Issue 4: Australian Grand Prix Review

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18 March 2014

Race Summary: Nico Rosberg dominated Round 1 with the McLarens on the podium. Daniel Ricciardo finished second on the track but was later excluded. Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton retired early on. The Ferraris scored points.

Australia produced a good race, but not a great one. With the early retirements of Hamilton, Vettel and Felipe Massa, I felt we were somewhat robbed of competition. Hamilton would undoubtedly have competed at the sharp end, while it would have been fantastic to watch Massa and Vettel come through the pack; their team-mates’ races showed that would have been possible, reliability permitting. However, this shouldn’t take away from some excellent racing by other drivers. Stand-out performances from Kevin Magnussen, Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg lit up the race whilst Bottas produced a ‘mega’ recovery drive after hitting the wall on Lap 10. He overtook some big names on the way to what would be fifth place after starting 15th. However, he would have probably got on the podium had his race been error-free. Bottas will be fascinating to watch in 2014. Magnussen produced a Hamilton-like debut performance, harrying Ricciardo’s Red Bull all the way to the chequered flag, which underscored his great potential and confirmed McLaren’s faith in his simulator and testing performance. Button will have his hands full this season. Hulkenberg put in his usual impressive drive, dragging a car built on a fraction of Scuderia Ferrari’s budget into wheel-to-wheel combat with both Alonso and Raikkonen at various points in the race. Like Hulkenberg and Magnussen, Ricciardo was calm, collected and above all, quick. I did not see him make one error, so it’s a great shame that he was ultimately excluded by the stewards.

The new competitive order in F1

None of them could catch Rosberg’s Mercedes, however. The team from Brackley has delivered any impressive powertrain and a strong car that will surely be in the hunt for victories for the rest of the season. Rosberg lapped about a second a lap quicker than any other car in Melbourne and finished over 20 seconds clear of Ricciardo. But I suspect that without the safety car period and if required, the margin of victory could have been over half a minute to the next car. But whilst the Australian Grand Prix shone a light on the true competitive order in F1 today, it did not reveal the whole picture. Some teams’ real pace was masked by events in the race, most notably Williams. Given Bottas’ speed, I expect Williams to be up with McLaren and Red Bull when they get a clean weekend. Ferrari appeared lacklustre in the race. Neither Alonso or Raikkonen were happy at the finish, but mid-race reports indicated that both drivers were suffering from electrical problems early on, which surely hindered their powertrain performance. Raikkonen, meanwhile, had to contend with poor handling, especially under-braking and in corner entry. Given these problems, we shouldn’t judge the Scuderia too harshly yet. Nevertheless, they are clearly a long way behind Mercedes. On a smoother weekend, they’ll be in the fight for ‘best of the rest’.

The surprise of the weekend was Red Bull. Not their speed, in my view, but their reliability. Ricciardo completed their first unbroken race distance in the race and RBR managed the equivalent of a full day of testing in free practice on the Friday, which is more than many (including myself) had expected. Renault’s announcement immediately prior to the GP clearing their teams to run on full power was the key factor here. Renault are not reliable yet, as Vettel’s inability to engage full throttle in the race showed, but they appear to have made a big step forward since testing. Likewise, RBR itself did not go through the weekend problem-free with further overheating/cooling problems reported on the Friday and then Ricciardo’s breach of the fuel flow rate of 100kg/hour in the race. Nevertheless, what cannot be ignored is that RBR have produced another cutting edge chassis design. The RB10’s stable aerodynamic platform delivers grip and poise in the corners allowing its drivers to take higher entry speeds. A strong baseline platform should also enable a fast rate of in-season development. On that point, I said in Issue 2 on 8 March 2014 that I expected RBR to struggle with reliability problems in the early flyaway races and Renault to spend the rest of season catching-up with Mercedes. On the evidence of the Australian GP, I now anticipate RBR, in particular, and Renault to solve their reliability issues faster. The jump that both organisations made between the end of the final pre-season test and the Australian GP was impressive and in part achievable because the cars and power units are at the beginning of their conceptual life, which means that there is significant development potential waiting to be unlocked. Despite the technical complexities, this will mean a steeper curve in initial reliability and performance gains. However, I still question whether Renault has what it takes to out-develop and overhaul Mercedes in 2014. Trackside reports from Albert Park indicated that the Mercedes-powered cars enjoy good low-speed traction and predictable power delivery giving the driver more confidence to apply the throttle on corner exit. Renault-engined cars, by contrast, suffered from more wheelspin and less predictable power delivery when accelerating out of corners. For Renault (and RBR) to overhaul Mercedes, it will require them to solve these problems and make-up a one second per lap deficit. And Mercedes won’t be standing still, so this is very much a moving target.

Oversteer is back!

As some teams will develop their cars faster than others, it will be fascinating to watch relative performance switch around in the upcoming races. However, I think what I’ll enjoy even more is watching the drivers arm-wrestle their cars around the lap. These 1.6 litre turbo-charged hybrids have given us more power, more torque and less grip. The effect has been dramatic with plenty of oversteer and side-ways moments. Gone (for now) are the days when F1 cars were able to make their way round circuits on rails such was the available grip and aerodynamic downforce. There’s now a premium on car control and throttle sensitivity to prevent excessive wheelspin. The power units sound good too, if a little on the quiet side for my liking. I’m too young to fully remember the last turbo era in the late 1980s, so turbo-charged F1 engines are a novelty for me.

The 2014 Australian GP showed that 2014 is a season with great promise. The new engine formula has given us a shake-up in the competitive order and cars that are exciting to watch. I can’t wait for Round 2.

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