Sunday 20 March 2016

Australian GP Report - Stop me if you think you've heard this one before

Mercedes-Mercedes-Vettel. Hey ho. But you know the one about not judging books by their cover.

There wasn't too much standard about
Nico Rosberg's latest win
Photo: Octane Photography
There were considerable adventures in getting there. And varying from what Friday and Saturday had indicated it was in fact Nico Rosberg of the two Mercedes that won out in Melbourne's season-opener. Something that should feel familiar and perhaps doesn't, given it's his fourth win in a row.

In another common fallacy, for all that we love to predict F1 races ahead of time we forget that in this sport we have a standing start, and after that in a blink the picture can look very different. It was the case today.

Reminiscent of the Hungary race last year the Ferraris vaulted the previously-imperious Mercs at the get-go with Lewis Hamilton particularly punished. Vettel jumped the two silver cars off the line but what really did for them was that Nico, who'd got a better start than his team mate, ran deep into turn one taking Lewis with him (it didn't look deliberate, more that Nico was off line and locked his front wheels). This allowed the other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen past them both too, and Lewis with his momentum checked lost more places to run sixth.

As in Hungary last year this also was the second go after an aborted start, and some reckon the Mercedes clutch overheats in that situation.

Vettel led off the line as the Mercedes
compromised each other
Photo: Octane Photography
And for a time it looked exactly like that Hungaroring race - suddenly the Ferraris looking formidable out front; about as suddenly the Mercs not doing a much to get with them, their pace of the previous two days not obvious. Lewis's progress through the field was tardy, particularly in getting by Max Verstappen. Nico did manage to vault Kimi at the first stops and indeed got close to Seb after he'd pitted, but once everyone was up to speed again Seb looked comfortable with his lead still, now with a fresh set of supersofts saved from yesterday that looked to be working a treat.

But then the day changed. Fernando Alonso barrel-rolled after colliding with the back of Esteban Gutierrez's Haas at turn 3, in a terrifying crash reminiscent of Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher at the very same corner some years ago. And the extent of it, and its resultant debris, meant the red flag was thrown.

These days in-race red flag stoppages in effect zero the race - everyone can change tyres and they re-start in their order behind the safety car. And it is here that Ferrari got it wrong. Vettel re-started on the same supersoft set of tyres he was on before; Nico (and Lewis, who pitted at the worst moment just before the red flag and re-started in P7) as is allowed under the new rules went two compounds removed and proceeded on the medium. It proved to be the way to go.

It was the clearly the intention of the Merc drivers to run to the end without another halt while Seb equally clearly would have to pit again. And when after a lap or so Seb's pace advantage over the pursuing Nico was only a matter of two or three tenths per lap it was obvious which way the wind was blowing.

The race came to Nico Rosberg
Photo: Octane Photography
Seb stuck it out as long as he could but by the time he pitted Nico was right with him, and the latter smartly took a lead he never was to lose. Vettel's halt - not helped by it being an iffy one - returned him to the action some way behind even the recovering Lewis. He got with the Englishman before the end though passing clearly was a different matter. Seb running wide off the track briefly with two laps left ended the suspense. Our rather familiar top three was set.

So unlike in the Hungaroring Mercedes retrieved the situation after losing places at the start. But how much did it rely on the red flag this time? Niki Lauda's words later suggests he knows what the answer is. "It was very tough [without the red flag], I have to say. This is what we all wanted, competition - but there was too much competition!"

And how much did Merc owe to Ferrari getting it wrong? Certainly the Scuderia took the wrong path, though in its defence Seb's pace advantage on the supersofts over Nico on the soft prior to the red flag was stunning, so it's easy to see why Ferrari thought it could pull out the gap of a pit stop loss time. But word on the street afterwards was that Ferrari treated the medium tyre rather like an unexploded bomb, the team simply felt it knew nothing about the compound and was concerned it wouldn't be able to 'switch them on'. Mercedes didn't really know either but it did have much running on them under its belt from pre-season testing. Its tyre engineer even thought the cars could run out of grip before the end. But they didn't, which is the important bit.

Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrvabene was rueful afterwards
Photo: Octane Photography
"We tried to do an aggressive strategy" said Ferrari boss Maurizio Arrivabene afterwards. "At the beginning of the race we were [strong]...then we have the red flag". It missed the point a little bit though, as what Ferrari did in response to the red flag can be questioned too. Last season we got rather used to the red team scarcely missing a beat on strategy or indeed on pit stop drill, so today was an unwelcome departure for it. Its reliability wasn't perfect either, as Kimi had to stop just after the re-start with a fire.

Yet it struck it was a podium on which all three could take hope - Nico has 25 points of course and his momentum one way or another continues. He wasn't quickest really at any point and the race did come to him, but there's always been an art to winning out in such circumstances.

Lewis can be happy with his pace advantage this weekend given he looked to have the legs of his team mate, and everyone else for that matter, for just about the whole time. And unlike in Hungary last year he salvaged something pretty sizeable from a race wherein he lost ground at the start. Martin Brundle even described it as a "save".

While Vettel can be content that the Mercs didn't run away from him, and at this track where last year they ran away more than anywhere.

All three drivers on the podium have cause for optimism
Photo: Octane Photography
And their words afterwards reflected as much.

"Early days of course but perfect start" said Rosberg, "we've got to keep an eye on the red guys...we need to do everything to stay ahead for sure.

"It was a tough battle with the Ferraris, but my team nailed it, especially with the red flag just putting on the right tyres and running to the end, so awesome".

Lewis noted: "I came back from quite far behind so I feel that I achieved quite a lot today. I'm really happy that I did a damage limitation, I got good points, the team did a great job. It's the first race, it's 20 races to go...

"It was just trying to get through the traffic, particularly with the guys in front who had a faster tyre, it was just impossible to follow around here as you could see for all of us, but I'm really happy to get the result".

While Vettel said "it's much better when you're at the front, you can control the race and the pace.

"Obviously you can argue that the red flag didn't help us but nevertheless we had our chance, we didn't expect what both of them [Rosberg and Hamilton] did, going on their hardest compound, the medium tyre, and going to the end.

Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull had a strong race
Photo: Octane Photography
"So we tried to go more aggressive, maybe it didn't work but ultimately very happy with third and [we] tried everything so hopefully it works next time."

Others had reasons to be glad too. The Red Bull's race day pace was indeed more potent as testing had suggested and Daniel Ricciardo took a worthy fourth place, having run in reasonably close company of Hamilton for much of the way. It appears the Renault power unit has indeed stepped up too, as evidenced by Ricciardo passing a Williams on the straight.

And after a qualifying in which it showed its inexperience the debutant Haas team had a brilliant race, with Romain Grosjean finishing sixth. It got lucky by the red flag happening with Grosjean, pretty much alone, having not yet pitted, then having changed tyres during the halt he ran on the medium to the end. But beyond that the team made its luck, and the car's pace looked solid. And with Haas it's not just about that team, as with it coming in immediately on midfield pace how many current teams, or entrepreneurs on the outside, will follow its model of buying in as much as it can and go racing with a budget that beats only Manor's? F1 might just have found a sensible solution to its chronic cost problems.

Yet there were even bigger things at stake today too. As F1 Racing magazine editor Anthony Rowlinson noted on Twitter: ‏"Real race, real fans. Did someone say F1 is in trouble? Paddock negativity is the sport's biggest problem". And, whaddaya know, no one now is talking about the dud qualifying system from yesterday. It's noteworthy how quickly things move on in this game. As well as that as Sir Frank Williams for one has been given cause to muse, that for the hour and a half on a Sunday afternoon at least, this remains a sport.

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