AUS­TRALIAN GRAND PRIX AC­TION

Nico Ros­berg led a Mercedes 1-2 but Fer­rari could have won

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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…

Qual­i­fy­ing

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.

Race

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!

Ros­berg started 2016 as he fin­ished last sea­son by tak­ing vic­tory

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