Grand Prix notebook


1 Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1hr 32min 58.710sec
2 Kevin Magnussen McLaren MP4-29 Mercedes 1hr 33min 25.487sec
3 Jenson Button McLaren MP4-29 Mercedes 1hr 33min 28.737sec

Fastest lap: Nico Rosberg Mercedes W05 1min 32.478sec
Race distance: 58 laps, 191.117 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton Mercedes W05 1min 44.231sec

The sound

Just the sound of gently lapping water, the oars of a boat and the shriek of the local birdlife as farmer John Batman made his way up the Yarra River in 1835. Upon seeing it was good, he entered into a treaty with the Aborigines for the use of the land. Other settlers came and two years later this settlement around Port Phillip was named Melbourne. Gold was found and from 1850 for the next 40 years there was a gold rush. Now there was plenty of noise. In no time at all Melbourne was the most populous city in Australia. In the time frame of civilisation this place arrived at only 10-to-midnight yet is now a buzzing metropolis that mixes business, sport and bohemia like few others. It’s consistently voted one of the top cities in which to live.

There’s a traditional rivalry between Melbourne and Adelaide. When Melbourne businessman Ron Walker prised the rights to the Australian Grand Prix away from Adelaide from 1996 – by offering to pay 12 million Australian dollars rather than Adelaide’s 9 million – he was made chairman of the event and remains so to this day. He hit it off with Bernie Ecclestone instantly and the two have been staunch allies, always weighing in with support when the other has been under fire.

Walker and his Australian Grand Prix Corporation have been under fire rather a lot in the last few years, because several in the city have questioned what it gets for an annual hosting fee about five times that which secured the race in ’96. A 500 per cent inflation rate over 18 years (an average of almost 28 per cent per year) is fairly typical of how F1 has priced itself around the world in that time.

Walker has always insisted there is still a net benefit for the city in terms of tourism, inward investment and so on, and has always delivered a brilliant event around the parkland track that first hosted a national status Australian Grand Prix in 1953 (won by Doug Whiteford’s thundering Talbot-Lago). But the questions have become more strident of late and, with the current contract expiring after 2015, there is a real prospect that the state will not rubber-stamp its renewal. So the last thing Walker needed was something that he felt was taking away from his show. He was horrified when the idea of quiet, hybrid V6s was first mooted – and very vocal about how horrified he was. He even arranged a coalition of race organisers to voice their disapproval. He was singing from absolutely the same sheet as Ecclestone, who has always been against this new formula. It increases the costs to the teams (thereby putting pressure on the sport’s owners to put back more of what they take out) and in his opinion reduces the spectacle. But F1’s adoption of 21st century green automotive technology has happened regardless, at the FIA’s insistence.

So it was all quite apt that the opening race of the quiet new era should be Ron Walker’s Australian Grand Prix. The race happened, Nico Rosberg’s brilliant new Mercedes W05 dominated, the cars were quiet – and Walker and Ecclestone were not happy.

The Fury

“We [the Grand Prix Corporation] are an entertainment company and we have to entertain the public,” Walker said. “A big part of that entertainment is the F1 noise – and we didn’t get it. Everybody was talking about it. When you take the excitement away, you have trouble selling tickets. You have to create demand and part of that demand is people liking the noise of the race cars.” He also said, “This is not what we paid for,” and intimated legal action.

Ecclestone was sympathetic, telling Reuters: “I don’t know whether he has a point [about the supposed breach of contract]. Let’s assume he hasn’t as far as the legal side is going. Then you have to look at it from a moral side. If you went into the supermarket today and bought some strawberry jam and you got peanut butter you’d probably be a bit pissed off. It’s good quality peanut butter, but he’s saying it isn’t what he bought. Whether the contract describes what he’d bought, the strawberry jam with so many strawberries, I don’t know. I doubt it. I think he bought the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Which is what he’s got.”

