After a three-month off-season and a month of testing, it’s all to do again for the stars of Formula One. As is tradition, Formula One returns for another year with the Australian Grand Prix. While a new season often starts with a lot of questions, the only real question that most are asking is Lewis or Nico?
The first step in answering that question came in the first race of the season. Unlike last season, it was Lewis who took first blood and won the first race of the 2015 World Championship. Considering all the drama that happened during the weekend, it was almost as if the battle at the front of the field was just a backdrop to everything happening off-track.
The already small grid was even smaller when a quarter of the cars that turned up didn’t make it to the starting grid. The two Manor cars didn’t turn a wheel all weekend so their absence surprises no one. Valtteri Bottas was ruled out for the race after suffering an annular tear in a disk in his lower back which can apparently happen at any time, not just as a result of bumps or the seating position in an F1 car. On the way to the grid, Kevin Magnussen’s engine grenaded which ended his day before it started. Then Daniil Kvyat’s Red Bull lost drive when making his way to the grid.
And the race didn’t even get two turns complete before dropping two more competitors. As usual, there was carnage at the start of the Aussie GP. Having been forced wide in T1, Kimi Raikkonen came back on track and squeezed Felipe Nasr into Pastor Maldonado which sent the Lotus man into the wall. His teammate, Romain Grosjean, was spared damage in that crash because his car lost power on the formation lap and was last before reaching Turn 1. With both Lotuses out before the end of Lap 1, there were only 13 cars left.
After a safety car for the first turn incident, Hamilton took off from the field but Rosberg was able to stay within a couple of seconds. The interesting part of the action was watching a couple of Ferrari-powered cars. Raikkonen’s poor start meant he had some places to make up while Felipe Nasr used the restart to pick off Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo in quick succession. A few laps later, Raikkonen got by Sainz and was able to get by Ricciardo and later Nasr on the exchange of pit stops. Speaking of the exchange of pit stops, that’s how Sebastian Vettel was able to get up to 3rd in the running.
Unfortunately, that was about the extend of the action. Apart from an on and off battle between Sergio Perez and Jenson Button, there wasn’t much action after pit stops. Well, actually there was some noteworthy moments caused by pit stops. Max Verstappen’s dream of scoring in his first Grand Prix ended in smoke which was believed to be a complication of overheating during his pit stop. And Raikkonen had to retire his car after his second stop from which The Iceman was released with a loose left-rear wheel.
At the head of the field, it was all Hamilton, all the time. He dominated the race from start to finish and I’m not sure that he ever allowed Rosberg into DRS range. The win was Hamilton’s seventh win from the last eight Grands Prix. Rosberg’s second place was his fifth in the last eight races. He won one race, did not start one and suffered an ERS failure in the third race of that bunch. Rounding out the podium was Sebastian Vettel who scored his first podium for Ferrari in his first race for the Scuderia.
Felipe Massa finished fourth after losing out on the pit stop exchange. The big surprise of the day was Felipe Nasr in the Sauber. After the possibilities of the team not running or Giedo van der Garde getting a race seat, Nasr likely sealed his spot with the team with a 5th place in his debut. Daniel Ricciardo was the first Renault car and first car one lap down in 6th. While the Force Indias weren’t inspiringly fast, Nico Hulkenberg still managed to finish in 7th. Marcus Ericsson brought the other Sauber home in 8th. Carlos Sainz Jr. had an absolutely miserable pit stop which crippled any chances of a better finish but he managed a 9th. And Sergio Perez was the best of the non-Honda runners in 10th. Jenson Button was the only other driver who finished and was just a bit of luck away from scoring a point in Honda’s re-debut.
While I can appreciate that there was a race this weekend, the real story of the Australian Grand Prix was the legal battle between Sauber and Giedo van der Garde.
We’ve been documenting this story since last November so you can go back for detailed notes but here’s the short form. Van der Garde had a development seat contract for which a 2015 race seat option was triggered last summer. Adrian Sutil also believed he had a race seat for 2015. Then, Sauber signed Marcus Ericsson away from Caterham after he deemed his contract breached when the team skipped the US Grand Prix. Ericsson would get a race seat for 2015 as a result. The following week, the team announced Felipe Nasr would get a 2015 race seat as well.
