Ambient 23° Track 36° Humidity 42% Wind 4.1 m/s
Hammering sun, grid penalties and a morning after regrets characterised the build up to the first GP of 2016. In addition to Ryo Haryanto’s award for remarkable entertainment in a pitlane, it turns out that Valtteri Bottas too got in on the action by replacing a gearbox and garnering the remarkable inefficiency award as the gearbox was meant to last for 6 events and failed to last even 1. Also on offer was the reversion of the “no strategy on radio” rule and a complete reversal on the qualifying format. Having lacked the foresight to anticipate the difficulties of the new format, the Strategy Group elected for full on retreat, apparently lacking both the spine, stomach and various other bodily parts to sort out the optical difficulties. This despite the fact that the format largely achieved its stated goal of shaking up the grid, though more through team error than driver error. No tear offs allowed on track has been ditched and the debut of the single clutch start round out the top pre race news.
A Mercedes 1-2 finish sounds just as horrible as yesterday’s now defunct qualifying format yet the first Grand Prix of the year was anything but. In short order, Safety Car, Red Flag, Ferrari in the lead and cars on fire. Action throughout and not until Vettel went wide 2 laps from the end was the podium decided. Kudos to Rosberg for the win, Grosjean and Team Haas for P6 and potentially drive of the day as Romain defended that spot for more than 20 laps. Shout out to Jolyon Palmer and Renault as well for a strong debut, though late race saw them unable to keep up. And condolences to Kvyat who, for the second year running, failed to make the start, forcing a second formation lap.
Lights out saw the single clutch immediately take a bite (sorry) as Hamilton got off to a sorry ass start whilst the Ferraris blitzed up the middle to P1 and P2 whilst Rosberg brutally but fairly took Lewis off into T1 and made light incidental contact. As Rosberg took P3 Lewis got mugged by traffic and by the time it shook out he was P6.
A sweet pass several laps later saw him slide past Massa, and then fetch up behind Verstappen, where he would be stuck for many a lap as the front end gradually rolled away from him. As the laps built up it became increasingly clear that not only was Hamilton not going to get past Verstappen, but Rosberg was not making any headway on Räikkönen to boot. Given their brutal dominance of quali the day before, it is a worrisome sign for the battle at the sharp end that there was not a single overtake in the top 4 positions (on the same stints), though Albert Park is renowned as a particularly difficult circuit for overtaking.
Rosberg came in to pit Lap 13 but Mercedes decided to extend Hamilton’s stint, such was the dire nature of his situation. Fortunately for the Mercedes man Verstappen came in the next lap and he was released to chase back some of his lost time. Further back the Haas teammates had rocked up to P13-14 and P8-11 was covered by nary 2s, with the midfield action looking to dominate, as Ferrari chose to leave Räikkönen out to cover off Hamilton’s change of strategy.
By lap 16, Vettel had made his pit stop up and came roaring past Hamilton and not far behind, Rosberg was being chased by Lewis, signalling the end of his first stint the following lap. As Räikkönen emerged on the supers, Hamilton rocked out on a pair of mediums, clearly going for one stop until the following lap when Alonso decided to do his best Martin Brundle impersonation.
After starting up the inside heading toward T3 Fernando switched to the outside and clipped the left rear of Gutiérrez, who braked earlier than usual, possibly expecting Alonso to continue up the inside. The impact sent Alonso hurtling into the air and deep into the T3 gravel, his shattered car coming to rest up against the wall as Gutiérrez spun into the gravel behind him. The Safety Car was dispatched immediately followed rapidly by the red flag, effectively ruining Ferrari’s race. On the other hand, it absolutely made Grosjean’s race, since the Frenchman had yet to pit when the race was red flagged, in effect gifting him a free pit stop. With a fresh set of mediums he would rock on to P6 and an excellent debut finish for Haas. Hamilton, too, benefited from the red flag as it erased his deficit to the leaders, though it also stuck him behind not one, but two Toro Rossos.
In a fascinating development, Mercedes elected to keep Lewis on the medium tyre whilst Ferrari went for supers. At the race restart it looked to be advantage Ferrari as they began to pull away, but it was insubstantial, as Vettel was unable to pull a large enough gap to manage the extra pit stop. Compounding the savage turn of luck for the Scuderia, Räikkönen suddenly radioed in something was broken on his car and rolled into the pitlane with smoke pouring from his PU. By the time he climbed out of the cockpit, there was a full on flambé happening behind him with the air inlet breathing fire.
Meanwhile, the Toro Rossos on the softs were making it impossible for Lewis to get by on his mediums, though there was no lack of trying on Hamilton’s part. Finally, on lap 32 Sainz bailed for fresh tyres, releasing Hamilton and the ire of Verstappen, who felt that Sainz stole his pit stop. Coming in the following lap, the Dutchman would go on to moan bitterly that he should be allowed through as he was faster than his teammate once Sainz became stuck behind the queue forming up behind the Haas of Grosjean, now running in P6 thanks to the Toro Rosso’s pitting. But before they got to the Frenchman, Sainz would first have to clear the excellent driving Jolyon Palmer, who mounted a magnificent defense. This thoroughly enraged Verstappen, who felt that Sainz should make way for him so Max could have a go at the Briton, and he expressed himself in the most colourful language when he was encouraged to pass anyone he could, but without the assistance of the team management.
As the race progressed, Verstappen became increasingly unhinged, finally punting into Sainz and losing some bits of bodywork followed by a spin into the penultimate corner, thus putting an end to the increasingly fraught teammate battle.
At the front Lewis continued working his way up to Ricciardo and managed after a bit of effort to get by him just before the Aussie made a stop to ditch his dying softs. But even as Hamilton got by, Vettel was making even greater progress and by lap 50 he was within 2.5s, a gap which Lewis singlehandedly erased with a mistake on lap 52, allowing Vettel within DRS range. The battle between the two champions continued all the way up to lap 56 when Vettel went wide and on the grass in the penultimate corner, and ended the drama.
Rosberg sailed home with nary a care, having run a long controlled race, followed by Hamilton and Vettel. Ricciardo and Massa rounded out the top 5. Congratulations to Haas currently P5 in the WCC but the real winner might be the new tyre regulations that allow the extra tyre option. Having that extra choice added a new dimension to the racing and it looks to be even more promising as the season progresses.