Wizard, in Oz
A race to remember in Melbourne with all the signs pointing towards a close-fought season to come
After two days of gloom and despond, mostly on account of negative reaction to the new-look qualifying regs, but partly due to the unseasonable weather, the 2016 Australian Grand Prix was just the tonic F1 needed.
A thrilling race, filled with incident; good news stories up and down the paddock, the prospect of a real championship battle ahead – all laced with relief that Fernando Alonso survived one of the scariest-looking shunts in recent years.
We’ll start with the qualifying fracas. Faced with an overwhelmingly ‘anti-’ reaction to the three-stage ‘eliminator’ format used for the first time on Saturday, a hastily convened meeting of team principals agreed unanimously to revert to ‘old-skool’ qualie for the Bahrain GP. But nothing is ever simple, and even that ‘unanimous’ agreement was later questioned.
Such had been the rumpus over the matter, it was a relief, indeed, to get the 2016 race season under way and see if Ferrari’s Sunday pace was strong enough to rival that of Mercedes. But there was no need to wait for a 57-lap strategy battle to play out, to find an answer: pole man Hamilton started slowly, letting Seb Vettel surge through into the lead, squeezing out Nico Rosberg and allowing Kimi Räikkönen to follow him. Ferrari first and second: game on!
This was an aggressive start to the season, as three champions and one wannabe scrapped over millimetres into Turn 1 and emerged unscathed, to leave a pair of Ferraris out front and Mercedes cast as chasers. “It was tight into Turn 1,” said Vettel, “but we made it and had both cars running at the front, so I couldn’t ask for more.”
He stayed there, with Räikkönen behind, for 12 laps and would later lead for another 18. So on the evidence of this somewhat atypical circuit (low grip, low wear, low lateral loadings) the Ferrari SF16-H unquestionably has the pace to bother Mercedes, should the silver team function anything less than perfectly.
Ferrari and Mercedes started on used supersofts carried through from qualifying and they had been tipped to progress with two sets of softs, stopping at around laps 16 and 37. But on lap 17 everything changed. Approaching Turn 3, Fernando Alonso, running 13th, jinked his Mclaren out of the slipstream of Esteban Gutiérrez’s Haas. Alonso’s front-right clipped the left-rear of Gutiérrez and what followed was one of those accidents that freeze time and result in a collective outpouring of relief, as a battered-butunharmed driver emerges from a crumpled heap of carbon that used to be a racing car.
The front suspension on Alonso’s MP4-31 had broken on both sides by the time it reached the T3 gravel trap, where it lifted, ‘got air’, doublerolled, smashed down and continued gyrating, before thudding against a tyre barrier. Alonso