Australian GP: Haas debut makes up for Saturday shambles

The first Grand Prix of 2016 is behind us, and what a race it proved to be. Qualifying on Saturday produced a Mercedes 1-2, with only Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari within a second of the Silver Arrows. And indeed, the race results record a Rosberg-Hamilton-Vettel podium.

But the result wasn’t the talking point of Saturday, but rather the way it was achieved. Via the Strategy Group, F1 switched to a new elimination system for qualifying, which would see cars eliminated every 90 seconds throughout each session. The idea was to increase the amount of running drivers would have to do to maximise their grid position, hopefully creating mixed grids. It sounded good in theory. In practice it was nothing short of a disaster, as drivers merely set one lap and didn’t run again. The grid was set with four minutes still to run in Q3! Drivers, team personal, and the fans were united in their condemnation of the system. Not the publicity F1 needed after a tumultuous couple of seasons.

After a barrage of criticism from all quarters, the news filtered through shortly before the start of the race that the old knockout qualifying would be reinstated immediately for Bahrain. In a carbon copy of Hungary 2015, the Ferraris launched themselves off the line, Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen taking 1st and 2nd, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton dropping back into the pack, Rosberg aggressively holding position against Hamilton into turn 2. As Martin Brundle said, “we’ve got a race on our hands here”. Even better, Ferrari’s pace looked the real deal against the might of the Mercedes package.

Come lap 16, the frontrunners had all made their first stops. Rosberg almost stole the lead from Vettel with a spectacularly fast turnaround. But little did everyone know that Albert Park’s turn 3 was about to add yet enough enormous accident to its resume. Esteban Gutierrez and the McLaren of Fernando Alonso, who had already pitted, were fighting for 12th place. The double world champion tried a dummy move around the outside of the Haas, but in one of those fateful instances, Alonso missed his braking point just as Gutierrez nervously twitched his car for turn three.

The resulting crash was reminiscent of Martin Brundle’s spectacular barrel roll from 1996, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief as a winded Alonso exited the remains of his ruined MP4-31. The red flag was the only sensible option, given the amount of carbon fibre strewn over the circuit.

The red flag period allowed teams to make strategical moves. Haas took the opportunity to bolt a new set of medium tyres onto Romain Grosjean’s car, putting him onto a one-stopper. This was a brilliant tactical move from the American newcomers. From here, Grosjean drove to the chequered flag showing Nico Hülkenberg, Valtteri Bottas, and the Toro Rosso duo a clean pair of heels.

6th place is the best result for a new team since Toyota in 2002, coincidentally also at Albert Park. The difference here is that Toyota finished 6th purely because the rest of the field disintegrated. In fairness, Haas were extremely lucky with the red flag. That being said, Grosjean finished 6th out of 16 runners and showed very consistent pace. The plan for them must be to capitalise on this result and use it to drive the team forward.

Ferrari took a gamble by keeping Vettel on super soft tyres. This is one of the new regulations for 2016, enabling teams to choose any combination of tyres during the race weekend, whilst still having to use two different compounds on race day. It was a gamble that failed to pay dividends; Vettel had to stop to fit new soft tyres, which he duly did at the end of lap 34.

As it turned out, Rosberg was now in the box seat. With the pitstops having concluded, he was free to drive on to his 15th Grand Prix victory, and his fourth victory in a row. Hamilton rallied his way to 2nd, having fallen as far as 7th by the first lap, a consequence of being crowded out by Rosberg. The final laps gave us a crescendo as Vettel worked down the gap between him and Hamilton, which had been amplified by a sticky wheel during his final pitstop. Unfortunately, the move never came, as he twice locked up into the penultimate corner whilst running very close to the Brit. The second time saw the Ferrari oversteer onto the grass and fall out of DRS range. Game over for 2nd. Still, Maranello can take solace in that their race pace was equal to Mercedes. Had the red flag never occurred, they’d be celebrating victory today, rather than 3rd and a DNF. Raikkonen’s turbocharger cried enough with a lick of flame out of the airbox in the pitlane, ending the Finn’s race on lap 22.

Williams had a quiet weekend. Bottas was surprisingly knocked out in Q2, also copping a five-place grid penalty for a change of gearbox. Starting 16th, the Finn drove a calculated race to 8th, marked by a fabulous pass on Jolyon Palmer’s Renault into turn 8 on lap 22. What must worry Grove though is that the FW38’s pace in the pack wasn’t brilliant. Bottas was unable to make any impression on the cars ahead of him once the pitstops had concluded. Felipe Massa started 6th and finished a lonely 5th. Grove appear to have stood still whilst Red Bull and Ferrari have moved forward.

Over to Red Bull, and it seems like they have the third-best package on the grid. Daniel Ricciardo was a threat for the podium until the final round of pitstops, setting the fastest lap of the race. With updates coming shortly, it already seems a more promising year for Milton Keynes. Daniil Kvyat was the sole major scalp of Saturday, a communication mix-up during Q1 caused him to be eliminated with only the Haas and Manors behind him. He would line up 18th. Or at least, he would have. Come the formation lap, his car stopped on the middle of the track a couple of hundred meters behind his grid spot, meaning an extra formation lap for the field, and an early shower for Daniil. An electrical problem conspired to give the Russian his second DNS in three Australian Grands Prix. At least he can console himself that he at least made the formation lap this year…

Force India’s race was compromised by the red flag. Both cars had made Q3 but didn’t run in the session to save tyres for Sunday. Sergio Perez pitted one lap before the safety car was deployed, and lost out big time when the red flag fell. He would finish 13th, last of those on the lead lap. Hülkenberg fared much better with a strong drive to 7th, but the team will be ruing the lost points today.

