Australian Grand Prix: Survive, If You Can

f1-2014-australia-rosberg-victoryThe margin of victory wasn’t two laps. Cars were still running at the finish. There were even enough cars to fill all the points paying positions. None of the doomsday scenarios for the first race of the turbo V6 and ERS era came to fruition.

However, as it was predicted by many people heading into this weekend, the Mercedes team was at the head of the field. It wasn’t Lewis Hamilton who won the race as expected but his teammate Nico Rosberg who took the checkered flag in the first race of 2014.

As we’ve come to expect from the first race of the season, the opening of this race was unpredictable. The first start attempt was aborted, much to everyone’s relief given that they have only 100 kg of fuel (130-ish litres) for the race, after Jules Bianchi stalled on the grid. His teammate, Max Chilton, stalled before the formation lap started so both Marussia’s started from the pit lane.

f1-2014-australia-massa-kobayashiOnce the lights went out, Lewis Hamilton and Daniel Ricciardo had slow starts from the front row which allowed Nico Rosberg onto the point. Behind, Kamui Kobayashi had a blistering start only to lock up and plow into Felipe Massa which ended both of their races in the gravel after only a few hundred metres. There was also a dust-up in Turn 3 that may have been between Perez and Gutierrez but no replay was shown and no other race reports mention it ever happening.

It wasn’t just collisions that made things interesting. Two top drivers retired just laps into the race. On Lap 2, Hamilton was told on the radio to retire the car to save the engine but that order was quickly rescinded. One lap later, he pulled into the pits, reportedly only on five cylinders, and out of the race. On Lap 4, it was Sebastian Vettel’s turn to retire. He had complained about a lack of power on the formation lap which was a result of an issue with his ERS unit, reportedly the motor generator unit with the KERS (braking energy recovery) part of the ERS setup.

f1-2014-australia-bottas-crashThe safety car made an early appearance in the race too, as we’ve come to expect in Melbourne. Valtteri Bottas was on an epic charge from his 15th place start and quick made it to 6th. He pushed a little too hard and tapped the wall heading onto the backstretch. It took off his right-rear tyre and broke the wheel rim. He didn’t retire from the race despite running half-a-lap as a tricycle.

That resulting safety car meant that everyone felt safe on fuel to the end. When the safety car was called out, the first round of pitstops occurred. Jenson Button had the best timing and climbed his way up to 6th from 10th as a result. The rest of the cars held position, though.

Despite the field being bunched back together, there wasn’t much passing. The only car that seemed to be able to make passes was the Williams of Valtteri Bottas. Apart from Bo77as, passing was still at a premium. The only real tension was from reliability and whether the cars would finish. That didn’t dampen Nico Rosberg’s day as he was able to claim his fourth career win and the championship lead after one race.

Normally, I would recap the top three finishers here but there was a post-race change. The stewards disqualified and excluded Daniel Ricciardo from his second place finish after the race. The stewards said that his car’s fuel sensor and fuel flow rates were not in compliance with the rules. During practice, the sensors used allowed fuel flow greater than the 100 kg/hr maximum and the problem wasn’t resolved to the FIA’s satisfaction. As such, they disqualified Ricciardo and promoted the remaining cars. Red Bull is appealing the decision and we’ll have to see how this turns out.

That means that Rosberg is still the race winner but now Kevin Magnussen finishes second which is the best finish for a rookie on debut since Jacques Villeneuve finished second in Albert Park in 1996 when he was told to pull over for Damon Hill. That was getting brought up whether Magnussen finished second or third. Ricciardo’s disqualification meant that McLaren took a double-podium finish with Button in 3rd.

Fernando Alonso was the best non-McLaren runner in 4th. Valtteri Bottas took one race to double Williams’ 19-race points haul from 2013 by crossing the line 5th. Nico Hulkenberg ran in the top five most of the day but you could probably blame the early switch to prime tyres for dropping to 6th. Kimi Raikkonen has been struggling with the new brake-by-wire system but still managed to match his car number with a P7 finish. The two Toro Rossos came next as the only two (legal) Renaults running at the finish with Vergne in 8th and Daniil Kvyat in 9th on his debut. Sergio Perez rounded out the points in his first race for Force India.