So the problem was that Sauber had four drivers signed for race seats in 2015 (and possibly five or six depending on the conditions of Esteban Gutierrez and Sergey Sirotkin’s contracts) and only two cars to race. Because they were bringing the most money, Sauber wanted to run Nasr and Ericsson.
While we’ve been focusing on this court case in Australia, Giedo had been pursuing action since November. Van der Garde brought his case before the Swiss Chambers Arbitration Institution to get his race seat contract for 2015 enforced. Sauber responded by terminating GVDG’s contract in February (citing violations of confidentiality clauses in the contract as cause) but the Swiss court ruled on March 2nd that van der Garde was entitled to his race seat.
So what van der Garde was doing in the Supreme Court of Victoria was trying to get the Swiss court ruling enforced in Australia under penalty of contempt of court. It was a jurisdictional matter rather than a contract matter as the SCV had to rule if the Swiss court’s ruling was binding in Australia rather than whether the contract was valid for enforcement.
Last week, the SCV hustled through proceedings to determine that the Swiss court ruling is applicable in Australia and powered through Sauber’s subsequent appeal. Things got so legally contentious that Sauber missed FP1 because the court forbid the team from touching the cars. There were also reports that Sauber team principal Monisha Kaltenborn was in danger of being arrested for contempt of court with Sauber’s assets to be seized as a result.
Court proceedings were scheduled to continue on Saturday but Sauber and van der Garde’s lawyers came to some sort of settlement for the time being that allowed the team to continue running on Saturday with Nasr and Ericsson in the cars.
There are a couple of theories being floated as to what happened at the eleventh hour. The first one is that van der Garde’s last-minute legal case meant that he wouldn’t be able to get a valid superlicence for the Grand Prix. There’s some debate as to what temporary measures were available for VDG. Other theories are monetary. Some believe that the two sides are negotiating a buy-out of Giedo’s contract. So far, all we know is that Giedo felt it necessary to stand aside for this race so the team can continue operations for this weekend.
Interestingly, the settlement between van der Garde and Sauber might have been pushed along by Bernie Ecclestone. German publication Blid suggested that Bernie got involved to get the two parties to settle without the Australian courts making a definitive ruling on F1 matters.
What is absolutely certain is that we’re not done hearing about this issue. Until both parties come out with some sort of official statement that says what the plan for the next 18-ish races, I think we can consider this matter unresolved.
Hang on a second, I hear you say. You said 18-ish races but it’s a 20-race calendar for this season.
No, you think it’s a 20-race championship this year but there’s a very real possibility that one of those races will be dropped. Bernie told Christian Sylt, writing for The Independent this time, that the German Grand Prix is “dead.”
In odd-numbered years, the German GP is supposed to be held at the Nurburgring but Bernie seems to have his heart set on going to Hockenheim. However, the Hockenheim circuit bosses have been non-committal when speculation suggests that they’ll be hosting the race in the Nurburgring’s place. Bernie also has no interest in finding a third track to host the race should the financial troubles at both Hockenheim and Nurburgring mean that neither circuit will host the 2015 GP.
Lotus development driver Carmen Jorda was in the Lotus garage this weekend. Someone in the garage was rather impressed with her.
Also, while the video title suggests it Martin Brundle who did the catcalling, people watching every other feed in the world also reported the whistle.
The next round of the 2015 Formula One World Championship will be in two weeks’ time from the Sepang International Circuit near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the Malaysian Grand Prix.
As I often say at this time of year, the Malaysia Grand Prix is the first real indicator of how the rest of the season will play out because it’s the first track of the season designed by Hermann Tilke. Nine of the 19 tracks on the calendar are designed or modified with design input from Tilke. This year’s line up is Sepang, Shanghai, Bahrain, Catalunya (modified final section), Red Bull Ring (Osterreichring redesign), Sochi, Austin, Mexico City (circuit redesign to modern F1 standards) and Abu Dhabi.
So it’ll be a battle between Lewis and Nico at the head of the field for the win and this will be our first proper indication of who has the upper hand for this year’s World Drivers’ Championship. If all goes to plan, this will be our first two-on-two battle between the Williams and Ferraris. Speaking of first proper indications, this may be our first look at who may come out on top in the battle for second in the World Constructors’ Championship.