This past weekend’s Australian Grand Prix delivered just about everything it could be expected to. Surprises, talk of safety, great midfield battles, a failed qualifying “innovation,” and the debut of an American team were all on tap. Indeed, the Australian GP has carried on the pre-season tones that will likely define the 2016 world championship.
One cannot begin this discussion without first touching on Fernando Alonso’s massive shunt on Lap 18. When I first saw the “wreckage” (if it even amounted to that), I did not think that could possibly be the car. My first thought was with Fernando, and hoping he was okay. Once we all saw him emerge from the car, my next thought was, “Oh lord, here comes all the discussion about the closed cockpit.” I am grateful for Jenson Button’s post-race comments about the use of the “halo.” While I favor a truly closed cockpit, it is important that we not let the “success” of F1’s safety technology in this crash overshadow the need to prevent future tragedies. Given the angle that the McLaren took after the collision with Gutierrez’s car, Fernando could very easily have hit his head on a catch fence post (a la Dan Wheldon). While it is welcome that he did not, we need to not allow miracles to be an excuse for sidestepping safety in the name of tradition.
The crash was a strange one to watch develop. Gutierrez had been reporting problems with his Ferrari power unit, so that would explain why Alonso caught up with him so quickly or unexpectedly. It would be hard for me to believe a driver of Fernando Alonso’s caliber could make that kind of mistake. The other unfortunate part of the shunt is that it happened to teams that really need time on track. The McLaren-Honda looks much improved this year. Even though Button finished down a lap in the other McLaren, Honda have obviously improved their power unit quite a bit over the off-season. Still, Honda and the rookie Haas team could really just use more on-track data at this point.
Aside from the Alonso/Gutierrez shunt, the race was memorable for both its start and its conclusion. The qualifying session was a borderline joke with the “new” format. While fans may agree with Bernie Eccelstone’s desire to not see Mercedes dominate the championship again this season, it is disturbing to see the lengths Eccelstone and other in F1’s “strategy” group are willing to go to prevent that, as well as how fundamentally flawed their approaches have been so far. Whoever thought that the “timing” portion of qualifying was somehow going to catch Mercedes out was clearly not thinking clearly. Instead, Haas and several drivers were severely penalized for doing nothing wrong, while Mercedes still ended up on the front row.
To me, this whole thing started with freezing engine development after the 2005 season. Someone took a look at team budgets and realized the majority of team resources were going to engine development. So engine development was frozen to cut costs. Something was fatally missed here: Telling teams that have $400m budgets they cannot spend money on something does nothing to prevent them from spending it on something else. This kind of thinking, which will be covered in a later essay, has grown to a toxic level in F1. Consequently, the part of this weekend’s race that I enjoyed most was the start. Despite everything the Eccelstone cartel has done to “improve” the on-track product (the magnesium boxes that make the sparks, DRS, etc.) Vettal zoomed past both Mercedes and into a commanding lead. Some may argue the newly mandated “single clutch” made that possible. However, in the following laps, the Silver Arrow cars did not blitz Vettal, who showed he had the pace in the Ferrari to stay in the lead.
However, the Scuderia’s day went downhill quickly after the Alonso incident. Ferrari sent their cars out on the supersoft tires whereas everyone else had changed to the harder mediums. But for that poor strategy call and a problem with Vettal’s left front tire when he pitted on Lap 36, Vettal could easily have ended up second or first in the GP. It appears Hamilton wasn’t kidding when he said he thought Ferrari had something serious to offer this season. Vettal’s teammate Raikkonen also had a bad day at the office. He came into the pits on Lap 22 and had fire billowing out of his air intake. Not a great finish for Ferrari, but the pace was definitely there.
Lastly, a kind note about Haas. Despite the problems with Gutierrez’s car, Grosjean brought the other Haas home in P6. For those who remember when the three “new” teams came into F1 in 2010, the new cars were more like rolling chicanes. Haas’ nearly unbelievable performance in Australia demonstrates the important of having a strong technical knowledge base when entering the F1 arena. The funding from Gene Haas and the close technical partnership with Scuderia Ferrari likely have a lot to do with the team’s early success. Having said that, the Haas approach of waiting a year, securing the services of a team principal like Gunther Steiner who has years of experience on an F1 pit wall, and the general racing knowledge the Haas organization has gleaned from its time competing in NASCAR may prove to be an example for future F1 teams to follow.