A two-horse race for this year's drivers' championship was what was predicted, and a two-horse race is so far what Formula One has got.
Not only have Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel scored a victory apiece so far – after the Englishman defended his pole position for a first win of the season at the Shanghai International Circuit – but both have finished runner-up, too, leaving them neck-and-neck in the table. A thrilling race, however, from Dutch wonderkid Max Verstappen, who drove through the pack from 16th to third, helped to demonstrate the strength in depth in the sport at the moment, and remind the top two that nothing will come easily this year.
The Zak Brown effect
When Zak Brown arrived at McLaren, it was as one of the most sought-after executives in the sport, with rumours circulating that he was set to be appointed by Liberty Media and given a brief for the whole of Formula One's commercial operations – a role that eventually went to industry veteran Sean Bratches. The reasons for the demand for Brown's services have been in evidence over the past fortnight, during which time McLaren-Honda have secured three new commercial partnerships, with Logitech, Star Sports India and GREAT Britain. The Star agreement in particular will be encouraging to the Surrey-based team, giving them a strong foothold in a rapidly developing market for Formula One.
“It’s always exciting to bring a new partner on board – I’ve had that feeling a few times in my career so far!” quipped Brown, though another feeling becoming familiar to McLaren-Honda this season is one of disappointment: yet again in China, neither Fernando Alonso nor Stoffel Vandoorne managed to finish the race, leaving the team rooted to the foot of the constructors' championship.
In their efforts to chase the rest of the pack, McLaren-Honda have announced that they will trial the use of a 3D printer to design and develop prototype car parts, and even for use on its raceday cars. Jonathan Neale, chief operating officer at McLaren Technology Group, confirmed that the team will have a Stratasys printer trackside at the Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend, in order to change parts on the fly as the race develops. The 2017 car already utilises a 3D-printed oil pump, and the engineering team are now printing aerodynamic tweaks on the go.
“At the moment we've been off the pace, we have a relationship with Honda which is relatively new, we're still optimising that relationship,” said Neale. “But, yes, we've got some engine issues at the moment, but in terms of chassis performance and engine performance, rapid prototyping technologies are the key to the future.”
Ferrari flexing their muscles?
With both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen performing strongly so far this season in a car that finally looks to have overcome the problems by which Ferrari has been plagued in recent years, things look much more comfortable for the Italian giants. Former driver and present RTL pundit Christian Danner has raised doubts about the legality of this year's Ferrari, however, noting that on-board camera footage shows flexibility of both the floor and front wing elements. “If I was one of the other teams, I would want it checked,” said Danner. An investigation into their high-flying car at this early stage could prove costly for the Maranello team.
Two crucial areas outlined for re-evaluation by Liberty Media when it took over Formula One were the raceday experience and the sport's media product. The two latest appointments in those areas – of Ian Holmes to the role of global director of media rights and Kate Beavan to the position of global director of hospitality, experiences and packages – do not represent a significant break with the Bernie Ecclestone era, with both executives also key under the previous regime, but their promotions and expanded portfolios nevertheless demonstrate Liberty's realigned priorities.
Holmes, in particular, now takes responsibility for all auxiliary Formula One content, including archival footage and the rights to the F2, GP3 and Porsche Supercup support series, all areas felt by Liberty to have been neglected and under-utilised in the recent past. Beaven's challenge, meanwhile, will be slightly different, as she will attempt to open up Formula One's hospitality packages and the VIP 'Paddock Club' experience to “a much wider pool of broadcast partners and sponsors,” in the words of Sean Bratches, to whom both new appointees will report.
The development of Formula One's social media and online presence will be of particular concern to Holmes, and this weekend showed evidence of Liberty's push in that direction bearing fruit. The Chinese Grand Prix drove a total of 172 million impressions over the course of the weekend, including 17 million video views. 3.1 million people tuned in to watch the on-board footage of Hamilton's pole position qualifying lap alone, and it is precisely this kind of content Liberty will continue to look to in order to drive engagement. In China especially, a market Liberty sees as key for growth and where over 600 million social media accounts are registered, this strategy could pay dividends.