It’s the morning after the Australian Grand Prix, the sun is out and another warm day in prospect and time to reflect on what we saw yesterday. My feeling is that ‘the race’ was not what we were expecting, and yet you could say that the first five is just the classification that we should have expected. After the thousands of kilometres of testing and pit stop practice, reliability was extraordinarily poor; we’ve come to expect much better as we have from pit crews. The whole weekend was a little surreal and eleven finishers was the lowest anywhere since Lewis Hamilton led the field home here in Melbourne in 2008. It was odd.
I had that feeling right from the start of the weekend. Here we were at the start of the season, and yet some internal politics thrust us straight back to the depression that some of us felt at the end of last season. On top of that we had the internal strife at Sauber, and Manor struggling to get on circuit. Sixteen cars at the end of Friday practice is a sparse field and a poor reward for the Aussie spectators in spite of the full programme that they are treated to.
Thankfully, things were better the next day in that there seemed to be competitive running and conclusions. Sauber were on circuit even if Manor weren’t. We had an interesting qualifying session with the expected Mercedes domination followed by Williams and Ferrari and then a mixture of Red Bull, Toro Rosso and Lotus, then Sauber. No surprise that McLaren were at the back of the field; they wouldn’t want to jeopardise the four engines that they are allowed this season, down one engine since last year. That is a tough call and one which Daniel Ricciardo was already aware of after suffering an engine problem in practice.
But in spite of the prospect of Charlize Theron and Arnold Schwarzenegger in attendance on Sunday, the entry seemed precarious even before they assembled on the grid for the national anthem. Kevin Magnussen was classified second here last year on his F1 debut but had already crashed the McLaren in which he was deputising for the recovering Fernando Alonso. He ground to a halt before taking up his grid position, as did Daniel Kvyat. Two down and we had already lost a third as Valtteri Bottas had suffered a back injury and had been ruled out of driving by the FIA medical delegate. We were down to 15 cars and both Lotuses disappeared on the first lap; then there were 13.
It wasn’t an exactly thrilling race. Nico Rosberg had said that the only way he could beat Lewis Hamilton was either at the start or with changing track temperature and tyre management; in qualifying the track temperature had plummeted late in the day and Rosberg hoped that it would do the same in the race. It didn’t and contrary to expectation, most drivers made just one pit stop. Hamilton dominated, but Rosberg kept him honest, never more than five seconds behind and just 1.3s at the flag. Not quite the ‘easy’ victory described by some but probably not in doubt.
The rest, of course, were left far behind – well, 33s behind to be accurate. Massa led the chase but being held up by Ricciardo after his pit stop and a more aggressive strategy from Ferrari elevated Sebastian Vettel to third. With just one car in the field, Williams were probably opting for a finish rather than beating their great rival, so their conservative approach which cost them so many points last year was probably justified.
Ferrari is a new team, thankfully. Maurizio Arrivabene is clearly a breath of fresh air after the tedious former management and the return of technical director James Allison is that of the prodigal son. Kimi Raikkonen is a happy man, and new boy Sebastian Vettel already speaks more Italian than many of his foreign predecessors – and seems free of the political shackles that hold back so many of his colleagues. All that was lacking was some pit stop procedure which put paid to their second car in which Raikkonen made a rare two stops, the second terminal.
Red Bull should have been the best of the rest along with their fellow Renault-powered colleagues, the new boys at Toro Rosso. Ricciardo, of course, had the entire country rooting for him and still managed to maintain his smile – compatriot Mark Webber seemed to hate the Australian Grand Prix. Sure, there were Renault problems at Red Bull Racing but not all the lack of reliability came from France and Renault have more engine development tokens to spend than any other engine manufacture, so it’s not over yet. However, the ‘win together, lose together’ policy seems unjustifiably under pressure.
But Kvyat was out before they even started, Sainz was one of five to have a poor pit stop; it cost him 30s – without it, he would have been two places higher in seventh – and Verstappen had a gearbox failure, so just two finishers out of four cars. Interestingly, the hype followed Verstappen but Sainz proved to be the quicker.
And after that rotten start to the weekend – journalists were even asking team principal Monisha Kaltenborn if her position was untenable – Sauber came through to leave Melbourne third in the Constructors championship. In spite of their remarkable test mileage, with two pretty inexperienced drivers we shouldn’t have expected anything spectacular but Nasr grabbed sixth in the first corner schmozzle and finished a place higher and Ericsson came through to eighth, overtaking Sainz in the closing stages. After a nightmare start to the weekend, it was a dream ending.
McLaren ended up where we expected, at the back, but it did look as though they might have a chance of scoring a cheap point in Melbourne. Force India were perhaps the least spectacular team but brought home both cars, an achievement in itself at this race. Quite where Lotus would have been but for their double first lap retirement remains to be seen – we will have to wait until Malaysia but Mercedes engines at least give them a chance to perform even if a lack of power sidelined Grosjean.
So we head north to the heat of Malaysia. No one is going to be able to do much except prepare for those temperatures, so don’t expect too much change in Sepang. A hierarchy has been established. They always used to say in testing ‘wait until Melbourne’ and in Melbourne they say ‘wait until Barcelona’ – the first European race. Battle lines have been drawn but that hierarchy might remain for a few races yet.
By Bob Constanduros