By Bob Constanduros
It was the moment that we knew that it had all gone wrong for Mercedes: Toto Wolff thumped the table in front of him. My Aussie co-commentator, Cameron van den Dungen asked the third member of our team, Peter Windsor, if he’d ever seen such a reaction from Wolff before. The answer was No, we hadn’t. Obviously all was not well with Mercedes and their number one, Lewis Hamilton.
The situation was then made worse by Hamilton getting stuck behind Max Verstappen in the Red Bull. The Milton Keynes team just wasn’t on the pace throughout the weekend – Daniel Ricciardo had a nightmare weekend – and Hamilton was held at arm’s length by Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari who went on to confirm Ferrari’s testing pace with his second victory in Albert Park.
It was interesting the way the balance of power swung backwards and forwards between Ferrari and Mercedes throughout the Australian Grand Prix weekend. Hamilton was quickest in both the Friday sessions, ahead of new teammate Valtteri Bottas in the first and the Sebastian Vettel in the second. Hamilton would summarise the day as saying it was 99 per cent perfect, none of the Barcelona niggles, the car was as it should be.
Vettel was sixth in the first session but second to Hamilton in the second in what is traditionally the first time that that cars go out on qualifying rubber, around 20 minutes into that second session. The German Ferrari driver admitted some small problems in the first Friday session but that it was better in P2, better balanced. However, digging deep into the times set later in that second session, Hamilton and Mercedes looked much better when it came to race pace. The pair had an astonishing 1s advantage over Ferrari in those vital circumstances.
In Australia, that second session ran from 4pm to 5.30pm, the track temperature starting off at 28 degrees. Qualifying started an hour later the next day but with a track temperature of 34 degrees. The Sunday race started at 4pm but the track temperature was two degrees higher. This was relatively low but last year’s race took place on a circuit just a couple of degrees hotter.
It’s worth remembering that Pirelli mandate the tyre choices and the number of sets available for the first five races this year because they’re providing new and relatively little tested rubber. So everyone had seven sets of ultrasoft this weekend plus four sets of supersofts and two sets of soft.
Early on Saturday we had the third free practice session when Vettel set the fastest time we’d ever seen around the Albert Park circuit at 1m 23.380; the increase in pace, due to the new regulations compared to last year was already plain to see, but here it was again. That afternoon, Hamilton set the pace in Q1, Bottas beat Vettel’s fastest lap ever in Q2 and then all three drivers got into the 1m 22s in Q3 – with Hamilton fastest in the low 1m 22s.
What could be done about the Mercedes, that was what everyone was asking? They looked to have the advantage and indeed, during the race Hamilton was able to pull out a tiny advantage over Vettel during the opening laps. It was up to 1.9s by lap three, then fell to 1.1s two laps later. We wondered if Hamilton had had a problem, had maybe damaged his car with a brief unseen off. But by lap ten the gap was up to 1.8s again and then fell to 1.5s and then 1.2s on lap 16.
On lap 17 Hamilton made his first stop to soft tyres which would take him to the end. In theory he should have made at least 20+ laps but he stopped early. We were questioning why? But when Hamilton rejoined, he was behind fourth placed Max Verstappen, who was never going to be the easiest driver to overtake – in cars that Hamilton insists are impossible to overtake anyway. He was only behind Verstappen for a few laps during which Vettel stopped, but it was enough to cause that frustrating thump from Toto Wolff.
Vettel pitted on lap 23 and rejoined 2.3s ahead of Verstappen who stopped two laps later. By then, Hamilton was 5.8s behind Vettel; he would never get as close again. That was it, victory by nearly ten seconds for Ferrari and Mercedes realising that they had work to make the already more consistent tyres more competitive for them. As you can see, though, the balance of power swung to and from Mercedes and Ferrari throughout the weekend; it’s close and that’s probably the way it’s going to stay, which is surely just the way we like it.
The only problem is that Ferrari and Mercedes appear to be in a class of their own. Red Bull were a disaster, at least as far as Daniel Ricciardo was concerned, even if Max Verstappen salvaged fifth place, 6.4s behind Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari. Behind the young Dutchman there was nearly a minute gap to Felipe Massa after whom everyone was lapped. Only 13 cars finished out of 20 starters which is fewer than at any race last year and only beaten by the twelve finishers at the soaking US Grand Prix in 2015.
One definite stand-out was the debut of Antonio Giovinazzi replacing Pascal Wehrlein at Sauber. There has been some greatly unjustified criticism of Wehrlein for stepping down; it takes courage to say that you don’t think you’re up to it. He’s probably at least a month behind in fitness in comparison to everyone else following his accident in January in the Race of Champions in Miami, now driving cars that are much more physical than in the past. He had every right to quit.
Giovinazzi stepped in on Saturday afternoon having done 151 laps in testing at Barcelona. The 24-year old 2016 GP2 runner-up, from the deep south of Italy – and a neighbour of ex-Ferrari and –Lancia team manager Cesare Fiorio – kept his nose clean throughout, qualifying capably and racing to 12th ahead of fellow Australian Grand Prix newcomer Stoffel Vandoorne, who provided McLaren with a glimmer of hope by finishing.
The Australian Grand Prix as usual lived up to its reputation as being the best GP of the year. I hope the likes of Chase Carey and Sean Bratches of new F1 owners Liberty Media don’t think all GPs are like that; there were at least three races each for Porsches, GTs and SuperCars, as well as historical parade laps, a speed comparison and exhibitions all around the circuit. This is a proper race meeting and it seemed that the Australian public voted with their feet and appreciated it.
But there are many who don’t see this year’s regulation changes through rose-tinted spectacles, worrying that the racing is going to be average, as suggested in my preview of this Grand Prix. The cars may be faster around the corners – did you notice? Unless you were standing on a corner, maybe you didn’t – but new aggressive aerodynamics don’t make it any easier for one car to follow another and to be in a possible position to overtake.
FIA president Jean Todt, interestingly, felt this was a justifiable sacrifice to make for faster cars. I’m not sure everyone will agree. It is a problem that Liberty will come up against in trying to make the sport more popular but in Ross Brawn they have the perfect man to address the problem. Ina press briefing – Todt did one as well, but only for ‘selected’ media – Brawn talked about benign aerodynamics to make it easier for cars to follow one another. Todt’s reply was a gentle reminder that ‘we make up the rules’ and for the moment, we’re stuck with these ones, something which Toto Wolff feared years ago.
Incidentally, Brawn’s press briefing with Sean Bratches reminded me of the question that arose when Ron Dennis hired Eric Boullier at McLaren: how on earth will they understand one another? Bratches speaks a particular LA media speak; Brawn talks engineering-speak and neither the twain shall meet. Well, I hope they do – eventually.
In the meantime, the reality check has arrived for everyone; China will be different again but we’ll have a look at that in my preview in a few days’ time. And remember, just a week later we’ll be in Bahrain. It’s all full and fast this year.