When China made its debut back in 2004, the atmosphere generated by more than 100,000 people in the grandstands had a distinctly red tinge. Ferrari triumphed. But it wasn’t down to Michael Schumacher (who would go on to win his fifth consecutive title with Ferrari that year, and his seventh in total). Instead it was his team mate Rubens Barrichello on the top step of the podium. Ferrari ended up winning in China three more times: in 2006 Schumacher triumphed again, in 2007 it was Raikkonen and in 2013 Alonso. Now we have the prospect of a competitive Ferrari once more after Sebastian Vettel won the season-opener in Melbourne. And so, expectation is at its maximum. But it’s not just Ferrari contributing to the excitement. That’s also down to a Formula 1® that has gone back to being extremely hard-fought and muscular, requiring maximum grit from drivers and teams. The current Formula 1® specification provides lap times that are around three seconds faster than last year. This is due to a technical and sporting revolution, with aerodynamic downforce that has increased by between 20% and 30% compared to last year as well as wider Pirelli tyres. These enlarged dimensions are important: the 25% wider tyre is just the tip of an iceberg that embraces a whole new design philosophy, with new compounds that provide more speed. Thanks to this new way of thinking the drivers can finally be more aggressive on track. They can attack more; abandoning themselves to their instincts and adopting a more combative and robust driving style that spectators love.
The change was clear from the start in Melbourne, which hosted the opening round of this year’s championship on March 26. Friday’s first practice session resulted in times that were in excess of five seconds faster than the equivalent session in 2016. In qualifying on Saturday, the times had tumbled by 1.7 seconds. The fastest lap of the race on Sunday was nearly two seconds quicker than last year. Conclusion: mission accomplished. The target letter given to Pirelli by the teams and governing body stated an objective of lap times five seconds faster than 2015; the chosen reference point when this year’s technical revolution was first planned. In 2016, lap times were already around two seconds faster than they had been the previous year. Which was again a sign that the target was being reached. And don’t forget that this year the championship has only just started. During previous years featuring a big shift in technical rules, historically we have seen considerable in-season improvement with the cars, almost on a race by race basis. What we’re witnessing now is just the very start: stand by for a thrilling championship in which the tyres will play a key role. The sporting side of this analysis is even more interesting. The 5451 metres of the Shanghai circuit are made up of a series of straights, which lead to very high top speeds, linked by a succession of quite different corners. Together, these provide a huge technical challenge. And it’s precisely in corners that the 2017 incarnation of Formula 1® has provided the biggest increase in speed. The drivers know that they can take corners faster and brake later thanks to increased downforce and quicker tyres.
This year’s Pirelli rubber is designed to provide greater consistency and be more durable, allowing drivers to concentrate on the one thing they do best: pushing hard, attacking, braking as late as possible, and getting the power down as soon as they can. This was seen in Australia thanks to the softest selection of tyres ever brought to that race: purple ultrasoft, red supersoft, and yellow soft. In China, a slightly harder selection of tyres has been brought: supersoft, soft and medium. While the range of tyres used in Australia meant that Ferrari found itself in the sweet spot, the tyre nomination for Shanghai might mean that there is a different balance of technical power. But one thing is sure: everything is in place for an extremely rapid Chinese Grand Prix. And a championship that is set to be extraordinarily competitive.
This brings us right up to where we find ourselves now. Not everyone predicted it, but the undisputed rulers of the first weekend of this year’s championship were Ferrari: the team that had not won a grand prix since Singapore in September 2015. Back then, Ferrari’s superiority again came down to the ability to make the most of the Pirelli tyres nominated for the race. In Melbourne, it was the same thing. Sebastian Vettel and his Ferrari were flying on the new wider P Zero compounds, which were able to deliver the very best of their performance all weekend. And so, the battle with Mercedes got underway, auguring a season that will bring us yet more amazing days of speed and emotion. Because few teams do emotion quite like Ferrari. When the red team returns to its winning ways, the sport as a whole benefits. And red, as we all know, is one of Pirelli’s traditional colours too...