Sunday, 20 March 2016

Rosberg takes win after spectacular Alonso crash

As is traditional the Australian Grand Prix opened the Formula 1 season at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne. After a Mercedes 1-2 in qualifying with Lewis Hamilton on formidable form with a brilliant pole position it was surely back to the normal routine as he commenced his bid for a fourth world title...

Of course so much has gone on to get to that point. The last four months has seen the teams working feverishly to get their cars ready, especially as the Australian race was brought forward by two weeks meaning a lot of the teams planning had to be shuffled. 

Testing showed Mercedes were strong but the hope was Ferrari had taken another step forward over the winter to really challenge, after qualifying this hope was rather dampened as they lined up nearly a second back from the silver cars.

A lot has changed in Formula 1 and a lot has stayed the same since the end of the 2015 season. Some of the more notable additions to this year was the new qualifying format, which I won't go into because it was so rubbish it's already looking like it'll be scrapped for the second round in Bahrain in two weeks time with the old system being brought back in. 

When will these people realise there isn't anything wrong with the format, it's the way the money is distributed and perhaps the way the rules are formed. Although if we could have consistent rules stability everyone would close up in the end. Today we saw that at the top and in the pack it's all looking rather promising, more on which later, for now lets continue to bitch about the stupidity.

So qualifying was one of the major changes that was magicked out of the air and so it proved the second point of things staying the same which is Formula 1 is ruled by chaotic decision making and ill-thought out ideas. Never mind, at least the team bosses got together on Sunday morning to get rid of such a pointless change in the first place.

A couple of other changes look like they are good additions with the addition of an extra compound of tyres available for each driver. Drivers are free to choose how many sets of each compound they want, two of which must be used in the race. It creates extra strategic options as seen in today's race.

The further restriction of radio transmissions mean the drivers are certainly more alone than they have been for years and are no longer the play things of the engineers sitting on the pit wall. This was relaxed slightly an hour before the race to allow strategy calls to be made between the teams and drivers. 

So let's go back to 'rather promising' aspects of the days events and the racing, because this is what we got today, a good race. Nico Rosberg picked up where he left off to take his first win of the year and his fourth consecutive victory when you include his winning of the last three races of 2015. Lewis Hamilton came through the pack to finish second after a faltering start where the Mercedes cars touched slightly and he dropped back to seventh.

So it seems on first look this was further demonstration that the old order of Mercedes way out in front was maintained from the previous couple of seasons. But this wasn't so, in qualifying Ferrari hadn't gone for a second run in Q3 whereas Mercedes cars had improved on their times. Ferrari's race pace was arguably as strong as the German giants, certainly their starts were light years ahead.

Engine notes raised, lights out, Vettel launched between the silver cars, Hamilton was sluggish away while Rosberg hung on claiming the inside line, but a bit of squeezing from Vettel let the Ferrari through and clear he went. Rosberg hung on so long, he almost clattered into Hamilton, he did shove him wide though allowing the second Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen through, the brilliantly qualified Toro Rosso's of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz, and Felipe Massa in the Williams got ahead as well.

Even fans of Mercedes must have been praying for such a start, now we had a race on our hands. So the Ferrari's led in 1-2 formation on a track which is difficult to pass on. Rosberg closed up a bit but never really challenged while behind Lewis began his comeback passing Massa but getting stuck behind the Toro Rosso drivers.

Then came lap 17, battling in the midfield Fernando Alonso proved just how safe Formula 1 cars are these days. He came up behind Esteban Gutierrez in the new Haas car as they approached turn three, feinted to the right then to the left, but it seemed Alonso misjudged the speed differential or Gutierrez braked a little earlier than expected, but whatever happened (the stewards deemed it a racing incident) Alonso smashed into the back of the Haas, his McLaren speared into the wall and towards the gravel trap which pitched it into a barrel roll. 

The television coverage picked up Gutierrez's car first and as it zoomed out we caught site of Alonso scrambling out of an upside down and completely mangled McLaren. It was a miraculous escape for the double world champion. 

The safety car was initially deployed but a red flag soon flew and the race was stopped. This means any damage can be fixed in the pit lane and tyres can be changed. it's effectively a free pit stop. This helped determine the result. Before the stoppage, Kimi had lost a place to Rosberg during the first round of stops. Both Ferrari's were on super-soft tyres, the quickest of the compounds but not very durable.

