AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX ACTION
Nico Rosberg led a Mercedes 1-2 but Ferrari could have won
f the 2016 Australian GP is anything go by, Formula 1 fans are in for a corker of a year. On paper, the result of a Mercedes 1-2, with Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari in third, made the first race of ’16 look like opening round of ’15. The reality is far from that.
Mercedes and Ferrari will be true rivals this season; Red Bull has a great car that will benefit from an improving Renault/tag Heuer motor and Toro Rosso are right now third-fastest team. So expect a true fight for the title and some surprising results, such as Carlos Sainz/max Verstappen podiums and a late-season win or two for Daniel Ricciardo.
And let’s all be thankful that Fernando Alsono, maybe the greatest driver of his generation, will be competing in the Bahrain GP…
When both Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen parked up their Ferrari SF16-H cars with five minutes of the 2016 Australian GP Q3 left to run, we should have known what was coming. Vettel, as third fastest qualifier, was a compulsory attendee at the FIA’S postsession press conference and he duly arrived, right on time. But unlike poleman Lewis Hamilton and P2 Nico Rosberg alongside him – whose Mercedes were the only cars still circulating in the dying minutes of Q3 – Vettel was dressed in team top, jeans and trainers, rather than the still-sweaty race suits worn by Nico and Lewis.
How come? He’d had time, on account of the new-found knockout vagaries of the revised-for-2016 qualifying system, to slip into something more comfortable.
That said it all about a system intended to create more unpredictability and grid variation, but which succeeded in delivering precisely the opposite: a grid in near two-by-two team formation, arrived at with less drama, but more confusion, than the outgoing (uncriticised) system it replaced!
Vettel, smart boy that he is, knew precisely the point he was making by turning up in civvies and lest anyone misunderstand, he spelled it out: “I had time to get changed, yes,” he said, when asked about his attire. “What happened was no surprise and I don’t think it’s very exciting. People want to see Lewis, Nico, Kimi… all of us fighting over grid positions and pushing to the end when the track is supposed to be at its best. It was a bit crazy in the beginning – managing traffic – but for people in the grandstands, there was nothing to see. The fact that we called it off in Q3 was because we had a good time with our first lap, so we saved the tyre for Sunday.”
He was far from alone in his view. The paddock echoed to a chorus of disapproval as Q3 drew to a close. Some, such as Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, predicted immediate change, via a fax vote of the decision-making F1 Strategy Group. Others, such as Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda went further, demanding immediate action: “This is the biggest nonsense I have ever seen,” he said. “I was not even sure if I should congratulate our drivers on our front row. We have to call a team principal meeting and ask the FIA to change the format with immediate effect. For Bahrain already.”
Knee-jerk reactions like this are not uncommon in F1, especially at a time when the political atmosphere within the sport remains febrile and, as MN closed for press, there were suggestions the sport might pause before reverting immediately to the former threesession knockout system that has served it well in recent seasons.
After all, the 2016 version was not entirely without merit, on the evidence of Melbourne alone. Q1 and Q2 – both of which are now ‘devil take the hindmost’ elimination sessions with a car falling out of contention every 90 seconds – were tense and entertaining. They provided moments of proper knockout drama, such as Renault rookie Jolyon Palmer elevating himself from the Q2 ‘drop zone’ to P14, outqualifying his highly rated teammate, F1 returnee Kevin Magnussen, by half a tenth in the process.
Earlier, in Q1, Red Bull and Daniil Kvyat found themselves caught out by the new procedures, ending up only 18th fastest. Team-mate Ricciardo’s P8 was more representative of the Renault-driven (TAG Heuer-branded) RB12’S pace, as it continues to lack grunt compared to Mercedes- and Ferrari-powered rivals.
By the end of Q3, however, with Ferraris in the garage and only two Mercs still lapping, the grandstands had ‘declared’. Sports-mad Melburnians know a good show from bad and they’d started to vote with their feet, leaving before the end of the session.
Aside from the non-drama of a qualifying hour that started with a bang and ended with a whimper, what had they seen?
Hamilton’s 50th pole position, for a start. Lewis’s was one of the few undimmed smiles in the paddock on Melbourne Saturday. The Mercedes W07 has picked up where its predecessors left off and, while Ferrari look more competitive this season, the sheer speed of the silver car is not in doubt: its pure qualifying pace was at least half a second per lap quicker than anything else. “There were some sexy laps out there today,” Lewis beamed. “The car felt good with a beautiful rhythm. It felt like James Brown at the end of the lap.”
Another star was Verstappen, who placed P5. After Toro Rosso’s excellent winter testing performance, the position wasn’t so much of a surprise as confirmation of true competitiveness from the supposedly second-string Red Bull squad. Carlos Sainz, in P7, had caught the eye in free practice with several dynamic-looking laps, but it was hot-shot Verstappen who posted the time when it mattered.
The Mclaren-hondas of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, meantime, at last looked semi-competitive, with their respective P12 and P13 placings, even if the Honda power unit has a trailing-throttle note that sounds like ball bearings rattling down the exhaust pipe.
And an honourable mention, too, for Indonesian rookie Rio Haryanto, for his P21 time. He did well to keep his composure after a Q1 pitlane shunt with Romain Grosjean, even if he was later penalised three positions.
After two days of gloom and despair – mostly on account of negative reaction to the new-look qualifying regs, but in part because of the unseasonably tempestuous Melbourne weather – the 2016 Australian GP 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 Alonso survived unscathed one of the scariestlooking shunts in recent seasons. Such had been the rumpus over qualifying, it was a relief, indeed, finally to get the 2016 race season underway and discover whether Ferrari’s Sunday pace was strong enough to rival that of Mercedes.
In the event, there was no need to wait for a 57-lap strategy battle to play out, to find an answer: poleman Hamilton started slowly, allowing Vettel to surge through from P3 into the lead, squeezing out Rosberg and allowing Raikkonen to follow him. Ferrari first and second: game on!