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Jenson Button leaves the pits after making a stop.I’m a little undecided as to what was the unintentional comedy moment of the race was. At first, I was certain that McLaren knocking off the tip of the Button’s nose during his second pit stop was the most hilarious thing that could happen considering how many teams have the long noses.

However, Rosberg topped that when he got lost pulling into parc ferme and pulled into the 2nd place spot. Then Magnussen botches his turn into the 3rd place spot so he’s too far over to the left. That leaves poor Ricciardo with the arse end of his car out of the parc ferme garage. The FIA didn’t look too good haphazardly moving all the signs around so they were in the right spots with the cars in the wrong spots. Actually, leaving Ricciardo out to dry may have been the right call in the end.

I guess these are just some of those things that everyone has to work out at the start of the season.

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Speaking of things needing working out, let’s talk about numbers. I’d much rather there be the permanent team numbers like there was in Formula One many years ago and like IndyCar and NASCAR have now.

f1-2014-australia-massaWhile I understand why F1 is going to permanent numbers, I don’t like that they’ve forgotten what the point of personal numbers is. If everyone has a number that is supposed to be their brand for their career, wouldn’t you want to see the drivers’ numbers on their cars.

Some cars have visible numbers on the nose and some drivers put their numbers on their helmets. That’s about it. Why not have bigger numbers on the noses and put numbers on the rear wing end plates. There’s another old idea that the F1 fraternity has forgotten. Hashtags don’t help you identify cars on track. Neither do yellow roll hoop cameras.

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One of the big questions heading into the season is whether F1 would be noticeably and boringly slower than the prior year. In testing, we saw that the cars were slower overall but faster through the speed trap thanks to the reduced downforce.

Thanks to rain during qualifying, we didn’t quite get a heads-up comparison of the cars at their fastest. However, we can look at their fastest Free Practice 3 times as a proxy. In 2013, Romain Grosjean set a time of 1:26.929. On Saturday, Nico Rosberg went fastest with a 1:29.375. That’s a difference of 2.5 seconds. Well, 2.446 seconds to be precise.

I know that many people will tell you that F1 has to be blindingly fast to draw the interest of the casual sports fan. Normally, I’d argue that great racing is the key to drawing fans but IndyCar has the best racing on the planet and they aren’t getting viewers so that would be evidence to disprove that hypothesis.

Formula One has always been about being the cutting edge of technology and the most advanced racing machines in the world. With the integration of the ERS units into the cars, I’d say that’s in keeping with classic F1. Sure, I’d like to open up the engine rules a bit more and allow teams to have a bit more freedom with the cars because that’s definitely classic F1. At least, some of what we’re seeing, like ERS, might be applicable to road cars in the future.

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The next race of the season comes after a rare two-week break at the start of the season. We’re used to F1 going back-to-back to open the season with races in Australia and Malaysia. Instead, we’re getting Malaysia in two weeks with Bahrain the week after that.

The Malaysian Grand Prix will be the first real test of the season as it’s the first race on a Hermann Tilke designed circuit. Seeing as ten of the 19 circuits on the calendar were designed (at least in part) by Tilke, including the next four races, if you’re fast in Malaysia, it bodes well for the rest of the season.

One would think that the long straights of Malaysia would favour the Mercedes cars. Hulkenberg’s Force India wasn’t faster than Alonso’s Ferrari in the turns but it was on the straights. Maybe the multitude medium speed turns will favour Ferrari’s apparently higher downforce levels.

For now, you have to think that Hamilton and Rosberg are the favourites with the Red Bulls and Ferraris next in line. However, given the early reliability problems that Hamilton and Vettel had, any prediction is naturally haphazard.

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