Rosberg was on soft tyres, but during the stoppage switched to mediums, which were likely to get him to the end of the race. Hamilton had already elected to switch to mediums to help him get ahead of the Toro Rosso's and not have to stop again. The Ferrari team decided to stay on super-softs meaning they would definitely have to stop again. It was a decision that turned a likely Ferrari win into a Mercedes victory.

When the race got going again, Vettel pumped in a few quick laps extending his lead over Rosberg, but the Mercedes soon was on his pace and then started to catch him. When Vettel pulled into the pits with 22 laps left to go it was game over for the win, it was now his mission to hunt down Hamilton. By this time Kimi was already retired, flames coming from the air box.

The Toro Rosso's got out of the way of Hamilton as they also needed to stop, leaving Lewis to try and catch Rosberg, but Nico was wise to it and maintained a 10 second gap. Vettel closed the gap to Lewis, but locked up with a couple of laps to go losing him a chance of second.

So Rosberg crossed the line to win, Lewis was happy to come back for second while Vettel seemed happy enough with the knowledge that his car looks like it will help him to challenge for the title. 

Daniel Ricciardo finished fourth after an inspired drive, and my Star of the race. Red Bull have produced a great chassis, and although still down on power the Renault engine in the back has been improved. He started eighth but dropped a place at the start. However before the red flag he had worked his way up to sixth with a few late braking passing moves before moving up to fourth as those around him pitted. Not having pitted he got a free pit stop, but kept a good pace to keep up with the leaders. It was a strong drive, he'll be in the mix this year at many more races along with his team mate Daniil Kvyat who didn't even make the start following a problem as the grid formed up.

Felipe Massa took a lonely fifth, while Romain Grosjean in the Haas also hadn't pitted by the time of the stoppage and found himself in ninth when the race restarted. With retirements and others pitting he worked his way up to sixth, but although slightly fortuitous it showed how much genuine pace is in this new car and team as he held off challenges from behind. A brilliant start to this new teams life in the top rung of motor sport. 

Force India was another team which could have had a better team, Sergio Perez losing out to finish only 13th although Nico Hulkenberg got them some points with seventh holding off the recovering Williams of Valtteri Bottas, the Williams driving recovering from 16th on the grid after a gearbox penalty.

The Toro Rosso's ended up with Sainz ahead of Verstappen due to the Spaniard pitting first. This caused the teenager to get quite creative with his language on the team radio, they're both going to be great entertainment this year and if not for the red flag would have finished much higher up than ninth and tenth.

Amongst the other runners Jolyon Palmer made his debut for the reformed Renault team and impressed straight away by out qualifying his highly rated returnee team mate Kevin Magnussen who had a year on the sidelines in 2015. Palmer showed off some great defensive work against Bottas, both he and Magnussen will provide good drama.

Sauber were pretty awful, Manor are still at the back albeit closer and with Pascal Wehrlein they have a star on their hands. McLaren were having a much better start than last year and are at least able to race although after Alonso's crash, Jenson Button's strategy calls weren't the best.

So in summing up, until Formula 1 is out of the hands of a private equity firm it will continue to lurch from stupid decision to stupid decision and not treat the teams or circuits fairly, actually the product is pretty good and is not what needs changing.

Haas are a genuinely nice surprise, McLaren look like they have a platform to at least make progress and the lower midfield are well capable of mixing it with the higher end midfield runners. Williams, Force India and Toro Rosso are going to be locked into a great fight, Renault will have a difficult season but will spring a few surprises.

I truly believe once Red Bull get an engine upgrade in Montreal from Renault (if it's good) they will become contenders for victory, as it is I think they'll mix it up on occasion. 

At the very front, after Lewis' late season form in 2015 allowed Rosberg the luxury of a few easier weekends he was as strong as ever in Australia and was only undone by a poor start. Rosberg looked to have reverted to type during practice and qualifying but it was a strong race performance and a nice aggressive start. At Ferrari Kimi looks to be on the pace while Vettel should have taken the win, but he has a car to do battle with and that might well be enough. It's all set up nicely and I think we can be quietly confident this season is going to be a bit of a cracker.

all photographs taken from &

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