Another team counting the costs of Sunday was Toro Rosso. They sprung one of the surprises of qualifying, with Max Verstappen planting his car 5th on the grid, with Carlos Sainz Jr in 7th. Verstappen took advantage of Hamilton being hung out to dry on the first lap, moving up to 4th. He then kept the much faster Mercedes behind him until his first pitstop. Like Ferrari, Toro Rosso elected not to change tyres during the red flag period, which cost the team dear.

Once the race resumed, Verstappen compounded the issue by pitting when the team wasn’t ready, dropping him behind Sainz. Both cars found themselves behind the Renault of Palmer. Verstappen was adamant he was faster than Sainz, and called for the team to allow him through to challenge Palmer. Indeed, FOM relayed a series of radio messages where the Dutchman was becoming increasing petulant and peeved at the situation, certainly infuriating one of the authors of this piece!

Others pointed out that this was merely a reversal of Singapore last year, and that Sainz Jr was perfectly within his rights to stay ahead. Eventually both cars found a way past Palmer, although this did not placate the Dutchman. The red mist fell, and it manifested itself in a touch and spin for him at the penultimate corner in the dying stages of the race.

Either way, three points is scant reward from a weekend that promised so much. The Toro Rosso appears to be a very handy car at present, with the Ferrari power unit being far superior to the underpowered and unreliable Renaults used last season. However, it has to be pointed out that the team are using 2015-spec engines this season, which may well see the team slip down the order as others (McLaren and Renault) improve. It remains to be seen if this was their best shot at big points this season.

Given the rock-bottom expectations for the newly returning Renault works team, it can be said this was a reasonably successful race for the team. Both cars cleared Q1, with rookie Palmer surprising outqualifying Kevin Magnussen. The Dane picked up a puncture on lap 1, consigning him to the rear of the field, where he’d later be lapped. Fortunately, the red flag allowed him to gain that lap back, and he rallied to 12th place by the chequered flag.
Palmer gave a good account of himself during the race, running in the lower points for much of the second stint. He’ll count himself unfortunate to finish just outside the points, but it suggests the inter-team battle may not be as one-sided as people expected.

Unlike Renault, McLaren’s race was totally ruined by the red flag. Jenson Button pitted a lap before the safety car was deployed, ending any chance of a points finish. Woking will need to prepare a brand new chassis for Bahrain, and it is very likely that Alonso has already lost an entire engine for the season. They can take solace in the fact that unlike last year’s shambles, the car appears to be reliable, but the Honda engine is still down on power compared to its rivals.

Sauber were worryingly off the pace. The C35 appears to be nothing more than last year’s car with a few extra sponsors. Given the way the team dropped through the field last year, it looks like 2016 is going to be painful for Hinwil. Felipe Nasr was anonymous all weekend, outqualified by over half a second by Marcus Ericsson. Throughout the race the Brazilian never ran higher than 14th place, and never looked like challenging for points. Ericsson’s race was slightly better, but he copped a drive-through penalty for the team working on the car after the 15 second board was put out during the red flag period. Eventually a driveshaft failed, ending the Swede’s weekend.

Hinwil must be worried, given the pace Haas and indeed Manor showed today. With an all-new car, Mercedes engines, and in Pascal Wehrlein, the reigning DTM champion, Manor have a potent combination on their books. Whilst Wehrlein and team mate Rio Haryanto occupied the back row of the grid, it was heartening to see that the team had closed the gap on the rest of the field. Wehrlein launched his way to 14th from 22nd by the first lap, more than holding his own in the midfield. Unfortunately, he was another loser from the red flag situation, and was the final classified runner. Despite this, he set the 12th fastest lap of the race.

Haryanto recovered from an embarrassing incident in where he crashed into Grosjean’s Haas in the pitlane 10 seconds after the lights went out in FP3, for which he would be given a three-place grid drop. In the race, he ran a consistent pace, but the car eventually broke a driveshaft just before the red flag period. All in all, Manor can be heartened by the promise they showed in Albert Park.

One final note about the race involved the new “Driver of the Day” award introduced by the FIA, where fans can vote for the best driver of the race. Formula One’s social media strategy is in its infancy, with old man Bernie only recently caving in and embracing the internet outside of the sport’s own website. They learned the hard way how the online community reacts to half-baked attempts at audience interaction.

First off, fans can vote more than once, meaning people could vote 100-200 times without having their votes removed. Secondly, it seemed that the drivers with the biggest fan bases would go on to win the award. 24 hours after the chequered flag dropped, leaked figures ripped from the polling webpage showed Rio Haryanto with a 9000 vote lead. Yes, a 9000 vote lead, over Romain Grosjean.

But from there, the situation descended into farce, with Grosjean being nominated the winner regardless of the results of the public vote. Indonesia saw this as a declaration of war; or at least, all the Haryanto fans, of which there appear to be an entire army. It was an appropriate way to end proceedings – bookending the race with two distinctly rejectful initiatives that had anything but the desired effect.

So, F1 is back, and it looks like we have a proper battle for honours at the front. Even better, the midfield pack appears to have all concertinaed up over the winter break. Haas provided the feel good story of the weekend, and Manor finally look like they’ve reached the rest of the field. Who’d have thought F1 would have produced this positive a vibe after the shambles of Saturday? This season could be one for the ages.