Grand Prix Notebook

Rd 1 Albert Park, March 15 2015
1 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W06, 1hr 31min 54.067sec
2 Nico Rosberg, Mercedes W06, 1hr 31min 55.427sec
3 Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF15-T, 1hr 32min 28.590sec

Fastest lap: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W06, 1min 30.945sec
Race distance: 58 laps, 191.117 miles
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes W06, 1min 27.867sec

Mercedes’ domination of the opening round of the championship – Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg cantering to a 1-2, half-a-minute ahead of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari – was not exactly helpful to the sport’s mass appeal. Just like non-starting Manors (which came all the way to Melbourne to sit lifeless in their garages all weekend) and repeated hearings in a Melbourne court to decide which of Sauber’s pay drivers would race its car, it transmitted a message of a sport in crisis.

Coming into the weekend, one of the great imponderables was how the new McLaren-Honda partnership might fare. With Mercedes having found an extra 50bhp from its power unit over the winter, leaving Renault and – to a lesser degree – Ferrari as far behind as ever, the re-uniting of one of the sport’s all-time great partnerships represented hope. Which was why the spotlight was so firmly upon it. Because its winter test programme had been so savagely truncated by unreliability, the car was an almost completely unknown quantity to the outside world. But the team that arrived in Melbourne knew the reality: it was about to endure a horrifically uncompetitive weekend, when Honda’s woeful state of unreadiness would be revealed.

Fernando Alonso’s mysterious testing accident remained the hot topic of speculation in the lead-in to Melbourne. But after Jenson Button and Alonso’s stand-in Kevin Magnussen qualified on the back row, more than 3sec off the pace, the Spaniard’s situation was all but forgotten. Now that spotlight burned.

“It’s tough,” said Button about the prospect of climbing into an uncompetitive car in the 16th year of his F1 career. “If it wasn’t the start of what I believe is going to be something special, it would really hurt.”

He’d spent part of winter contemplating the possible end of his F1 career. A world championship and 15 Grand Prix victories counted for little as Alonso fever had taken hold at the second Ron Dennis-era McLaren. The whole ‘is it Button or Magnussen?’ question left Jenson bewildered. “I’m still surprised I even had to contemplate not being around in F1,” he said. “It should have been a natural progression that I continued.” But the whole issue was tied up in corporate politics and finance. Dennis is trying to buy back a controlling shareholding in the team from Mansour Ojjeh and the Bahraini group. Had he succeeded in bringing on board the Danish investors that were interested on account of Magnussen, he might have been able to pull off his financial coup. Ojjeh and Dennis are at loggerheads: someone mischievously informed Ojjeh of Dennis’s Danish trips, and what they might be for, and suddenly Ojjeh and the other shareholders made plain their preference for Button, thereby nixing Dennis’s plans. As a brilliant businessman and negotiator, Ron recognises which battles not to fight. Button it was.

As he spent most of winter testing sitting in the garage, Button might have had cause to contemplate further. It was clear Honda was nowhere near ready. The car completed about one-tenth of the mileage of Mercedes. “It was like playing a pop-up game,” said Honda’s motor sport chief Yasuhisa Arai, “with new problems coming to surprise you. You fix one and then the next one comes.” Broken MGU-k seals were just one of an array of car-stopping problems for the tiny, incredibly tightly packaged new power unit.

“Let’s be realistic,” said racing director Éric Boullier. “The other manufacturers spent more than three years on the projects before they needed to test. Honda had spent less than 18 months by the time the car took to the track – half the time. If you’d asked Mercedes mid-2012 to run a car it would have been a bit messy. Give Honda 18 months and judge them then.” Once the units were in the cars, those manufacturers also benefited from the simultaneous data acquisition of several teams, rather than just the single McLaren of Honda.

That lack of running data meant Honda arrived in Melbourne with only the most basic of known parameters. “We had no data on how the ers would behave with continued use for a long time during a race,” said Arai. “Because we had not even been able to do a race distance in testing, we could not confirm what happens with the internal combustion engine when the air intake temperature was higher. So because we have only four engines for each car for the season, we used very conservative settings for here. The map and the control systems are not yet very sophisticated – again because of the lack of running – so this makes us even more conservative.”

