With the new Formula 1 regulations having taken their toll on the teams in pre-season testing there was a general consensus that the first race of 2014 could turn into a farce, with only half the grid crossing the finish line – and the reality wasn’t far from that. Indeed, the season opener has delivered a number of surprises, carrying a promise of a truly eventful year ahead – as the turbocharged era was christened with a whole new-look podium.
While Mercedes remained humble about their chances in Australia, despite a very strong performance in winter testing, they were still considered favourites in Melbourne – especially after dominating late practice sessions and securing a 1-3 on the grid in qualifying. The team played it safe by reminding the media the topic of reliability, which they still considered an issue – and were proved right, to a point at least.
The race ended quickly for pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, who experienced a slow start due to a misfired cylinder, robbing his Mercedes of much needed power. The issue was worrying enough for the team to call the Brit in after just three laps, not wanting to risk a permanent engine damage which would penalise the team in the new regulation environment allowing only five engine changes throughout the whole 19-race season.
But where Hamilton lost out his team-mate Nico Rosberg gained, as for him the car ran brilliantly throughout the afternoon – so much so that having taken Hamilton’s position directly after the starting lights went off, he led the race from there onwards, claiming the chequered flag +24.5sec before his nearest competitor that day – Daniel Ricciardo.
That is where the second major surprise came for the F1 paddock. After a difficult winter campaign Red Bull were far from being the bookies’ choice, having missed out on a lot of mileage and still battling reliability issues, with a software failure supposedly being to blame for Sebastian Vettel’s 13. place in qualifying in Australia. In the meantime his new team-mate Ricciardo started the race from the first line and clung onto his second position despite evidently losing speed by the end of the 57 lap event.*
“Two or three weeks ago I would have bet pretty everything I have that we would not be standing up here,” Ricciardo said from the Melbourne podium.
“Full credit to the team for an unbelievable turnaround. I don’t understand how they did it but they did, so thank you guys. No words. I’m trippin’ balls right now.”
Unfortunately, the joy of the Aussie and the home crowd was short lived, as a several-hour investigation following the race established the team had breached the new 2014 regulations by “consistently” exceeding the fuel flow limit of 100kg/h. Ricciardo was excluded from the results, although the team said it would appeal the ruling which robbed them of the only points gained that afternoon, following Vettel’s retirement on lap 5.
Unsurprisingly, there were more retirees that day – in fact, they just kept coming as the race progressed. It all started with Kamui Kobayshi locked up his Caterham on the first lap and steering into Felipe Massa’s Williams to take the Brazilian out into the gravel speed trap with him and send them both out of the race.
Later on also Kobayashi’s team-mate Marcus Ericsson and Lotus’ Pastor Maldonado stopped just off the track on laps 27 and 29 respectively; Romain Grosjean joined his team-mate painfully close to the race end, on lap 45, after also claiming the first penalty of 2014 – a drive-through for leaving his garage before the 15-minute signal.
Also as predicted, it was the juniors that shone among the chaos. In an unexpected McLaren-revival the team claimed the next two top positions, despite Jenson Button having qualified only 10… But it was the newcomer Kevin Magnussen who outraced the 2009 champion for the third-spot finish in Melbourne after a commanding drive throughout the whole afternoon. The Formula Renault 3.5 champion made history with his maiden grand prix by becoming the first Dane to take a Formula 1 podium – and following Ricciardo’s disqualification he climbed to second, also promoting Button to his first podium since the Brazilian GP 2012.
Valtteri Bottas also proved his worth at the start of his second season with Williams, bravely charging to the front from his 15. qualifying position to finish 6. overall, despite a hefty puncture on lap 11 which left his right-rear wheel bare and sent him right behind the pack to play catchup. This confirms post-testing predictions that this year’s challenger of the historically tech-driven team is bound to do great things – stark contrast to just five championship points scored in 2013.
In the face of Renault-powered adversity, Toro Rosso can also consider their Melbourne performance a good start to the year. Although the finishing positions of Jean-Eric Vergne and 19 year old rookie Daniil Kvyat – 9 and 10 respectively (promoted one spot after Ricciardo’s ruling) – were worse than their qualifying positions (6 and 8), their presence in the top 10 and constant charge for the front are a far-cry from pre-season testing, or, in fact, the whole of 2013.
The only team who came through rather bleak in Australia was Ferrari; as judged by the media in recent weeks, Raikkonen did not look too comfortable back in red overalls, making a number of mistakes throughout practice and qualifying to finish the Sunday race in unimpressive 8. His team-mate Fernando Alonso also quietly came and did his job, but without fireworks – finishing exactly where he started, in 5.
There were plenty of genuine smiles surrounding the Melbourne podium that afternoon, with crowds cheering frantically for their local boy Ricciardo and the first Aussie podium on the home turf – a feat, that was eventually rendered invalid, bringing great disappointed to masses on the first 2014 grand prix.
And yet, the majority of teams have a lot to be happy about, having passed the first hurdle of the most difficult season in years – but they all agree there is a lot of thinking to be done before the next stage of the circus, in Malaysia. All signs suggest the grid might get turned on its head in two weeks time – which would only reassure the sport’s body, the FIA, the new regulations breathe new life into F1.
Indeed, a new era of Formula 1 excitement has dawned.