F1 Business Diary 2017: The Australian Grand Prix

Sebastien Vettel wins season opener and sets up a duel with Lewis Hamilton.

The past four Australian Grands Prix have created very similar race reviews: another dominant race win for Mercedes.

Following his peerless pole position Lewis Hamilton appeared to be on track to continue the trend, much to the chagrin of those who expected to see closer racing this year. However, Hamilton’s pre-race protestations that Sebastien Vettel’s Ferrari was the “quickest” car rang true. 

A botched pit stop put Hamilton back on the track behind Vettel and, crucially, the prodigious Max Verstappen. Unable to pass the Dutchman’s tight defence, the three-time world champion lost valuable time to Vettel who coasted into an unassailable lead. Mercedes – so often celebrating at Albert Park – were left incredulous as to their loss but Hamilton and team principal Toto Wolff talked of “immediate improvements”.     

Regardless, the result has Formula One fans salivating over a clash between the sport’s finest drivers. Hamilton and Vettel have dominated the past decade, sharing seven of the past nine world titles. Despite their respective eras of supremacy the duo have yet to duke it out on the track as equals – each man’s title-winning seasons have coincided with their contemporary’s period of car development. 

It seems certain that one of them will walk away with the 2018 title and perhaps the chance of overtaking the legendary Michael Schumacher’s tally of seven drivers’ world championship.

Formula One’s future is over the top 

Whilst all the talk in the close season has centred on making Formula One a more attractive proposition to the casual viewer, the newly appointed head of commercial operations, Sean Bratches, wants it to be seen in digital.

Following the race, Bratches, who had previously promised to “detonate the fan experience”, stressed that Formula One will continue to focus on digital products and opportunities. The global series will double down on its move towards pay-TV and over-the-top (OTT) platforms. 

Bratches said: “We are in the process right now of reimagining our entire portfolio of digital assets from web, apps, to social, to OTT – and we really look at that as an opportunity to engage with fans on a very broad basis and really navigate fans around our ecosystem, in and outside a Grand Prix weekend.” 

“We are not looking at fan engagement from any one specific platform, we are looking at it holistically. And with the advent of digital and broadband and interconnectivity, and the adoption of digital, we think that is a big opportunity to complement and augment markets where we do tend to go a little bit more in the pay direction.

“There are some marketplaces where the pay to free-to-air penetration is extremely high. The economic benefits are there, and it makes it a little bit easier to make that move. There are also some markets where the pay-television penetration is low relative to free-to-air, which makes those a little bit more difficult. We are working through those.”

The future is not orange

2017 was supposed to be a new dawn for McLaren Honda. A new commercially savvy executive director in Zak Brown, combined with a return to their original orange livery and a galvanised Fernando Alonso, had fostered hopes for a return to the top table. 

Unfortunately for the Woking outfit their woeful form on the track has continued, so much so that Alonso said his new engine had “no power and no reliability”. That followed a spell of pre-season testing during which the team suffered seven engine failures.        

Although McLaren have a multi-year contract with title sponsor Honda, there are strong rumours in the paddock that the team are looking elsewhere. An apparent conversation with Mercedes would suggest that the senior management are considering whether they should try to get out of their contract with the Japanese manufacturer, which pays US$70 million a year to McLaren and supplements them with free engines.

When asked about the engine issues McLaren’s racing director Eric Boullier refused to comment, adding that it was a “private discussion” between the team and Honda. The Frenchman did not, however, deny that McLaren eyes were wandering. 

“Obviously we are looking at every option to recover and catch up because we are definitely not in the position that we were expecting to be and we want to be,” said Boullier.

Riccardo down down-under

To many Daniel Riccardo was the driver of 2016 and the Australian’s “shoey” celebration added some levity to what was a somewhat tense season.

With high hopes ahead of his home Grand Prix, Riccardo found himself highly sort after by his local media. However, he missed the start of the race because of a mechanical problem and eventually retired on the 28th  lap with smoke coming out of the front left of his car. 

“Sorry mate. Car is done,” remarked Ricciardo. “Let’s get the f*** out of here.”

That exchange was far less convivial than his weeks of good-natured promotional activities that have included some 14-hour days. As a result, the Red Bull driver was reported by some to be looking extremely tired.