x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The best is yet to come in thrilling Formula One season

Following the Australian Grand Prix, Gary Meenaghan looks at five aspects to look out for after a promising start to the season.

Lewis Hamilton checks out his McLaren car, left, and the Red Bull of Australian Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel on Sunday. Rob Griffith / AP Photo
Lewis Hamilton checks out his McLaren car, left, and the Red Bull of Australian Grand Prix winner Sebastian Vettel on Sunday. Rob Griffith / AP Photo

Vettel is still on top

Sebastian Vettel said he has not changed since he won the drivers' championship in Abu Dhabi in November, but last weekend we discovered that such claims are not entirely true. The German has matured remarkably.

He may continue to show his jocular side in the naming of his car Kinky Kylie, but his race-winning performance at Albert Park was as composed as a veteran's.

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Signs pointing ever upwards for Red Bull's Vettel
I'm sorry Hispania, but rules are rules

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Vettel, as he did at Yas Marina Circuit, converted pole position into a race win, but it was the equanimity he exuded over the team radio that was so striking. And ominous.

The 23-year-old driver repeatedly radioed motivational messages to his team as he cruised to a victory he later described merely as "cool".

"Yeah, there were no tears tonight," said Christian Horner, the Red Bull Racing team principal who also revealed Vettel has "an obsession with trophies". The German had earlier said he wanted to win the Australian Grand Prix because the prize had a kangaroo on it. On discovering there was no marsupial on the silver shield, he grinned before saying: "Well, in my mind, there's a kangaroo on it."

McLaren's renaissance

McLaren-Mercedes' late refurbishment of their 2011 car was riddled with risk, but on Sunday it proved a masterstroke that has injected pace and life into the team's championship challenge.

Lewis Hamilton conceded that only two weeks ago the team were "not expecting to be anywhere near the top five" at the opening race of the new season.

Yet after having a new floor and exhaust system fitted, the Englishman finished second at Albert Park and was soon confidently talking of a title fight. Despite Vettel finishing more than 22 seconds quicker, Hamilton said he had "no doubt" they would close the gap.

Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, in turn was equally as confident of catching the dominant Red Bulls. "If we make as much progress in the next 10 days as in the last 10, it will be easy, won't it?" he said jokingly.

Petrov's improvement

Questions were asked as to who would lead Renault on the track in the absence of the injured Robert Kubica: Nick Heidfeld - Kubica's replacement, without a win in a decade of F1 racing — or Vitaly Petrov, the Russian who came so close to losing his seat at the end of last year.

Now the answer is clear. Eric Boullier, Renault's team principal, has been working on improving Petrov's concentration and the Russian on Sunday remained calm to hold off the charge of Fernando Alonso to earn his first podium finish in 20 grands prix. He also outpaced Heidfeld all weekend.

With new aerodynamics expected to arrive before the team reconvenes in Malaysia and Petrov showing a new-found focus, Boullier is correct to be confident that his Renault team can continue challenging at the front.

Melbourne must stay

The local media seemed reluctant to afford much coverage to the Australian Grand Prix on a weekend when the Australian Football League (AFL) kicked off, but that does not indicate the level of motorsports interest on the street.

Organisers reported 298,000 spectators attended the four days of action at Albert Park last weekend. Stands were packed, complemented by grassy banks full of bodies and tents of revellers all out to watch Sebastian Vettel's dominant triumph.

Vettel did not put a foot wrong all weekend on the track, so it was not surprising to hear him hit the nail on the head once more in his post-race press conference.

"The atmosphere here is something special," he said. "It's nice to see so many people coming cheering for our sport. We don't always get that and we need to keep coming here."

No tyre dramas

The winter break was dominated by discussions regarding the new Pirelli tyres and, primarily, whether the quick degradation seen at testing in Spain would mean teams needing to perform up to four pit stops per race.

Such talk was dismissed by Paul Hembery, Pirelli's motorsports director, who said two or three stops would be more likely. He was proved correct, but such was Sergio Perez's delicacy with the rubber that the Sauber rookie managed a one-stop strategy en route to finishing seventh - a feat that left even Hembery scratching his head.

"We were all looking and saying 'He has to stop, surely'. We actually thought the numbers were wrong and we had missed a stop," Hembery said. "His driving style was a key factor, as well as his car. But I would be surprised if we see it again."

The Mexican was disqualified after the race for carrying an illegal wing, but his performance proved any talk of four stops - in Australia at least - was off the mark.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae