Australian Grand Prix: Another One Bites The Dust

Lewis Hamilton takes an early lead on the 2015 season after taking the top step of the podium at the Australian Grand Prix. The reigning world champion walked it home around the park from pole position. His teammate, Nico Rosberg did all he can to keep Hamilton in his sights, but never managed to lay a challenge for the lead. Sebastian Vettel took out the final step of the podium for the Scuderia.

It was a considerably smaller grid for the season opener, with Bottas being ruled out due to a back injury following qualifying, Daniil Kvyat suffering from gearbox failure on his way to the grid, and Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren flat out giving up before the formation lap was even underway. So at lights out, it was 15 cars that snaked their way through turn 1. Hamilton flew off the line, with Rosberg leading the hunt. Further back on the grid, Lotus’ Romain Grosjean crawled off the line with a cut in power to the Mercedes engine, while Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz moved himself up to P6 before the first corner, slotting in behind Kimi Raikkonen.

The two Ferraris’ went into turn 1 side-by-side, with Vettel riding the kerb leaving very little room for Kimi to move. The Finn backed out of the corner, but clipped Sainz on his way through, leaving the STR10 twitching to keep traction. Sauber’s Felipe Nasr got caught up in the action as Kimi’s front right tyre made contact with the C34, and in turn clipping the left rear of Pastor Maldonado’s E23. Clearly coming off worst out of the opening lap altercation, the E23 lost rear traction, spinning counter clockwise and careering backwards into the barriers out of turn 2. An unlucky start to the season for the number 13 driver. The stranded E23 triggered the release of the safety car, and a flurry of action in the pit lane as strategies reshuffled.

Mercedes essentially were going through the formalities at Albert Park, with the 1-2 finish for the team remaining unchallenged. Starting on the soft compound tyres, Hamilton was first of the pair to box on lap 26 for the medium compound tyre, with Rosberg following suit one lap later. Rosberg maintained the gap to his teammate at around 1.6s during the second stint of the race, though neither driver pushed each other in a bid to save fuel. Rosberg suffered from harsher tyre degradation compared to his teammate, fearing that he may have to pit for a second time towards the back end of the race. Given that the Silver Arrows had more than a 30-second lead on the rest of the pack, Rosberg’s tyre woes didn’t make much of a difference.

The Scuderia have emerged as an early challenger to Mercedes, with Sebastian Vettel putting the SFT-15 into P3. Starting from P4, Vettel managed to jump Felipe Massa’s FW37 during the pit window. As Massa came in for the prime tyre on lap 21, the Scuderia decided to keep Vettel out and push to make the gap in front of the Williams. Four laps later, the German pulled in for his turn to swap to the prime tyre, emerging a solid distance ahead of Massa and retaining his potential podium finish. The challenges piled up from lights out for Kimi Raikkonen becoming the final DNF of the race. Firstly, the Finn was forced to back out of the corner on the opening lap by his new teammate, resulting in his SFT15 picking up front wing damage and losing considerable downforce. The early contact then saw Kimi fall down the order from a healthy P5, to a struggling P8. The Ferrari did however manage to take a storming Carlos Sainz through turn 9, stepping out and around the Toro Rosso to move up into P7 on lap 8. Powering through, Kimi’s first stop on lap 17 for a new set of the option tyres cost him even more time and grid positions as a stubborn left rear wheel nut refuse to tighten. Finally on lap 43, the Finn came in for his swap to the medium compound tyre, but yet again it was the left rear causing havoc for the team. Kimi was halfway down the pit lane before realising that something was wrong, with the left rear having not been properly secured, he was forced to pull over and switch off the engine at turn 3.

Williams were unlucky not to reach the podium in today’s race, with their pit stop strategy being the only weak point. Felipe’s swap to medium tyre was smooth and to plan to keep the FW37 in contention for third place, however it was back on track with Massa being caught behind Sainz’ Toro Rosso that allowed Vettel to pull the large enough gap from the Williams in the pit window. Nevertheless, Massa picked up some early points, finishing a comfortable P4. Valtteri Bottas was ruled out of starting the race due to a back injury picked up during Saturday’s qualifying session. Bottas failed the second of two fitness tests enforced the the FIA to ensure driver safety, leaving the Finn to watch on from the garage on Sunday.

For something completely different, Sauber decided to move their battles from the court room to the race track, with both drivers picking up points. Already more than the Swiss team achieved in the entirety of the 2014 season. Rookie Felipe Nasr without question took out drive of the day, taking an early advantage from P8. The Brazilian made light work of his fellow rookie, Carlos Sainz on lap 4, slipping the C34 in front of the STR10 on the start finish straight. Nasr then passed a slightly off-pace Daniel Ricciardo for P5, paving the way for the rest of the race. It was clear from qualifying that Nasr would be a threat to the mid-field following practice and qualifying, but it was hardly expected that the rookie would spend his debut F1 race defending from a hungry honey badger. Nasr not only managed his tyres, but kept the C34 competitive to cross the line P5. Teammate Marcus Ericsson picked up valuable points in P8, after a strong but tough race for the Swede. Running wide and through the gravel in the final stint of the race, Ericsson pit for a set of the option tyre, rejoining behind Perez and Sainz. On fresher tyres, Ericsson moved up behind Sainz, managing to outbrake the now struggling STR10 on lap 56, slipping down the inside to take P8.

