Monday, 17 March 2014

Mercedes Dominate Season Opener

The 2014 championship is now underway following an exciting first weekend in Australia. There were so many unknowns heading into the race that it would be impossible to say we now have all of the answers after just 1 weekend, but certainly a lot more questions have been answered than raised.

Rosberg and Magnussen got great initial launches from the grid.

Mercedes lead the way

The Mercedes team have looked the strongest throughout winter testing, and continued the trend in Australia. Over a single flying lap the gap to their opposition is not as much as expected, but certainly the race pace shown by Nico Rosberg blew the opposition out of the park. The rest of the teams will have a lot of work ahead if they are to catch up before they can build up an early lead in either championship. Both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg look set to duel it out for the drivers championship, so Hamilton will be frustrated to be 25 points behind Rosberg already. Potentially the only fear currently will be the reliability, which both drivers have mentioned throughout testing and Australia. The team will focus on the reliability, as they look to capitilise on their early season form, and as neither driver will be happy to see the other ahead because of reliability setbacks on one car more than the other.

Rosberg won with ease, but it is unknown just how much pace Mercedes had left up their sleeve.

Red Bull finally have some positives

It must have been gut-wrenching for both Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo to learn of their exclusion following a miraculous turn around between the last test in Bahrain and in Australia. The exact issue was not how much fuel used throughout the race, but the rate at which is was burnt at various stages of the race. The maximum flow of fuel is 100kg/h, which they obviously cannot maintain throughout the entire race (100kg total fuel for a race lasting about 90 minutes). The flow will therefore be reduced in fuel saving periods at a cost to the power performance from the engine, much like a power limiter would work. The breach of this rule means that Red Bull would be gaining a power increase over their rivals when the Renault was being pressed to full power. How much of an advantage is unknown, but think to the last 10 laps where Ricciardo was under pressure from Kevin Magnussen and potentially the power increase helped here especially.

There has been a lot of backlash following Ricciardo's exclusion based on the FIA's measurement meter apparently suspected of being faulty on his Red Bull, a problem that has been experienced throughout the pitlane throughout testing. Other teams experienced the fault in Australia too, and all of them warned by the FIA when the fuel limit was exceeded. All of the other teams then reacted by turning the fuel flow down, but Red Bull insisted that they were within the regulations and carried on regardless. This is the issue for me, as they knew they were testing the waters of the FIA by doing so and in apparent belief that they would successfully argue the case with readings from the teams flow sensor. The FIA's equipment is the deciding rule though (explained within the engine regulations) and so they will not have much of an argument against it.

Ricciardo was mighty throughout his debut within the Red Bull team, delighting the Australian fans.

Regardless of the exclusion though, Daniel Ricciardo and Red Bull had a lot to smile about after the opening race, having come to Australia targeting only a finish within the points. As expected, it is another quick Adrian Newey design capable of running at the front when Renault give them the engine to do so. It wasn't a weekend free of flaws though, with Sebastian Vettel suffering software glitches in qualifying and ERS issues ending his race after just 5 laps. The German was clearly frustrated throughout with his RB10, punching the air with frustration after being knocked out in Q2 and shouting at the team within the race itself. The consummate professional he is though, he stayed behind at the circuit to help Ricciardo and to garner as much information going forward as possible. He'll take the positives from the weekend though and I'm sure he will be fighting for race wins by the European races.

Vettel never seemed comfortable with the situation in Australia, the pressure is definitely showing.

McLaren, Williams, Ferrari, and Nico Hulkenberg on a similar pace

After Daniel Ricciardo's exclusion, Kevin Magnussen's second place in his Formula 1 debut equal the record set by Jacques Villeneuve at the same circuit in 1996. Magnussen already impressed on Saturday after beating his more experienced team mate Jenson Button, who could manage only 11th before penalties were applied. Both McLaren drivers had flawless races to take the fight to Ricciardo for second, and to lead the constructors championship thanks to their reliability as well as their pace. Button will be keen to qualify closer, if not ahead, of Magnussen next time round so that he can make better use of his race pace and get show the team that he is still their best shot at the drivers championship.

A great debut for Kevin Magnussen who richly deserved a podium on his debut.

Williams came to Australia looking like the second best team, but the rain in qualifying and gearbox penalty for Valtteri Bottas hampered their starting positions. Massa's race ended at turn 1 through no fault os his own, whilst Bottas showed calm in the way he progressed through the field early on. The slightest mistake cost him dearly when he made contact with his right rear tyre and needed to crawl back to the pits for new tyres. He showed experience beyond his years though to put the mistake behind him, running an exceptional recovery back to 5th with fantastic race pace and setting the second fastest lap doing so. Without the barrier impact, Bottas looked like he could have finished in second position instead and Williams will take pride in that going forward.

Bottas was driver of the day for me, and Williams will be looking for more than 5th place now.