For the sake of the event’s future amid all this controversy it was a Godsend that a young Australian, in his first race for a top team, performed brilliantly, Daniel Ricciardo slotting his Red Bull on the front row to split the Mercs of Lewis Hamilton and Rosberg, then driving a faultless race to second. The cheers of the crowd as he crossed the line easily drowned out the sound of the cars – obviously. But then he was disqualified. Bad, bad timing guys. F1’s gift horse was promptly shot – the Red Bull’s FIA-supplied fuel metering unit suggesting the Red Bull had exceeded the new regulation flow limit of 100kg/hour. This too was a part of the new regulations. The fuel flow limit was put in place partly to discourage the development of high-revving engines that had little to do with the development direction of the car industry and also to prevent a car disappearing out front early and then simply managing the gap. To monitor the flow the FIA provides the teams with ultrasonic metering units (made by Gill Sensors). But several teams claimed the units gave inconsistent readings. When teams compared the data from their own injectors, they did not always tally. The FIA insisted teams respect what the official sensors were reading and alter their engines’ fuel flow accordingly. Red Bull was warned after Friday practice that Ricciardo’s engine was over-delivering. Red Bull countered that its own data showed that it wasn’t and that it was therefore a fault with the flow metering units. When Ricciardo’s engine continued to show over-delivery in the race, the FIA felt it had no choice but to exclude him. Red Bull has appealed the decision.

The Challenge

Regardless of whether the result stands or not, to be on the front row and second past the flag was an enormous achievement for Red Bull, given that testing was derailed by fundamental problems with Renault Sport’s new power unit. The ersH and ersK (respectively heat and kinetic energy recovery units) were only combined with the V6 engine on the dyno for the first time late last year. Each component in isolation performed well, but when brought together problems became apparent. The forces around key dynamic couplings – how components move relative to each other when installed – had been wildly underestimated.

There were three key hardware problems: the drive between the ersK (the motor generator unit that sits between the rear wheels and battery) and the crankshaft overloaded the gearset and caused crankcase failures. The drive from the ersH (the electrical turbine motor generator unit that operates between the turbo and the battery, and which can also deliver power to the wheels through the ersK) was not working as intended. When not delivering power to ersK, the ersH was designed to keep the turbo’s turbine spinning even when the turbo was not boosting. But in doing this it was creating way more heat than expected, which was causing component failures. Finally, the cells in the battery were adversely affected by heat and vibration.

The battery problem was quickly solved, but fundamental redesigns were required elsewhere. In the meantime, the software – having been configured around the hardware that didn’t work – had to be totally reconfigured to give some level of driveability. Red Bull’s own people went to Viry and helped configure something workable. Ricciardo was thus able to show some of the RB10’s potential. It looks by far the most stable car and generates corner entry speeds beyond reach of its rivals. But Sebastian Vettel’s machine was in constant electrical trouble, restricting him to 13th in qualifying and an early race retirement. This lost him the chance of beating Alberto Ascari’s nine grand prix victory sequence from 1952-53 – and he was furious with his lot all weekend.

Meantime, Mercedes was showing the benefits of an engine manufacturer fully integrated with its works team. But it wasn’t only that. As you can read elsewhere, the W05’s 1sec per lap advantage was derived from a brilliantly conceived car, at the heart of which is an innovation in how the turbo’s compressor and turbine are separated. Hamilton’s pole owed something to more fortunate track placement than Rosberg, as they were completing their final laps while the wet track was improving, and his early retirement from the race, one cylinder down, means we don’t know how he and Rosberg might have compared. With Hamilton out, Rosberg cruised.

But it isn’t just about plugging in a Mercedes engine. Powered by the same unit, McLaren took third and fourth with Kevin Magnussen and Jenson Button respectively, but the MP4-29 was about 1sec per lap slower than the Merc. Button was able to save fuel early in the race, when stuck behind slower cars, but running up front Magnussen had to monitor it carefully throughout and only rarely unleashed full power. So why for Mercedes and not McLaren? Aerodynamic efficiency, as summarised by McLaren’s Eric Boullier. “I think aero efficiency is now going to be the absolute key to having access to full power efficiency.” Reducing drag to reduce fuel consumption to increase boost.

