There’s always a flood of gossip, speculation and predictions on the first working day of the F1 season. As always, there were a few things said, controversies underplayed and expectations kept real by teams who wanted to disguise their form (Merc & Ferrari).
Landing in Melbourne is never the toughest scenario for me, since this is no new city and usually ends up me reminiscing my old days in University here. However, this year in my third season, this weekend is all about my outing with the red pass. The Red Pass- Well for most scribes in an F1 press room, the red pass stands for permanent accreditation, access to the whole season, and most of us slog to get it. Once you have got it, the pass is a symbol of respect, official bragging rights to be a part of the F1 fraternity, and better access overall (Yes, it involves walking to the starting grid and back, as opposed to sole back of the garage access). To some this process from a race to race accreditation to a permanent pass takes years, some of us however have been lucky to make it to a red in out third or fourth seasons. So the first race weekend will be about the red pass and my own ‘red season’.
Will it be a red-season on the grid too?
Coming to the gossip in the paddock, there were interesting bits that carried on from the off-season to Australia and some from the pre-season tests. Talking of the pecking order, the whole grid is clueless, but the front three are clear where they stand, but have been playing mind-games with each other and us. As far as Ferrari goes, surprising only one of their drivers was allowed to speak at the Press Conference today which was Sebastian, and Kimi and their reserve Antonio Giovanazzi almost seemed like they were issued a gag order. Antonio being my younger siblings ex-teammate was nowhere to be seen, and even Italian press was warded off from the scarlet outfits hospitality. Adding to it, Sebastian was very diplomatic about the form of the car and the expectations, which Lewis tried to downplay saying that the red squad might be the fan favourites this year. Lewis also added that he hadn’t seen any upgrades brought to the second test in Barcelona, which he expected would be unveiled in Australia.
Have the Silvers started shooting their Arrows?
The new environment at Mercedes, includes a new Technical Director, James Allison and a new driver Valterri. How that package is working with Lewis? He said its perfect so far in the FIA press conference. However, the question is not about whether he is comfortable with Valterri, the question is whether Lewis had a say in not having a junior Mercedes driver challenge him. A source close to the German team mentioned that Pascal Wehrlein was quick in the Pirelli test post the Abu Dhabi GP (when Lewis called in sick, after he lost the championship), and was being considered for a potential drive for 2017. However, when the idea was float to Lewis, the triple champion shot it down, with the fear of an Alonso Vs Lewis chapter repeating itself in history. His insecurities lay in the fact that Pascal would be the pampered team protege like he was in McLaren, which would place him in Alonso’s spot in the 2008 fiasco. Therefore, Pascal had to be pushed to Sauber, where there was a vacant seat after an uncertain Felipe Nasr departed the team.
On the other hand, the story of the other Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon securing the Force India seat is an interesting one. How did Force India turn pink? Well the common answer is the Austrian spring water manufacturer BWT, made them adopt the pink. However, an Austrian brand which sponsored a DTM Mercedes car making its way to a Silverstone based team looking for funding/sponsors, has only one factor in common- Esteban Ocon and his handler Toto Wolff. The big Wolff of the paddock has been a former DTM racer himself and fished Pascal from that grid. For Esteban, the Mercedes boss is supposed to have negotiated the deal with Force India with BWT being a part of the package (a driver + sponsor package). So Ocon has had a hand in turning the beloved tricolour team to pink. With all due to the hard working personnel at Silverstone, the team finally has a decent sponsor to bring several upgrades in this season, with aero development playing a big role in the progression of the cars. Where they stand in the pecking order? It might be a tight three-way battle between them, Wiilliams and Renault. For now one cannot predict with precision and certainty until the free-practice sessions conclude tomorrow, where we’ll get the first bits of data from the qualifying simulations and race simulations done by the teams . However what we do know is that when Force India arrived at the Barcelona pre-season tests, they had a car that was 50 kilos heavier than expected.
That Charlie Whiting briefing
With the new owners, new rules, we had a long briefing with the Race Director about the Verstappen rule / under-braking rule being thrown out of the window, the new standing wet-starts, and the other changes and the controversy surrounding Mercedes’ oil burn. The Verstappen rule has been removed to allow more overtaking until the next riot and arguments on the grid. New standing starts in the wet conditions mean, when the safety car comes into the pit-lane in rainy weather, the drivers will re-assemble on the grid for the ‘lights-out’ start. Most in the paddock have welcomed this move in the paddock, as it will be disadvantageous to the Mercs if they have an impossible lead, or any strong team at an advantageous position in wet conditions. Red Bull complained pre-Australia about Mercedes burning oil as fuel in the car, to which the FIA clarifies that it is illegal but no action will be taken.
Overall, it was a day of settling into the paddock for teams, us and the drivers. Heading into tomorrow, all I can say is one will have a better idea by the end of the day where things stand.