The Ferrari drivers endured a race long battle both with Nico Hulkenberg and with electrical problems which reduced the power output from their complicated power units. Hulkenberg spent his first stint holding onto 4th place ahead of Fernando Alonso and would eventually lose out to him in the first pitstops. It has now become customary for Hulkenberg to be able to drive whatever car he is given at the sharp end of the points, and really put team mate Sergio Perez in the shade as he finished a very distant 11th from 16th on the grid. Kimi Raikkonen battled through the same electrical issues to 7th, but I doubt many will have expected to seem so far off the pace of Fernando Alonso or to see him spin so lazily into the wall in qualifying. I'm sure we will see a lot better pace from the Ferrari's in weeks to come with a resolution to those engine problems and the unrelenting development pace of the Scuderia. There were rumours within the paddock that the Ferrari is currently 18kg over the weight limit, a deficit they will look to resolve quickly. Force India have the Mercedes engine advantage, and will hope to capitilise on that as well both with aerodynamic gains and better perfomances from Perez.

Yet another example of Hulkenberg punching above the cars level - Should he be driving the car behind?

Most improved team - Toro Rosso

If you had told Toro Rosso in Bahrain that they would have a double points finish in Australia, they would have probably laughed in your face at the prospect. It was a fantastic turnaround by the team to have the single lap pace to get both of the cars into Q3, and then to even finish the race with the seemingly tainted Renault power units that have plagued almost every session for them in winter testing.  Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniil Kvyat were the only Renault powered cars across the finish line other than Daniel Ricciardo, crucial mileage that will help the teams preparations ahead of Malaysia. In the process, Kvyat stole away one of Vettel's records by becoming the youngest ever Formula 1 point scorer in yet another impressive debut. He was bested by his more experienced team mate, but he will be glad that the gap between them was not that much with the reduced track time he will have had in his build up to the season. Jean-Eric Vergne was unfortunate not to finish 6th after being passed by both Bottas and Raikkonen at the end of stunning recoveries for the pair. Malaysia will be stern proof whether Toro Rosso really are on top of their engine dramas or not.

Vergne will be a good benchmark for Kvyat throughout the season.

Silent Saubers 

We saw very little of the Sauber cars throughout the weekend, with disappointing pace in qualifying and lacklustre race finishes for the pair. Guttierez's Q3 time was only good enough to put him ahead of the Lotus' and Marcus Ericsson, and a gearbox penalty put him last on the grid anyway. Sutil didn't achieve much more, qualifying 13th on the grid after Bottas' gearbox penalty. Both drivers went on to finish the race, but scored no points in 11th and 12th and were 1 lap back from the points. Max Chilton was the only classified car that they finished ahead of, so there is a lot of work to be done back at the factory to make the car more competitive. Reliability will be a key feature, as they'll hope to maintain their own as the others that failed to finish will resolve theirs.

Sauber got both cars to the finish, but their pace left much to be desired.
Marussia closer but not close enough

The battle at the back still appears to be between Marussia and Caterham, as the new rules have still not allowed them to join the midfield runners. Max Chilton missed out of Q2 by less than 1 tenth of a second, which instead allowed Kamui Kobayashi qualify a superb 14th in the rain affected session. Chilton was half a second faster than team mate Jules Bianchi though, a great achievement given the dominance Bianchi had last year. The relative race pace seems to be in Caterhams favour, but with Kobayashi out at turn 1 and Ericsson only making it to the halfway stage it is difficult to know for sure. Best race finishes have determined constructor positions between the 2 over the last few years, so they'll look to finish the early races whilst those above them battle unreliability initially. It'll be interesting watching the developing battle as they could yet find the time to the midfield runners and regularly run in Q2.

Bianchi was still running at the end of the race, but he was 6 laps behind team mate Chilton.

Weekends won't get worse than this one for Lotus

A team has not looked so out of their depth since Hispania Racing joined Formula 1 in 2010. Not only are they running the troubled Renault engines, but the balance of the car seems woeful as well. Both drivers were seen venturing through gravel traps and having crashes at various points of the weekend, and started the race last and second to last. Maldonado did not set a time, and Grosjean's effort was 1.8 seconds of the nearest rival, the Caterham of rookie Marcus Ericsson. The team even made the error of sending Grosjean to the end of the pitlane at the start of the race too early, a poor mistake meaning he was given a drive through penalty before even joining the race. The race pace of both drivers will have given some encouragement that once the reliability is sorted that they may be able to challenge for some points. It is a very long way from how they ended 2013 though and they will need some real improvement soon to sure up the teams future in the sport.

Racing Marussia's is not something Grosjean has experience of, but even that was short-lived...

All in all, the 2014 Australian Grand Prix was a great race behind Nico Rosberg, with work to be done by all of the teams in the first half of the season. We saw the first real evidence that Mercedes are in a league of their own currently, and all fears over the young debutants have been swept away with some brilliant performances. I was amazed to see just how quickly all of the teams were on a level playing field with regards to race pace, as there had been concerns about major gaps between the teams emerging. The 100kg fuel limit does not seem to be of much concern either, and we saw no one running out of fuel as some had anticipated (or running uncompetitively to avoid doing so). Malaysia will offer some very humid conditions to test the reliability of the engines further, something Renault will not be keen for at this stage. The championship looks set to be one of the most intriguing for some time, with many questions yet to be answered or asked already.

The dominance, the turn-around and the expectation.