote cornering speeds with little tyre degradation. Red Bull, in turn, used heave springs to drop the rear of their heavily raked cars on straights, flattening out the wing for less drag and more speed.

Since Ferrari’s enquiry early in 2017 as to the legality of these systems, both Merc and Red Bull have dropped them. Not that they were banned, but the FIA’s technical chief, Charlie Whiting, warned that cars could be excluded by stewards if post-race protests were lodged.

Along then, rolled the Australian GP and guess who, in relative terms, gained and lost the most?

FERRARI WINS AGAIN

Yep. Those red cars for the gain. Ferrari. Maranello. The Prancing Horse. The Scuderia. Seb. Call it what you want, but even Lewis Hamilton seemed to appreciate the fact that Vettel’s victory has breathed new life into F1, at last.

Mercedes, on the other hand, must be extremely worried by Hamilton’s tyre wear during the opening stint, running in clean air.

Was it all down to the loss of heave springs?

Of course not. In pursuit of a five-second per lap improvement, Formula One has thrown a whole new rulebook at teams. Regulatory changes specify wider front wings, fatter tyres and more powerful diffusers to promote cornering grip and apex speeds, while rear wings have been lowered quite dramatically to create a longer, sleeker, faster-looking race car silhouette.

Drivers indeed use about 10% more full throttle and lap times have tumbled, although by only half of the initial target in Oz, even though pre-season testing in Barcelona suggested a drop of 5 seconds, lower V-max (because of heavier cars with more drag) notwithstanding.

A potential shift in race tactics brought about by Pirelli’s longer-lasting tyres is also the overcut, instead of the undercut. Tyre degradation used to be so quick and thorough that a fresh set of rubber provided enough extra speed to catapult past cars staying out for too long.

With 2017’s longer-lasting rubber Vettel rather used the overcut in Oz, especially as Hamilton got stuck behind Verstappen after the Merc re-joined.

Disappointment then, for Lewis – but nowhere near the level of Daniel Ricciardo’s, who spun his Red Bull in quali, hit the barriers and lost a gearbox, the replacement of which incurred a five-place grid penalty, only for Ricci’s re-built Bull to roll to a standstill on the warm-up lap, a fate which then befell him in the race as well.

Evil wizardry then, fouling the local boy, Down Under, with the onus now on the team’s aero wizard, Adrian Newey, to lift the solid but fairly basic design of the RB13 to new Newey heights.

The team’s TAG Heuer-branded Renault V6 engine is also down on power, if not as far Down Under as McLaren’s Honda unit, which is in danger of drowning in the stormy waters of uselessness.

Over at Brackley, Merc had the good fortune to replace Lowe with the highly rated James Allison, who – just last year – was partly responsible for the SF70H which catapulted Vettel to victory in Oz.

Teammate Räikkönen, though, failed to find the car’s sweet spot like he did during pre-season testing in Barcelona.

WHO WILL WIN?

Three great teams, then, trying to extend the tally of nine constructors’ titles between them, over the last ten campaigns; which one will it be?

Ah! That’s exactly why F1 went racing in Melbourne a few days ago, and finally we had a battle at the sharp end of the field as well.

All is not milk and honey, though. Every single driver found it harder to pass others. Melbourne has never been conducive to overtaking, and if testing (at different times of the day, with differing fuel loads, tyre compounds, track temperatures, etcetera) is difficult to read, F1’s traditional curtain raiser on the bumpy, low-grip, stop/start Albert Park layout does little to clarify.

Ferrari was poised to win there last year as well until bad strategy intervened. The Scuderia never looked like winning again, for the rest of the season.

Even the next three races (China, Bahrain and Russia) might be difficult to interpret.

Better to wait, then, until F1’s return to Europe (Spain, on May 14) when the first salvos of 2017’s vast development programmes will be fired from home bases close by.

Are we, in broad strokes at least, on the eve of a revolution?

Yes, but not necessarily, because Merc might be toppled. For there has already been a seismic shift in F1, with new owners Liberty Media ousting Bernie Ecclestone to replace the sport’s long-serving supremo with 21st Century Fox vice-chairman Chase Carey, technical guru Ross Brawn and commercial chief Sean Bratches.

Carey wants 25 instead of 20 races per year, with Grands Prix in places like Miami, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

Being a Yank serving a huge mass media corporation with tentacles in Hollywood, Carey would certainly also insist on bigger shows, more overtaking and real razzmatazz.

Change is in the air, then. A new F1 future has just been launched, and it might be of revolutionary proportions.

And I’m not referring to Maranello’s stunning win in Melbourne…

Report by EGMONT SIPPEL | Images © MERCEDES-AMG/FERRARI/RED BULL RACING

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