The engine itself was not under-cooled, despite its tiny dimensions and super-tight packaging. But two vital sensors were being taken far beyond their operating parameters if the energy regeneration system was used to anything like its full potential. If these sensors got too hot and fed the wrong information to the engine management, the potential for mechanical carnage was very real. So for Melbourne, the ers was operating at just 35 per cent of its full potential – i e it was contributing about 70bhp rather than 200. Furthermore the engine itself, for the reasons outlined by Arai, was turned down. They desperately needed the mileage. The works Mercedes is delivering about 900bhp. Taking an assumed 700 engine + 200 ers combination for the Merc, the detuned Honda was running at Melbourne with circa 600 + 70 respectively. The lap time calculation for the difference of 900bhp versus 670bhp is around 2.3sec. Button as the faster of the two McLarens qualified 3sec slower than Hamilton’s Merc in the equivalent session. These are all just order of magnitude numbers, but it implies that the car itself is presently around 0.7sec adrift – and the rest is engine.

Button really likes the car. “It actually feels nicer to drive than any McLaren I’ve ever driven,” he said. “It has a completely different feel and that reflects the fact it has a completely different aerodynamic philosophy – a totally new one for McLaren.” It’s configured like a Red Bull, McLaren having finally given up on the difficult-to-maintain high peak downforce/very narrow ride height window philosophy of the previous few years. Peter Prodromou has delivered a clean, aerodynamically flexible and progressive car – the secret of Red Bull’s past success.

“When you’ve maximised one philosophy as far as it can go and then switch to a new one it’s not unusual that you might take a step back on peak load on the car,” Button said, “and that’s where we’re at with it right now – it doesn’t yet have enough downforce to compete at the front. But I believe the traits of the car mean it’s going to be relatively easy to add downforce as we develop it – because it’s clean downforce. It feels like if you added downforce it would all go in the right direction. It’s got a great front end. You turn in, then as you add steering lock you get more front end, which is always great. That’s what you’re trying to get at every debrief you do. Previously, a McLaren on Pirellis, even the quick ones, would have a lot of front end on initial turn-in, a bit of rear movement – and then understeer at the apex. This one doesn’t have that understeer, it just feels very sweet. You feel confident you can brake hard and that it will be stable all through the corner – and then the traction’s not bad either.”

It isn’t only in aerodynamics that McLaren’s philosophy is changing. It runs throughout the team. Boullier is making McLaren a leaner, faster-reacting outfit more suited to the constraints of modern F1. McLaren was the ultimate team of the unlimited resource/unlimited testing era. But it was way too fat and over-staffed for how F1 has been for the past few years. It had approximately three people for every key role, creating competitive tensions internally, slowing everything down as rivalries took hold. Its wind tunnel throughput time was way off the pace, as was its data collection speed from each run – vital drawbacks in an era where tunnel time is now limited by regulation, but typical of the way a well-funded team had developed when resource was not restricted in any way. The company’s famed matrix system was a very powerful tool, but now the demands are less about organisational power than they are about quick reactions, flexibility and efficiency. The team is going through a culture change.

But that’s all many steps removed from where Button was sitting on the back of the grid. He was supposed to have his team-mate there for company, but Magnussen’s car blew its engine on the way. Jenson’s was the slowest car in the race. He diced for a time with Sergio Pérez’s Force India and did well to stay ahead of it for several laps, but it was always coming past eventually. On the 29th lap Button was lapped by Hamilton’s Mercedes. Doesn’t that knee-jerk, Dennis-triggered move of Hamilton’s from McLaren at the end of 2012 look smart now?

