For the first time in recent memory, the first race of the new Formula One season was an unknown quantity when the teams arrived in Melbourne’s Albert Park.
After 12 scant days of testing and the greatest technological changes since the championship began, the known knowns could be counted on one hand – only a few teams had been able to complete a race distance in testing, and the move to hybrid-powered V6 engines was proving to be more of a headache than thought.
Mercedes arrived in Australia as firm favourites, having proven themselves to be both quick and reliable in pre-season testing. Their customer teams - Williams and Force India - also looked strong. The Mercedes-powered McLarens were thought to be at a disadvantage, but better equipped for the season ahead than any team using Renault or Ferrari power.
Three practice sessions on Friday and Saturday did little to upset the apple cart, although Red Bull showed a marked upturn in form from their woeful winter. Points were possible, but by no means certain.
As the cars lined up for Saturday’s qualifying session, it started raining. As conditions worsened, all previous assumptions of form went out the window. Downforce – already lower than in recent years thanks to the rule changes – went from scant to non-existent, while grip was a challenge for even the most experienced drivers.
Lotus lost both drivers in Q1. Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were knocked out in Q2. The top-ten shoot-out was nail-biting, with local hero Daniel Ricciardo coming within a whisker of taking pole for Red Bull – title-favourite Lewis Hamilton unseated him in the final seconds.
We can’t be pleased with this result and we know there are many areas where we need to improve
Given the high rate of attrition characteristic of the Australian Grand Prix plus the technological challenges presented by the new power units – whose complex energy recovery devices make them more than just engines – pre-race predictions focused on the negative.
The FIA was made to explain what would happen if no cars finished Sunday’s race. Positive predictions centred on a Mercedes-powered podium, with Red Bull and Ferrari falling by the wayside. Fuel saving would affect the final result, with cars reaching the end of their 100kg limits and stopping trackside in the closing laps.
In the end, however, the result was rather different. Victory went to Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg, who shared the podium with Ricciardo and with McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen, a highly-rated rookie. Vettel and Hamilton retired on the opening laps, while Ferrari were so focused on making it to the chequered flag that Fernando Alonso and Raikkonen were unable to turn up their engines and race.
“We can’t be pleased with this result and we know there are many areas where we need to improve,” Raikkonen said.
Whatever Raikkonen’s thoughts on the matter, the team with the most pressing need to improve on their Australian Grand Prix result are the formerly all-conquering Red Bull, whose podium glory was short-lived when it emerged Ricciardo had been excluded from the results of his home race after problems with his fuel flow sensor meant that the Australian’s car was not in compliance with the technical regulations.
Red Bull woes
Red Bull will appeal the decision after opting to use their own fuel flow model for the race, as they were not confident in the accuracy of the homologated sensor. During the race, the team was warned by the FIA that the car appeared to be exceeding the required fuel mass flow, yet no precautions were taken. Other teams received similar warnings, took appropriate action, and were not penalised. What has been rumoured but not confirmed is that Ricciardo himself radioed his team during the race, concerned by excess fuel flow.
“I don’t know anything,” a harried Ricciardo told journalists as he was leaving the circuit at 11 on Sunday night.
It was more accurate than he knew – with no date for an appeal yet set, the F1 circus could arrive in Malaysia for the second race with the outcome of the first round still a matter of regulatory dispute.