That said, Magnussen drove brilliantly on his debut, pushing hard without error in qualifying and delicately treading the balance between push and consolidation in the race. With some smart marshalling of his stored power, he almost succeeded in jumping Ricciardo at the second stops from a long way back. Thereafter he just kept on the pressure to the end.

Valtteri Bottas’s Williams would have been smack in the middle of this battle, maybe even ahead of it, had he not a) been compromised in qualifying and then hit with a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change and b) picked up a puncture after hitting the wall in pursuit of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. The Williams-Mercedes was the best-looking car and probably second quickest around Albert Park.

As for Ferrari, it’s energy recovery is not yet working effectively (it is about 70bhp down on Mercedes) and its brake-by-wire system is inconsistent, something Kimi Räikkönen found very difficult. Alonso simply bullied the car to a good fifth place, which later became fourth. Early days yet, but Ferrari was not a serious force in Melbourne.

The Future

Yes, the cars were quiet. But the quality of that noise was wonderful as was the way it allowed you to hear the different phases of the power units in operation. All that torque allied to a reduction in aero grip made for old-fashioned power slides out of the slow turns. Even through the faster stuff the cars were moving around, the drivers having to use up parts of the track they’d never noticed were there in the previous V8 cars.

Yes, perhaps the fans missed the sheer volume. But after a while they might come to appreciate that what they’ve got is actually an improvement. And Mr Walker’s dilemma? If the commercial rights holder wasn’t charging such exorbitant fees, there would be less pressure on the event and the outcry wouldn’t have such potentially serious ramifications.

It was a fascinating opening contest and we saw the emergence in Magnussen and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kyvat of some great new talent. We look forward also to seeing Bottas light up the tracks. The rest? It’s all just noise.

Close to the edge
Clark chicane, Albert Park

At the braking area for the Clark chicane there’s a platter of sounds as F1 takes its first steps into the new turbo era. The whine of heavy energy harvesting, the cough of cylinder-cut wasting not a breath of precious fuel; then, the turn made, the wheeze and burble of V6 muted by the turbo to a cultured growl and that lovely, counter-intuitive sound of acceleration a turbo always provides.

Everyone is short-shifting to get back into the strong part of the torque band and, as the grunt arrives before the corner’s finished, we’re confronted with the retro scene of powerslides – very apt with the gorgeous, Martini-liveried Williams.

Aggressive energy harvesting is audible by the deeper tone of the rumble under braking. Most brake-by-wire systems are not yet perfect, a fluttering instability apparent on some – though not the Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo is revelling in what is visibly the most stable car, confidently taking more momentum than anyone else into the chicane. The Renault V6 lacks its rivals’ sci-fi aural sophistication, though; at this stage of development it sounds rougher, more mechanical.

The Ferrari’s downshifts are barely audible – because they use the ersK to blip engine revs rather than the throttle, so no fuel wasted on throttle blips and an electrically controlled, instantly responsive rev.

Valtteri Bottas is attacking the braking area with total commitment, apparently unconcerned by the Williams’s twitchiness on corner entry. In fact he’s making an asset of it, using it to help rotate the car early into the turn.

As they rush up the connecting, curving flat-out ‘straight’ between Clark chicane and the fast Turn 11-12 sequence, the lack of volume combined with the visibly higher speed over the V8s somehow amplifies the drama, the Doppler effect enhanced by the quieter approach. They float across the bumps on the way to 11 and turn in anyhow, drivers way busier than before.

Again Ricciardo catches the eye, flamboyant with his entry speed and taking big, bold lines that encompass the track’s full width. Tame in volume they might be, but the F1 car of 2014 allows the driver to look more heroic.