At this stage Lewis was 2.8sec ahead of team-mate Rosberg. Nico was keeping the pressure on, but using more fuel in the process. They were already a quarter of a minute clear of Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari, which had prevailed over Felipe Massa’s Williams-Mercedes, jumping ahead at the stops through greater pace (illustrating the strides Ferrari has made, especially with its power unit). That same power unit was also pushing Felipe Nasr’s Sauber along very nicely. What is essentially last year’s Sauber was at Melbourne faster than the best Red Bull. Renault had made a serious mis-step with what was supposed to be an upgrade of the unit used in testing. The extra 50bhp wasn’t there and the driveability was awful. Fuel consumption was way heavier than the Ferrari’s – and the Sauber, which had qualified a few places behind Ricciardo’s Red Bull, was quicker in the race.

By the time Button was lapped for the second time, on lap 52, with six to go, Hamilton had seen off Rosberg’s challenge and Vettel was now half a minute behind, with Massa hanging on in fourth. Kimi Räikkönen’s Ferrari had been retired as the rear wheel couldn’t be properly tightened because of wheel peg debris in the stub axle, courtesy of a mix-up at its first pitstop. Kimi had been compromised seconds into the race by the actions of his team-mate – getting out of Vettel’s way caused him to be hit by Nasr, taking a chunk out of the Ferrari’s floor. But he’d been quick regardless – comparably quick to Vettel. Räikkönen’s retirement paved the way for Nasr to score fifth on his debut, ahead of the lapped Ricciardo. Seventeen-year-old Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso might have been pushing Ricciardo, had it not stopped with a dead engine right after its pitstop. In the sister car the delayed Carlos Sainz Jr scored ninth-place points on his debut. Button was the only finisher not to score points – but in completing the race he’d managed more miles than the car had done throughout the winter tests. There is masses of valuable data within those 56 competitively painful laps – and Button still believes.

“Honda could have made a bulkier unit that would have been much easier to manage and we’d have been much faster here,” he said. “But that engine would not have been the one to challenge the Mercedes engine. This one could be.”

There’s a long, rocky road ahead to that day – but it may well come regardless. The hybrid power units are incredibly complex pieces of kit. Any problems compound much more than they do on a conventional engine. It’s still all very green and Honda is clearly racing before it’s truly ready. But by the time it’s sorted McLaren should be a yet leaner and faster organisation, the MP4-30 should have more downforce and hopefully still the same benign Button-pleasing balance. And Fernando Alonso might still be with the team.

Trackside view
Clark chicane, Albert Park

"So the Albert Park breeze has gusted up on the first Friday morning of the season – as if to part the off-season clouds to reveal the real picture. Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen are first on track, Ferrari apparently bursting to prove its off-season form was not a mirage. It wasn’t; the car looks good.

Up at the Clark chicane, turns 9-10, it’s the first Ferrari in years that has a visibly strong front end, adhesion building progressively the moment the wheel is turned rather than gripping up too suddenly a moment after initial unresponsiveness. The latest hue of scarlet looks fabulous in the intense southern hemisphere light, glinting as Seb and Kimi get busy and creative in working out how best to use the car’s agility. Vettel is more acrobatic here than his team-mate, hustling the car harder. Up at the sixth gear left-right blast of 11-12, however, Räikkönen’s more flowing approach carries greater momentum, his car on Valium, Seb’s more fidgety and twitchy on crystal meth. But both look driveable and quick.

Back down to the chicane and Valtteri Bottas exhibits an aggressive amount of speed as he turns, the Williams in a spectacular shallow oversteer between turn-in and the first kerb, this setting him up on a perfect exit line to avoid – just – the serrated section of the second kerb. He does this every lap.

But hang on, a shark is on the prowl; Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes. On his single full attack lap he is disdainful of the kerb that Bottas was working so hard to avoid, the Merc simply smothering it. Nico’s confidence that it would do so has allowed him to simply dismiss the whole sequence as little more than a minor inconvenience. Downforce and compliance have combined to effectively increase the track’s width for the Merc.

At more than one second faster than the opposition at his first serious attempt, that lap lays down Mercedes’ marker for the season ahead, Nico’s contempt for that chicane kerb a visible manifestation of dominance."