Wizard, in Oz

F1 Racing (UK) - - FINISHING STRAIGHT -

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

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