Daniel Ricciardo was left to bring it home for the Red Bull team after Daniil Kvyat retired on his way to the grid. Kvyat, for his first race in the big sister team, lost drive on his out lap after failing to select fifth gear in the RB11. The gearbox failure forced the Russian to park up before even reaching the grid, joining Bottas, and soon Magnussen as a DNS. Homeboy Daniel Ricciardo delivered a strong race despite early set backs. The RB11 had considerably less power in the opening stint, resulting in the Aussie conceding several places in the opening laps. However, as the race wore on, and temperatures warmed, Ricciardo stalked Carlos Sainz for P6, and began the hunt on Nasr for P5. Caught up in the battle, Raikkonen gave Ricciardo something to think about as the Red Bull driver managed to keep the Ferrari in his mirrors while keeping the gap to Nasr at 0.8s. Going to the end on the medium tyre after pitting on lap 24, Ricciardo didn’t quite manage to make a move on Nasr stick. Though given the challenges the RB11 has already faced this season, a P6 finish will keep Ricciardo smiling until Malaysia.

Force India decided to split their drivers’ strategies, having Perez start on the medium compound tyre, while Hulkenberg got off the line on the softs. Nico Hulkenberg managed to keep his VJM08 out of trouble to finish a quiet P7. Stopping on lap 23 for the medium compound, and then again for a final time on lap 46 for the soft compound to go to the end. The Hulk noticeably challenged Max Verstappen before the STR10’s untimely retirement. Sergio Perez drew slightly more attention during the race, playing cat and mouse with his former teammate at McLaren, Jenson Button. After a few failed attempts to make a move stick from the back end of the grid, Perez moved up on the inside of Button on the inside of turn 3. As Button refused to yield the two made contact, leaving the Mexican in a spin and in P13. Somehow not noticing the shower of bodywork rain down upon him, Perez radioed that he hadn’t attracted any damage and resumed the chase to Button. It wasn’t until Kimi’s retirement from the race that Perez managed to pace the McLaren. In a cruel set of circumstances, Button was in contention for a single point in P10, before Perez, on fresher tyres took Button on lap 44.

Toro Rosso picked a brilliant pair of rookie drivers, with both Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen delivering drives beyond their years. Sainz finished somewhat out of position in P9 following an excruciatingly slow stop on lap 26. Like Raikkonen, it was the left rear that caused the issue, refusing to loosen. The Spanish rookie sat patiently* as the pit crew tried to get the Toro Rosso moving. Max Verstappen was reluctantly added to the list of DNFs for the race following a power unit failure on lap 33. The 17-year-old rookie had driven incredibly to make a later stop back to the option tyre on lap 33. Being on the stickier, quicker rubber, and being considerably lighter on fuel load, Verstappen emerged in P9 eager and ready to carve his way back to his P5 taken by Raikkonen. Unfortunately, the Renault power unit had other ideas, billowing smoke and forcing Verstappen to park up at the entry to the pit lane. It was a valiant effort by the rookie, and a strong points finished spoiled by reliability issues.

McLaren Honda were the unlucky lot, with Jenson Button being the only car to finish outside of the points.
Button fought valiantly to keep the McLaren going, having not even completed a race distance yet this season. Managing the tyres from lap 1, Button held off Perez for almost the entirety of the race, briefly beating the Mercedes power with Honda power. Eventually finishing P11, it was a bitter sweet result for the team who, deciding the treat the race like another test session, were not expecting to even finish the race, but to come so close to scoring a point and losing it have a lot of positive and negatives to take away from Melbourne. Kevin Magnussen was another DNS with the MP4-30’s Honda power unit packing it in before the race began.

After a strong practice and qualifying for Lotus, it was a low blow as both drivers were DNC for the race. The opening lap scramble saw Pastor Maldonado get caught up in a tangle that wasn’t his fault to retire 10 seconds into the race. Meanwhile an immediate and inexplicable loss of power to Romain Grosjean’s E23 saw the Frenchman crawl back to the garage to retire at the end of the first lap. A short and frustrating race for the Enstone team.

While the 1-2 Mercedes finish was, *cough* somewhat predictable, the Australian Grand Prix lived up to it’s anticipation. It was the rookie drivers that delivered the best on track action, with the likes of Felipe Nasr and Max Verstappen particularly standing out. This season promises to deliver challenges for the “not-so-underdog-but-kind-of-now-an-underdog” McLaren, and anyone powered by Renault power, as well as chances for the rookie drivers to hold their own against race vetrans. The championship now moves in two weeks to the hot and humid Sepang International Circuit for the Malaysian Grand Prix, until then, ‘Ooroo!

– Alex

* Silently screaming expletives.

Images Courtesy of Lotus F1 Team.

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