As the sun dawned on Melbourne’s Albert Park on the last Sunday of March only one question teased the minds of the Formula One paddock: what sort of season did 2017 have in store?
Up to that morning only a handful of clues, difficult to discern and useless in drawing a conclusion, had presented themselves.
We already knew that the new generation Formula One car was fast — very fast. Lewis Hamilton, pole-sitter in 2016 and 2017, had blitzed his pole time by more than one and a half seconds on Saturday in breathtaking exhibition of the new machinery’s potential.
Better still, Ferrari had moved substantially closer to the front of the field, missing out on pole less than three-tenths of a second and setting practice times that hinted at impressive race pace.
But hidden behind the headline lap were hints that Formula One’s new eye-pleasing cars were having the feared side effect of splitting up the field. Whereas in Abu Dhabi in 2016 the slowest car was 3.54 per cent slower than the quickest, by Australia that margin had ballooned to 5.15 per cent.
Hopes that the race would conclusively allay any fears were dashed in a handful of laps. Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari strategised their way past Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in a taste of the head-to-head battle that was to come, but racing in these wider, downforce-laden prototypes was more difficult than ever.
“It’s been the fundamental way the cars have been since I have been in Formula One, but it’s probably worse now than it’s ever been,” Lewis Hamilton lamented.
Hamilton’s analysis continued to ring true throughout the season. Year on year overtaking almost halved, from an average of 41.24 passes per race last season to 21.75 in 2017. The year’s 435 overtakes was the lowest recorded in the post-2011 DRS era.
But so too did the tense battle for victories continue to the end of the year. Ferrari and Mercedes duked it out, the former with a more consistent car and the latter with higher highs but lower lows. After 13 rounds just three points separated Hamilton from Vettel.
The next chapter has been comprehensively chronicled as the most decisive of the year. Hamilton grew that three-point advantage into a commanding 59-point lead in the three-round Asian leg of the season as Ferrari and Vettel imploded.
The Briton ended the season with a 46-point lead over Vettel, putting those crucial three weekends into context.
Was the tense and psychological championship battle thrilling enough to counterbalance the step backwards in racing overall?
“Some races are boring, so what?” Vettel said, reflecting on the data. “I don’t see the problem in that.
“I don’t think we need another record every race, to have more overtaking and more overtaking.
“Overtaking should be an achievement and not handed to you.”
There’s understandable truth to Vettel’s philosophy, certainly considering what will go down as a broadly memorable season featured little on-track sparring between its two protagonists.
Indeed think back to the Belgian Grand Prix, where Vettel harried Hamilton for the entirety of the race. He wasn’t able to execute a pass, but it was regardless compelling.
“To be fighting a four-time world champion who you respect, you expect nothing but the best from them,” Hamilton said. “It’s really down to one of you making the smallest mistake, and none of us did.”
In the battle for Formula One’s soul the desire for a pure sporting challenge is perpetually at war with the need for spectacular action. In 2017, under these new regulations, the former won convincingly.
Now consider that after 20 grands prix the back of the field was already lapping within 3.84 per cent of Mercedes. Add to the calculation Red Bull Racing, which has rebounded from its slow start to regulatory era to win two races on merit by the end of the season.
Mix in McLaren and perhaps Renault next season threatening to vie for podiums and — whisper it — wins, the former after ditching Honda power and the latter as its Formula One return continues maturing impressively quickly, and you start to get a sense of why the 2018 sequel promises to be better than the original.
More leading roles will be written into the script. Fernando Alonso, as always, will be in search of his third world championship, while rising stars Carlos Sainz and Stoffel Vandoorne may get their chances to take centre stage. Nico Hülkenberg, too, will at last have the opportunity to make good on eight years of speculative hype.
Formula One will continue striving to meet that balance between sport and spectacle, but with 10 of the grid’s best drivers racing for five of the sport’s highest profile marques — not to mention the tightening midfield of equal size fighting to join them at the front — the core components lie ready to produce a classic championship.
Bring on 2018.