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.

Australian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

G’day maaate, welcome to the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship in Melbourne Australia. It’s the 20th year running that F1 returns to the 5.303km circuit at Albert Park. Running clockwise for 58 laps, Albert Park is a brilliant mix of big braking points and smooth running corners. At an average speed of 213 km/h, this one is considered a medium speed track with “only” 65% of a lap spent at full throttle. The hard braking zones, with turn 13 being the heaviest offer a good opportunity to recharge the ERS. Brakeware has a stronger focus in strategy, with teams’ favouring a higher downforce set up carrying an advantage. Doing it’s best to imitate the outback, the bumpy and dusty Albert Park circuit is a demanding track, with overtaking even with DRS proves to be difficult. Turn 3 appears to be the best opportunity for overtaking, but expect some challenges out of the final corner. The tyre allocation for the weekend is the soft, option, and medium, prime Pirelli compounds, with a two-stop strategy being expected. Track temperatures were a warm 38°C for the beginning of Q1, dropping by 10°C by the time Q3 rolled around. The opening qualifying session saw Lewis Hamilton set 1:26.327 to steal pole position by 0.594s, ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg. Williams’, Felipe Massa took P3 with a 1:27.718, indicating that the Grove based team remain the best of the rest compared to the Silver Arrows.

Mercedes refuse to loosen their strong hold on the championship, with the F1 W06 consistently setting a quick pace over the weekend. As the session begun both Hamilton and Rosberg were slippy on the medium compound tyre, with the rear occasionally stepping out. After a few laps were on the board however, the tyre temps and pressures settled in, and Mercedes quickly took their familiar spot at the top of the timesheets for Q1 and Q2.
Hamilton was unchallenged in the final session, setting his 1:26.327 with more than 5 minutes to spare. Rosberg did a bit of maintenance to the grass in Q3, running wide in turn 15 after an unusual lock up in the middle of the apex. With no time set for the German, the pressure was on for Rosberg to deliver a challenge for pole. Unfortunately, Rosberg’s 1:28.510 was comparatively slow to his teammate, settling to line up P2 ahead of tomorrow’s race.

Williams F1 Team played leapfrog with the two Ferraris’ throughout qualifying, though once again held their own in the final moments of the session. Felipe Massa ran a good session in the FW37, remaining just behind the Mercedes both on the medium and soft compound tyres. It was with apparent ease that Massa set a 1:27.718 for P3. Valtteri Bottas took the role of Flying Finn in qualifying, being the stronger of the two in Q1 and Q2, slipping comfortably into P2 in between the Silver Arrows. Painfully, it was Q3 that didn’t come together for Bottas after suffering a lock up on turn 1 of his first flying lap, followed by massively missing the apex of turn 3. After several more attempts to put a lap together, it was the bumpy entry of turn 16 that mocked the FW37, sending Bottas wide and spoiling what was a strong lap. As a result, the Williams is slightly out of expected position in P6 with 1:28.087.

Ferrari must get up very early in the morning as the Scuderia’s haven’t looked this strong since the 2008 season. The SF15-T was not only quick, but maintained bite throughout the session, remaining competitive in the latter end of Q3 where the Ferrari fell away last season. The highly anticipated arrival of Sebastian Vettel to partner Kimi Raikkonen makes the driver line up a fan favourite, and it would appear that Seb’s cheek is well matched with Kimi. “Sebastian, what kind of Ferrari have you got ahead of tomorrow’s race?”, “A red one…”. Neither Vettel nor Raikkonen are strangers to the sharp end of the timesheets, with a P4 and P5 for the team, a podium definitely isn’t out of reach.

Local hero and Red Bull’s new front man, Daniel Ricciardo received cheers every time he crossed the line from the Webber Grandstand. After suffering from an early engine change on Friday, Ricciardo recovered to run consistently on Saturday in Q1 on the medium compound tyres, before flinging himself into P6 to see him pass through to the top ten shoot out. Shaving a few tenths off the Q2 time, Ricciardo set a 1:28.087 as the checkered flag fell briefly putting the Aussie in P3, before being bumped down to a relatively competitive P7. Daniil Kvyat was last out in Q1, making his first appearance with less than three minutes remaining in the session. It was a disappointing first outing for Kvyat stepping up into the Red Bull seat as handling issues and an over enthusiastic throttle that had plagued FP3 carried through into Saturday afternoon. Unable to make the cut, Kvyat battled the RB11 for 1:29.070, an improvement from 1:30.402 in Q1, though still considerably off the pace. The Russian lines up P13 for tomorrow’s race.

