Thrilling Season Opener Hands First Blood to Rosberg
Talk about your weekend of two halves. After the debacle that was Saturday qualifying, we could be forgiven for being a little cautious about the race. Would it be even more of a disaster? Would the changes make any difference or somehow make things worse? Were we in for more of the same of 2015? You may look at the podium results and roll your eyes, quick to answer ‘yes’ to the latter but it would be a mistake. The Australian GP was a thriller of a race and has most certainly got me pumped for the rest of this 2016 season.
It may be the first race of the season but that doesn’t mean the penalties aren’t already being doled out. Rio Haryanto received a 3-place penalty for his collision with Romain Grosjean in the pitlane which sent him to the back of the grid. The only other penalty fell to Valtteri Bottas. He had been under investigation for failing to hand in data sheets on time but that ended up resulting in a warning. The 5-place penalty was as a result of a gearbox change on his car which put him back into P16 and with plenty of work to do.
It’s Lights Out
It began with a false start, the cars having to do another formation lap as Kvyat’s Red Bull died on the grid and was pushed out of the way. The two Mercedes locked out the front row, the Ferraris just behind them looking to attack once the five lights went out. And that’s exactly what they did.
Both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen had a dynamite start, Vettel in front of both Mercs by the first turn and Raikkonen overtaking both on the inside soon after to act as rear gunner. But while Rosberg managed to stay in touch with the Ferraris, Hamilton suffered massively, falling from P1 down to P7 by the end of the first lap. Verstappen managed to get past and then while Hamilton was still trying to maintain his ground, the straight-line speed of the Williams allowed Massa past too. The world champion had some work to do.
He managed to pass the Williams within a few laps but was massively held up by the Toro Rosso, complaining over the radio “I can’t get past this guy”. All the while, Sebastian was pulling out a great advantage out front, Kimi a little ways behind but still in touch and Rosberg very much chasing him down.
Another great starter was Pascal Wehrlein who leapt from P21 up to P14 in the first lap! Naturally it wasn’t going to stay that way but that was some impressive gains and I will definitely be watching his starts in the future.
Alonso’s Lucky Escape
The Ferraris looked to have the measure of Mercedes but never count your chickens before they’ve hatched. Because on lap 17 a crash brought out the safety car and subsequently red flagged the race, sending everyone back to the pits.
The TV coverage showed the Haas of Esteban Gutierrez beached in the gravel trap and my first thought was that the engine had failed or he’d lost drive at the turn as he had been complaining earlier of engine problems. But it wasn’t until the commentators pointed out the decimated car propped up against the barrier that I realised there had actually been a massive crash.
I’m very grateful for the fact that they didn’t show it until Alonso was already out of the car because seeing the wreck for what it was, you wouldn’t have believed that someone could have walked away from it. On the replays, you can see that Alonso just misjudged a pass on Gutierrez and hit his left rear tyre which spun them both off. But while the Haas stayed rooted to the ground, the McLaren lifted enough to stick into the gravel which then sent it into a barrel roll across the gravel trap and to strike the catch fencing, landing almost upside down.
Fernando somehow managed to release himself and walk away with a slight limp, Esteban running across to make sure he was OK. It’s a true testament to all the safety advancements these cars have made that he was able to make his own way to the medical centre. It has brought up more talk of the halo system, people questioning if having a halo on the car might have prevented his escape but my take on it is that he was in no immediate danger. He only made such a swift escape because he wanted people to know he was OK but if the halo had prevented him from freeing himself, there was no additional risk had he needed to wait for assistance. I hope that the halo concept isn’t set back by this, impulsively. Alonso has since said himself that he would have been happy to have it there because his one main concern was suffering a head injury.
Red Flag Reset
The subsequent red flag effectively changed the course of the race. Both Mercedes were now on the medium tyres but it was hard to know if they would need to pit again as there had been almost no practice on the compound over the weekend. Ferrari decided to gamble on their own strategy and stick with the softer compounds, presumably unsure if they could get the mediums working well enough.
The gamble did not pay off. They lost Kimi to a fire, forcing him to box but thankfully it wasn’t an engine failure and he will not need a replacement for Bahrain. Still, it wasn’t what the Scuderia needed. Freed from the Toro Rosso, Hamilton could finally make gains and had his sights set on the podium once again but Rosberg looked like he was heading home for the win with Sebastian keen to try and make the best of a poor strategy decision.
The radio restrictions were quite apparent during the race, hearing a lot less of the engineers discussing strategy with their drivers. But we still heard plenty from the drivers and none more so than young Max Verstappen. Both Toro Rosso drivers were complaining of tyre degradation and needed to pit. Carlos pitted on lap 32 and we immediately heard Max complain that he’d asked to pit first because his tyres were completely gone. At this point in time, Max was the lead Toro Rosso and usually it works such that the lead car is the first to pit. BUT the team knew that they could get Carlos out into a gap whereas pitting Verstappen on that lap would put him in traffic that would prove more problematic than going one more lap on worn tyres.
And this was where Max showed rookie errors that he shouldn’t really be making in his second season of F1. He chose to pit the following lap without being called in and so when he made his stop, neither the pit crew nor the tyres were ready. This led to an inevitably slow stop, putting him behind his teammate who was chasing down Jolyon Palmer.
