Traditionally, the Australian Grand Prix is one of the most unpredictable races in the whole Formula 1 season, being the first actual show of which team did their homework over the winter break. The 2015 season opener did, indeed, bring a number of surprises – mainly in the form of bitter pills to swallow for the major part of the paddock – but, despite a significant reshuffle on the grid, one team unsurprisingly carried on their domination from 2014 into the new year.
The changes for 2015 sounded exciting when they were being announced: Red Bull champion Sebastian Vettel moving to Ferrari; the prodigal son Fernando Alonso returning to McLaren; Honda making their Formula 1 comeback; and a bunch of rookies becoming the precarious choice of mid- to front-grid teams.
Although the winter testing earlier in the year gave some indication of where everyone stood in terms of technological development – or how the above players felt in their new roles – there were still many unknowns going into Melbourne. The Mercedes team wasn’t one of them – on the last February days in Barcelona, they slipped back into their pace-setting momentum, which granted them the last eight podium finishes in 2014, and added a ninth podium to that tally in Australia. Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton defended his top spot with ease, having claimed the pole position on Saturday, and led the entire race, with 1.36 sec to spare across the line ahead of his team-mate, Nico Rosberg.
With not much challenge for pace on behalf of the German, the front-row was little more than a showcase of Mercedes’ brilliance; the real action was to be seen behind the two Silver Arrows, where nothing less than fight for survival was taking place.
It had already been a curbed grid in Melbourne after Marussia – reinstated as Manor for the start of 2015, with its future still unclear – failed to participate in qualifying and was therefore excluded from the race. Then, on Sunday afternoon, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas was withdrawn from the event due to a back injury, on which he failed his pre-race medical. Red Bull’s latest promotion from its junior outfit Toro Rosso – Daniil Kvyat – also had to put his first start in the new car on hold due to a gearbox failure that ended his afternoon before it properly started.
But the biggest blow certainly hit McLaren: after the team brought in their 2014 contender and this year’s reserve driver Kevin Magnussen to fill in for absent Alonso – the Spaniard suffered concussion during winter testing and was advised to give the first event this year a miss – the Dane’s engine blew up on his practice lap on Sunday afternoon, leaving the team to battle it out with just one car on the grid.
But that was not the end of McLaren’s woes, which look almost certain to continue well into the season. Following the change of engine supplier this year – from Mercedes to Honda – the outfit has struggled with reliability issues which seem far from being ironed out at this stage. Jenson Button’s 11. place finish in Melbourne was considered a small success – and that only because the car made it across the line. In fact, the Brit was the last man on the grid to bring the car home, as more drivers had become causalities of the first race of the season.
It began with a scramble for position between the 15 cars on lap one of the event; in the tumult, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was clipped by one of the Toro Rosso’s rookies, Carlos Sainz Jr, which forced the Finn into Sauber’s new boy Felipe Nasr, which, in turn, bumped into the Lotus of Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan was on the unfortunate end of the chain reaction, as the blow sent him into the barriers and out of the race, his car virtually legless from the impact.
The two Mercedes, who shoot out to the front leaving the chaos behind, were forced to rejoin the pack as the safety car was brought out, but only for a couple of laps.
Yet this was enough for another driver to see an early end to the event, as the second Lotus of Romain Grosjean was pushed into the pits, after suffering a power issue on the formation lap.
From then on – with only 13 cars running at this point – most of the action was taking place in fight for points from 15 down. Willaims’ remaining contender Felipe Massa clung onto his qualifying position in third at first, before he was overtaken by the shadowing Sebastian Vettel in his brand new Ferrari, off the back of a perfectly-timed pit-stop by the German.
If Massa failed to make it stick this time, his compatriot Nasr certainly wowed the crowds, defending his position against Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo throughout the whole afternoon – to claim 5. finish on his Formula 1 debut. Nasr’s team-mate Ericsson added more joy to Sauber’s garage having crossed the line in 8; this bumped the team’s points to 14, making the grand prix a better event than 2014 all together, when Sauber failed to score a single point. This was a much needed boost for the team, who in the background battled through a court case with their former driver, Giedo van der Garde.
The other rookie who was set to impress in Melbourne also failed to finish the race, having to stop the car off track when smoke emerged from his Toro Rosso following his pitstop. But Max Verstappen has made it into the record books nevertheless – as the youngest ever driver to compete in Formula 1, at the age of 17 years and 166 days.
Force India were the other team who brought both cars across the line and within points, although not without some trouble. It must have felt like the “good old days” for Button who defended his hard earned 10. place – as far as his hardly fit-for-fight McLaren allowed – from Sergio Perez, in the Brit’s masterful style. Eventually, he had to concede to his 2013 team-mate’s more powerful car, but a clash between the two could have sent the Force India out of the race, if Perez hadn’t recovered from a spin on lap 14.
“I actually had a race. Some dude drove into the side of me,” Button joked after the race.
“It was … a good opportunity for me to get used to the car and to play around with it, making adjustments in the cockpit.
“There’s a lot of work still needed – on power, driveability, downforce and set-up – but we can make big strides. And, by improving one area, it tends to snowball; more and more areas start to improve, too.”
“Improvement” was certainly the key word for Ferrari, who, with Vettel’s 3. place finish, are on a good path to at least outdo their last year’s performance, which only saw a Prancing Horse on the podium on two occasions. Yet, there’s still areas to be looked at, as the team missed a chance to score double points by messing up Kimi Raikkonen’s pitstop.
The Finn had to pit twice, due to the first-lap contact, and on both occasions there were issues with rear tyre change. The Finn stopped off-track shortly after rejoining from his second stop, calling it a day – a replay from the garage showed an unsafe release, as the rear left tyre was not fully attached before Raikkonen made his departure, and the team narrowly escaped a penalty for the next race.
All in all, the Australian Grand Prix was a tough event for many, carrying a lot of learning off the back of some more or less expected setbacks. But possibly the biggest disappointment of the season might be the realisation that Mercedes is still the team to beat – but there’s no one out there to rise to the challenge.