Formula One is back. After another close season rich in off-track intrigue and discussion, world motorsport’s elite series raced again in the Australian Grand Prix.
It was Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel who moved from third on the grid to take the chequered flag in Melbourne’s Albert Park for the second season in a row, with a smartly taken pitstop under the Virtual Safety Car proving decisive.
Mercedes party postponed
For most of the weekend, it looked like world champion Lewis Hamilton had clicked straight back into the groove carved through a succession of victories in late 2017. The 33-year-old’s Mercedes looked in fine fettle, blasting away to a dazzling pole on Saturday in a record-setting final lap that led to some speculation around the ‘party mode’ in his team’s peerless power trains. Team principal Toto Wolff confirmed that an enhanced set-up was enabled for Q3, but stopped short of accepting it had been decisive.
In the race in Melbourne, Hamilton was well set for a 63rd career Grand Prix win before a remarkable sequence of mishaps conspired against him. The first - and second - of these concerned the much talked-about Haas F1 team, whose improved performance had been one of the bigger stories of pre-season testing. The American outfit had put in one of their best qualifying performances to date and both Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were running fourth and fifth when a pair of bungled pitstops not only put them out of the race but changed the course of events at the front.
The two drivers both had wheel nuts installed cross-threaded on their cars, leading to retirements soon after each had left the pits and the introduction of the Virtual Safety Car. Vettel pitted, at which point Mercedes’ data had suggested that Hamilton - who had stopped a few laps earlier - would build up a comfortable lead. That, it transpired, was not correct - a software glitch would later be blamed for miscalculating how hard Hamilton had needed to push after Vettel emerged from the pits in front.
An error in Mercedes' data analysis software cost Lewis Hamilton the chance to push for Australian Grand Prix victory
Hamilton said he would “definitely” have preferred to trust his racer’s instinct over the programme’s instructions not to push the lead. The Briton had said on Saturday that he was delighted to see his pole lap “wipe the smile” from Vettel’s face as the two exchanged words; on Sunday, he was left to reflect and reiterate that Mercedes were not “going to run away easy with 20 victories or whatever”.
Haas, meanwhile, have said their pit crews will be putting in more practice hours ahead of the year’s second Grand Prix in Bahrain.
Lastname apologises for broadcast errors
With the multi-market launch of the F1 TV OTT platform put off until later in the season as tests continued in Australia to iron out any last-minute imperfections, viewers in the US were left to dwell instead on a few bugs in their traditional viewing experience.
Pay-TV giant ESPN - which stepped in as the championship’s American broadcast partner last year after NBC bowed out on hearing of plans for F1 TV - endured a difficult return to air. Coverage froze for several minutes prior to the race before the channel erroneously cut to another programme, while sound problems plagued its handling of the feed it had taken from Sky Sports and commercial breaks interrupted key moments like race restarts and the retirements of the two Haas drivers.
After the race, ESPN issued the following statement:
‘We deeply apologize to Formula 1 fans for the technical issues that caused them to miss the first 20 minutes of the pre-race show for the Australian Grand Prix. We are sorry that our first F1 telecast did not go as smoothly as we would have liked but we are taking steps to prevent those same issues from occurring in the future. We thank the fans for watching and for their incredible passion for Formula 1.’
Elsewhere, a minor gremlin in the world feed caused brief amusement online as the TV graphics software failed to add the names of Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton to a display of split times – instead giving Lastname a seven-second lead over Lastname.
After McLaren and Fernando Alonso's eventful 2017 season became the subject of an Amazon documentary series, Formula One has signed an original programming deal with rival streaming service Netflix
McLaren were delighted to be back on the board in Australia, with Fernando Alonso in fifth and Stoffel Vandoorne - who finished two laps down in the same race last year - in ninth. It was a performance that hinted at better things to come this season but the team’s faintly disastrous 2017 has already been captured for posterity.
Earlier this year Amazon Prime Video launched Grand Prix Driver, a documentary series narrated by actor Michael Douglad and following the Woking-based group’s tumultuous campaign from very close quarters. The programme has clearly been the source of some inspiration for rival streaming service Netflix, which has now completed its own deal with Formula One itself.
A ten-episode series, as yet untitled, is being produced throughout the year by Paul Martin and Academy Award winner James Gay Rees, who is renowned for putting together 2010 documentary Senna about the life and death of Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna. The agreement will give Netflix exclusive access to drivers, team principals and owners, as well as Formula One’s management team. Viewers will be treated to behind-the-scenes coverage inside the cockpits and the paddock, following the lives of the key influencers in the sport.
Original programming is a major battleground between the rival streaming services and sport has become a new frontier in recent months, with Netflix signing deals with the likes of Italian soccer club Juventus and Amazon committing to series following Spain's La Liga and runaway Premier League leaders Manchester City.
Force India have signed a one-season halo sponsorship deal with sandals brand Havaianas
The protective ‘halo’, which made its Grand Prix debut in Australia, has been one of Formula One’s more divisive innovations of recent seasons, but it has introduced another piece of marketing collateral along with additional safety.
Two teams have already made use of the additional space on their cars, both of them apparently struck by the same observation: that the halo really, really looks like a flip-flop. McLaren were the first to act on the similarity, signing a one-race deal with sandals brand Gandys for Melbourne. Force India, meanwhile, have gone further, tying up a season-long partnership with market leader Havaianas late last week.
It remains to be seen whether the trick will be repeated with a run through the entire open-toe catalogue, or whether other teams will try a different creative approach.
Sean Bratches will appear at the Black Book Motorsport Forum in London on 21st August
With a new brand identity and a new marketing campaign in place, and the much-vaunted OTT service to follow, this is very much the first campaign on which new owner Liberty Media will be properly judged.
Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director for commercial, will make a keynote appearance at the Black Book Motorsport Forum in London on 21st August. Before then, however, you can read his comments on the evolution of the series’ commercial team, sponsorship and broadcast strategy, and the need for a more competitive grid in his latest interview with SportsPro, conducted on the eve of the new season.