For the next several laps we heard Max asking his team if he could get past Carlos only to be told a blunt ‘yes, do it’ in response. We know last season that Carlos had been asked on occasions to let Max past in order to try and get more points for the team but it seemed that this time, there was going to be no help from team orders. If Max wanted to get past, he was going to have to do it himself. And for someone who has been lauded for his overtaking moves, you wouldn’t have thought he’d have kicked up such a fuss about it.
But he proceeded to turn the air waves blue as he insisted that they were just wasting time running the way they were, implying that he would pass Palmer easily if he were released. As it was, Sainz – who was busy just running his own race, trying to catch the guy in front – eventually made it past the Renault which in turn allowed Verstappen passage as Palmer was still off line.
The teammates continued to dual until the end of the race with Max making some errors in his frustration which eventually led to them finishing P9 & P10 with Carlos leading. I have no doubts that there were some heated discussions had in the debrief but I do hope that Toro Rosso continue to refrain from using team orders unless the drivers are clearly on different strategies.
Points on Debut
As the 15 finishers passed the chequered flag, one car stood out from the rest. And that was the Haas of Romain Grosjean. Yes, Haas are not your typical new team, they were always going to have a better chance than your Caterhams or Marussias but nevertheless, points on a debut is nothing to be sniffed at. To outscore teams like Renault, Force India, Toro Rosso and McLaren, it’s a definite boost, even if it largely was the result of circumstances. You need to take the points as and when they come.
It was obvious how important those 8 points were as we heard an emotional Romain come over the radio to exclaim, “This is a win! This is a win for us! I don’t even know where we finished!”. You get the impression that even one point would have been a cause for celebration but to get P6 while holding back faster cars, it’s definitely going to make an impression on the midfield teams.
• The start. I know I already talked about it but it really was that good. Hoping for more of them throughout the year.
• The new tyre regulations. At the moment, they do look to bring an extra bit of unpredictability to the racing which is much needed and greatly appreciated. However. I think it will take a few races to see just how much of an impact it will make. I do have some concerns in as much as Mercedes seem very good on the medium compound (they did most of their testing on them, after all) and last year suffered more than others on the supersofts. If they can now forgo using them in favour of just using a combination of medium/soft then it could potentially give them a big advantage. Although the medium is slower, if they can skip a pit stop, it would probably hand them the overall advantage. I need to see a few more races before judging, I think. We have yet to see Ferraris pace on the mediums, after all.
• Jolyon Palmer. I’m a big advocate in GP2 winners getting a Formula 1 seat seeing as, to be, that is the whole point of a feeder series. So I was very pleased when Jolyon got the Renault seat and was looking forward to see how he handled his first race. Like a pro, is the answer. Looking at his racing craft, you wouldn’t think you were watching a rookie. He had a great scrap with Valtteri early in the race, showing some very good defensive driving. There was no question that the Williams was obviously the faster car but he defended his position cleanly and with great tenacity, it was a pleasure to watch. Also his scrap with the Toro Rossos which unfortunately he lost but this was also fairly inevitable. It was a shame that he just missed out on the points in his first race but I think he can be very pleased with his debut performance.
• Team radio restrictions. They were loosened slightly prior to the race start to allow for more strategy communication but it was nice not to have all the coded talk from the engineers, instead focusing more on the drivers. As a viewer, I like it, but if they decided to loosen it further because there are concerns from the teams then I don’t think it would make that much of a difference.
• Only 3 cars were lapped. Last year, 6 ended up being at least 1 lap down and that was with only 11 finishers. There is definitely a feeling that the teams are much closer to each other this year which is good for everyone and should make for more exciting racing. It’s not much fun when you’re at races and there’s massive gaps between all the cars, we want to see them fighting and scrapping over the same pieces of tarmac and I think we’ll definitely be getting more of that this season.
• Mark Webber getting doused with champagne from former teammate Sebastian Vettel on the podium during the interviews. I much prefer F1 personnel doing the interviews rather than celebrities and I hope they stick with that trend.
• Nico Rosberg starting the season off right. I think it was so important for him to get the first win on the season and he now boasts four wins in a row which is nothing to be sniffed at. We’ve since learned that he was also managing some brake issues with the car which makes the victory even more satisfying. I hope he will continue to carry the momentum and really make a fight of the championship this year.
• Max Verstappen making life difficult for Lewis in the opening part of the race. He showed great defensive driving, it’s a shame it was marred somewhat by his later antics.
It’s definitely the start to the season we needed. It really looks like we have a battle on our hands with Mercedes and Ferrari and the midfield melee is going to be very interesting to watch as the season progresses. Toro Rosso will be disappointed to finish where they did after their stellar qualifying. McLaren are on the backfoot already which is a shame for them. Alonso will require a completely new power unit and a poor choice of strategy left Button P14 ahead of the Manor of Wehrlein. A familiar sight and one they would have hoped to shirk by now. Hopefully they will have a better showing in Bahrain. Red Bull are definitely improved from last year although there may well be some reliability concerns after Kvyat’s disappointing DNS. I imagine it will be difficult for Williams to maintain P3 in the championship with this resurgence but it should prove a good fight.
Where we’d usually have Malaysia, we now have Bahrain to look forward to, one of the most spectacular looking races on the calendar with the cars racing under the floodlights as the sun sets into twilight. I cannot wait.