The Toro Rosso’s were another surprise challenge in qualifying with both drivers finishing inside the top ten after Q1. Carlos Sainz’s pace in the STR10 impressed in in qualifying, despite spinning at turn 4 after dipping a toe on the grass. Sainz controlled the Renault powered Toro Rosso to put together flying lap after flying lap. It was no surprise therefore that the rookie made it through to the top ten shoot out to piece together a lap of 1:28.510 on the soft tyres. Just 0.2s off big brother, Daniel Ricciardo, Sainz lines up P8. The youngest on the grid had a lot to prove in his debut qualifying session, to which he delivered. Max Verstappen was similarly quick on the pace in Q1, with his performance leaving Helmut Marko unphased. However his session came to an early end after complaining over the radio that there was something behind his right shoulder, the rookie held the STR10 together s best he could for a 1:28.868, just missing out on the top ten shoot out in P12.

The new and improved Lotus F1 Team were a happy addition to the top ten shoot out, proving that the switch to Mercedes power at the end of last season was a good decision. Although Maldonado had to battle with understeer, and then oversteer on his flying lap in Q1, the Venezuelan kept it together and soon the E23 behaved. Both Grosjean and Maldonado were quicker than the Red Bulls and Toro Rosso’s in Q2, indicating the the E23 is more than ready to put up a strong fight. The Enstone based team appeared to suffer most from the 10°C drop in track temperature, losing pace in the back end of Q3. So it was P9 for Grosjean and P10 for Maldonado with 1:28.560 and 1:29.480 on the soft compound tyres.

Sauber’s weekend so far has been a touch dramatic, with car issues during practice and you know, the whole issue of seemingly having 3-drivers signed to a 2-seat team… Putting the paddock drama to one side, Felipe Nasr was something of a dark horse on Saturday, out-qualifying his teammate by 5 grid positions. In the final moments of Q2, Nasr set a competitive flying lap of 1:28.800, briefly seeing the rookie inside the top ten. Although it was the two Lotus’ final effort that bumped the Sauber down to P11. Markus Ericsson’s new outfit is at least, more competitive than a Caterham… Unfortunately for the Swede the best the C34 could offer him didn’t even dip below the 1:30s. A difficult final flying lap for Ericsson put together 1:31.376 for P16.

Force India were absent for the Q1 and Q3, resulting in both Hulkenberg and Perez being literally absent in Q3. Despite having the advantage of a Mercedes power-unit, the VJM08 lacked both pace and bite into the corners. In an uneventful Q1, Hulkenberg and Perez managed to remain out of the dropzone to progress to the second session. And while it was a improvement on both times, 1:29.208 for Hulkenberg and 1:29.209 for Perez were the best the duo could muster for P14 and P15 respectively. In an effort to find a silver lining, at least Hulkenberg and Perez appeared consistent with each others lap times, even if it was three seconds off the pace to the leaders.

The issues keep on coming for McLaren Honda, with Button and Magnussen rounding off the grid. Considerably down on power, Button and Magnussen posed little threat even to Sauber, only managing 1:31.422 and 1:32.037 respectively, a massive 1.5s off the pace to progress through the grid. Manor F1 Team have put in an incredible effort to make it to the season opener on Australia. Unfortunately for the team, a software issue has plagued Manor over the course of weekend, resulting in yet another session that both drivers’ were forced to sit out. It was therefore, “no time set” for Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi in qualifying.

So Mercedes remain in a league of their own ahead of tomorrow’s race, while a surprising battle between the Williams and Ferrari is emerging. It remains to be seen if Ferrari can hold out to make the distance competitively, or if the Scuderia will fall short on the demanding circuit. Williams will no doubt be a worthy adversary, being strong both in terms of pace and aero setup. Further back in the grid, we can expect battles between the Red Bulls, Lotus, and Toro Rossos for a tantalising cocktail of vetran and rookie skill. McLaren, aside from Manor have the biggest challenge ahead of them, with their aim likely to be to finish the race without sacrificing an engine. Adding to excitement, the locals predict rain for race day, but it is Melbourne in March, could be either blazing sunshine of absolute downpour… Either way, the season opener will be top show.

– Alex

Ps. It’s good to be back.