Race Recap: 2014 Australian Grand Prix quietly opens the new F1 era [spoilers] [UPDATE]
The first chapter of the new Formula One era has been written with the conclusion of the Australian Grand Prix, and it included a rookie rush, some resurgent and some unsurprising performances, the sound of screeching tires and a couple of firsts.
Outside predictions as to the pace of the Mercedes AMG Petronas team were proved as soon as the Friday practice sessions, with Lewis Hamilton recovering from an engine sensor fault in the first session to top the second, followed by teammate Nico Rosberg. That didn't change come the start of qualifying, not even the rain slowing down the Silver Arrows, Hamilton taking pole as the last man across the line in Q3.
The surprises were in the order behind him, with new Infiniti Red Bull Racing man Daniel Ricciardo grabbing second spot just three-tenths of a second down on Hamilton. Ricciardo not only looked like he belonged at the front of the grid the entire weekend, but he seems to have reversed the Mark Webber jinx: four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel had car issues and didn't get into Q3, having to settle for 13th on the grid.
After Ricciardo came Rosberg in the second Mercedes, McLaren rookie Kevin Magnussen in fourth, then Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari in fifth, Jean-Eric Vergne in the first Toro Rosso, Nico Hülkenberg in the Force India, rookie Daniil Kyvat in the second Toro Rosso and the Williams duo of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas rounding out the top ten.
Almost all of that would change as soon as the lights went out.
Hamilton got an uncharacteristically bad start, overtaken by Rosberg, Ricciardo and Hulkenberg before the second corner, his German teammate taking the race lead. The rest of his lap was the same, Hamilton getting passed by the rest of the top ten before race radio confirmed he was down on power; he was out of the race on Lap 2 with his V6 running on just five cylinders.
Rosberg, who only led 134 laps all of last year, grabbed the race by the neck and choked it into submission. He had a 2.8-second gap on Ricciardo by Lap 5, which grew to a 24-second gap by the end of the race when he crossed the line in first. The only incidents during his race to victory were trifles that both happened in the pits: on his first stop he almost hit the pit crew in front of the Mercedes box while pulling out, and on his second stop the left front carbon fiber cover over the brakes, called the "cake tin," was damaged as a wheel was being put on. Otherwise he was unscathed and untouched.
Ricciardo was just as solid behind him, never troubling Rosberg and keeping Magnussen in his rear-view when being stalked late in the race. Up until his DQ, he could not have had a better start to his Red Bull tenure, especially after the miserable pre-season testing the team endured and driving in front of his home crowd. If he would have finished second without being disqualified, this would have been the first time an Australian has earned a place on the Australian Grand Prix podium. In the end, though, post-race inspection finding that his fuel flow "exceeded consistently the maximum" rate of 100 kg/hour. The FIA pledged zero tolerance for such infractions, and it only took a few hours after the podium ceremony to disqualify him from the race. Red Bull is appealing the decision because it said the FIA-supplied fuel flow sensor gave faulty readings - it had been happening all weekend and the FIA knew about it - so the team used its own readings. At this time, the DQ remains in effect, and we'll have to wait and see if Red Bull's appeal is successful or not.
His teammate had things go The Webber Way, Vettel losing his KERS before the race began and limping around for five laps before retiring, but not before letting his team know what he thought of the power unit failure, saying over the radio, "That's ridiculous, guys."
Magnussen was the first of the storming rookies, locking onto third place and hanging onto it with a perfect drive. Due to Riccciardo's DQ, he was moved up to second place. He provided shades of 2007, qualifying in the highest position a rookie has managed since Lewis Hamilton – also a neophyte with McLaren – did it in 2007, then beating Hamilton's third-place finish at the end. It is the first time in the history of F1 that a Dane has been on the podium. His teammate Jenson Button, 11th on the grid at the start, drove his usual scholarly manner into a third-place finish, benefiting from a pit-stop undercut to nab two places, leapfrogging over the DQ'd Red Bull and, finally, a good McLaren.
A crash going into the first corner on the first lap had stirred up the pack, Kamui Kobayashi on his return to F1 in the Caterham going locked up his brakes because of what the FIA stewards later called a "serious technical failure," tapping Kimi Räikkönen's Ferrari before clobbering the back of Massa's Williams. Kobayashi and Massa both ended up in the gravel trap and out of the race.
Bottas experienced the opposite fortunes, the Finn driving a Williams in ways we haven't seen since the days of Juan Pablo Montoya. Bottas was into seventh place on Lap 8 but hit the wall on Lap 10, breaking off a chunk of his right rear wheel and losing his tire. He limped back to the pits, but the debris brought out the safety car for four laps. The nine-minute reprieve from full-on racing gave drivers some leeway with fuel, it also kept us from knowing how well Bottas could have done. Emerging from the pits in 17th, he climbed back through the field to finish sixth.
Ferrari, expected to be in the second-best position after pre-season testing, didn't have much to say all weekend. Alonso qualified fifth and finished fifth, his notes of being down on top speed, traction, braking consistency compared to Mercedes and not being happy with the car's performance sounding suspiciously like early-season laments from the last five years. Räikkönen, known to be unsettled by the touchiness of the brake-by-wire rear brakes, managed to keep it together and overcome tire graining to improve his 12th-place grid position to an eighth-place finish.
Hülkenberg, who appears to be able to put any car he drives into the top ten, started and finished seventh. The Toro Rosso duo completed the top ten, Vergne taking ninth ahead of the 19-year-old Russian rookie Kyvat who drove a strong first race.
Fifteen of the 22 starters finished the race but only 14 were classified, Jules Bianchi in the Marussia too far behind to earn a spot. That's more cars across the line than many expected. Not unexpected: the reception to the sound of the V6 engines. Now that we've experienced their sustained battle chorus, it's going to take some time to associate the sound with proper F1; frankly, the cars sound like a support series, and the engines are so quiet that you can hear the tires screeching under lockup and when peeling out at the end of pit stops. After one of Hülkenberg's particularly nasty lock-ups, one commenter watching a live feed wrote, "It sounds like someone stepped on my cat."
Those moments were also about the only bit of excitement during the 57-lap challenge; save for the opening laps, Bottas' charge and Button's pit-stop maneuver there was precious little passing for most of the race.
None of that changes the final standings, though, with the top ten finishers making up the top ten in the Driver's World Championship standings. McLaren, having finished third and fourth, takes control of the Constructor's Championship with 27 points, followed by Mercedes with 25, Red Bull with 18, Ferrari with 14 and Williams with 8. By the way, Williams scored more points in this race than it did all of last year. Good on them.
More than usual, it's difficult to know how the season will unfold after this initial outing. The next race to continue this very long season happens on March 30 in Sepang, Malaysia. We'll be back then.
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