The 2016 F1 season opener will be remembered for a number of things. Firstly, the silly qualifying system that was introduced at the behest of the race prompters – if we believe the team principals – which has now been firmly consigned to room 101. That said, Toto Wolff suggested late last night that a revised version of the qualifying knockout would be discussed.
Secondly, there was the highly unusual occurrence of Fernando Alonso tacitly admitting he actually made a mistake, by not coming out all guns blazing to blame Esteban Gutierrez for his flight of fantasy through the air into the crash barrier. The Spaniard claimed to be “Super Happy”, just to be talking to reporters in the paddock. This was a far cry from the Aliens taking control of his McLaren-Honda during Barcelona winter testing in 2015.
However, the other big U-Turn from the F1 powers that be occurred just an hour before lights out on Sunday. The 2016 regulations had sought to severely restrict the communication between drivers and the pit wall in an effort to reduce the perception that the engineers were in fact controlling the car. This was a result of the Horner/Bernie propaganda war designed to make the drivers ‘heroes’ again; the reality behind this directive was the hope that drivers would make more mistakes and mess up their strategy in an attempt to spice up the show and shuffle the finishing positions on a more regular basis.
Clearly gripped by the fear of another farce one day after the implosion of the Melbourne qualifying experiment, the FIA relented (whether constitutionally correctly or not) and allowed the teams more latitude on the intended restrictions.
Even so, for the avid TV fan of the sport, the Australian GP was marked by a relative radio silence – with the exception of some cussin’ young Max V.
Lewis Hamilton claimed it made little difference to him: “Honestly it was no different to any other race,” said Hamilton. “I had as much information as I’ve ever wanted. I had a little bit more control of the stuff that I do in the car, which I prefer, on the engine side”.
However, the incremental control Lewis refers to was nothing to do with the FIA and is down to Mercedes allowing the drivers more latitude this year to choose when they deploy their more powerful engine modes. The philosophy being, ‘when it’s used up, it’s used up’. To that end it may be advantage to Mercedes’ driver Rosberg, who unlike Hamilton had little need to overtake or deploy incremental power to chase down the Ferrari in Front.
The red team of course made this easy for the German by remarkably fitting the super soft tyre for the restart after the race was red flagged. Rosberg later admitted his glee on seeing this Ferrari decision and that he trundled round after Sebastian Vettel, knowing the quadruple world champion would be forced stop eventually, handing the lead and an easy win to Nico.
Returning to the radio restrictions, Lewis added, “I had to figure out my strategy just as I would have been last year. It really didn’t make any different whatsoever.”
Yet others were more sceptical about the improvement the nigh on radio silence in F1 has brought. “I don’t think they had an impact on the outcome of the race,” observed Williams Technical director Pat Symonds. “I think the TV must have missed them a little bit, because there was so few [messages]. I don’t think it did anything other than to add workload to people to add software to the dashboards and things like that.
Symonds concludes, “I don’t think it’s achieved anything, other than take a little bit away from the show.”
And while Hamilton is revelling in his new found freedom to call strategy and deploy super fast engine modes, his boss Toto Wolff believed the radio restrictions made the team’s job more difficult. “When you get off the line for the formation lap, you can see how much the slip was – and if you can’t adjust, it makes the difference,” said Wolff. Further the team were hampered from informing Rosberg about the problems with his rear left tyre concluding to the delight of many: “And it’s difficult because if after all these years you are used to transmitting all this information to the drivers and optimise the car and also make the car survive – that lack of communication is definitely gonna lead to situations which are beyond the engineers’ control.”
The Australian GP weekend certainly delivered a spectacle on many levels, though it may only become clear in the coming weeks the degree to which F1’s relative radio silence distances the TV fans more from the action.