2015 Australian GP report

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Mark Hughes

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The Mercedes advantage is, if anything, bigger than ever. Lewis Hamilton’s pole was 1.61 per cent faster than the best non-Merc. The biggest advantage it had last year was 1.26 per cent. Ferrari has improved a lot – enough for Sebastian Vettel to beat Felipe Massa’s Williams-Mercedes in a straight fight for the final place on the podium. But that was still half a minute adrift of Hamilton’s victorious Mercedes W06 and who is to say that it couldn’t have been more? Nico Rosberg applied the pressure to his team-mate periodically, but each time Hamilton had an answer. As if he was doing just enough to keep himself out of DRS reach.

An increased Mercedes advantage wasn’t the greatest news for the sport. Non-starting Manors, Sauber spending time in court arguing about which pay drivers were entitled to drive its cars, three teams needing advances of their TV money in order to be able to make the trip… A closely-fought race between more than one team might at least have distracted from this dysfunction – as would a strong start for the new McLaren-Honda partnership, but that is as yet way too brittle to be carrying such hopes. Running radically detuned, they qualified last at around 3sec off the pace. On Sunday Kevin Magnussen’s car blew its engine on the way to the grid while Jenson Button finished a twice-lapped 11th – and last.

Only 15 cars took to the grid. As well as the non-operative Manor Marussias (hurriedly constructed and with a software glitch that prevented their 2014 Ferrari motors from being started up all weekend), Valtteri Bottas was forced to withdraw with a torn back muscle after qualifying his Williams sixth, while Daniil Kvyat’s Red Bull – which had been suffering mechanical dramas all weekend – stopped on its way to the grid, just like Magnussen albeit with rather less smoke. The Red Bull had broken its gearbox, probably as a result of the severe oscillations the misbehaving engine had been putting on it throughout the weekend.

This all played its part in two rookies scoring points on their debuts, though both Felipe Nasr (fifth for Sauber) and Carlos Sainz Jr (ninth for Toro Rosso) performed flawlessly all weekend. Seventeen-year-old Max Verstappen was running his Toro Rosso sixth and driving beautifully when his Renault engine stopped. Nasr’s drive in the Sauber-Ferrari demonstrated more than just his ability though; in defeating Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull fair and square it underlined just how good Ferrari’s 2015 power unit is – and how bad is Renault’s. Updates to the French power unit were supposed to find it an extra 50bhp from the Barcelona test. Instead, the power was reduced and was nowhere near as accessible. “The drivers are saying it’s like a switch,” complained Christian Horner. “There’s nothing, then it all comes in at once and is virtually uncontrollable. Looking at the data, it looks like we are around 100bhp down on the Mercedes this weekend…”

Qualifying

Hamilton’s pole lap set the tone for the season to come, at 1.4sec faster than the best non-Merc. Revelling in a car smothered in downforce, with enormous punch and great driveability, he became more confident and expressive with each run. It was a tricky old session, with falling track temperatures and a gusting wind that was giving everyone real problems into turns 1, 3 and 15. But Hamilton seemed immune, faster and more committed each time he took to the track, his advantage over Rosberg building up to 0.6sec, Nico’s rhythm interrupted by niggles in software settings. “There wasn’t anything wrong exactly,” Rosberg explained. “It was just about fine tuning, trying to perfect everything. The main story was Lewis did an awesome job in nailing it every time. I just didn’t get the lap together.”

As ever, in changeable conditions – in this case the gusting wind and falling track temperatures – Hamilton’s improvisation and confidence gave him a crucial advantage. Asked how come Mercedes’ superiority had apparently stretched since last year, a senior team member wasn’t convinced that it had. “I think actually a lot of that was just Lewis. The car’s superiority was probably more like how Nico’s lap showed it – maybe around 1sec. Lewis’s was just an amazing lap in those conditions. He’s in the midst of contract negotiations and suddenly you see the difference that calibre of driver can make.”

The ninth consecutive Mercedes front row lock-out surpasses the previous record, held jointly by McLaren for 1989 and Williams for 1993. But the 12th consecutive pole is only half-way to the record of 24 held by Williams between the ‘92 French and ‘93 Japanese Grands Prix.

Felipe Massa’s Mercedes-powered Williams eventually headed ‘Class B’ which was an incredibly tightly-fought contest between Williams and Ferrari. There really seemed nothing in it between them around Albert Park, even though the laps were achieved in different ways. Like last year the Williams’ combination of low drag and high power saw it comfortably fastest through the speed traps. The SF-15T was running less rear wing to achieve comparable straightline speeds, its lap time coming from excellent driveability of chassis and engine. Both Vettel, fourth fastest, and Räikkönen, fifth – separated by three-hundredths – could have snatched third from Massa had they not made a couple of small errors each on their final runs. Bottas injured his back in Q2, the muscle pain compromising him in Q3 where he was sixth, around 0.3sec adrift of Massa. It seems that the act of applying around 140kg of pressure to the brake pedal on low fuel and new tyres had torn a muscle. He would be a non-starter in the race.

Severe drivability problems and a general lack of grunt made things very difficult for Red Bull and Toro Rosso, but the latter was remarkably close to the former. Daniel Ricciardo was seventh quickest in his RB11 but less than 0.2sec clear of the rookie Carlos Sainz Jr in the Toro Rosso. The Renault’s deficit to Mercedes and Ferrari was smaller in qualifying than in race trim, but still very much there. Their respective team-mates didn’t get out of Q2. Max Verstappen was 12th after a major oversteer moment out of turn four on his crucial lap, though he had starred in Q1 with the fourth-fastest time, ahead of Massa and Vettel. Daniil Kvyat’s Red Bull was running roughly all weekend, losing him precious track time and leaving him 13th.

The newly Mercedes-powered Lotuses of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado rounded out the top 10, the former with a consistent couple of tenths in hand over the latter. They were a small but significant chunk faster than the Sauber of Felipe Nasr who qualified a very composed 11th on his debut, this after having missed all of Friday morning while it was decided if Giedo van der Garde was legally entitled to drive the car or not. Nasr’s team mate Marcus Ericsson failed to graduate from Q1 but was marginally faster than the McLaren-Hondas of Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen which were running with just 35 per cent of their ers power in order to keep two crucial, potentially engine-damaging sensors from overheating. In between Kvyat and Ericsson were the Force Indias of Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Pérez, separated by one-thousandth of a second.

Race

Hamilton took off from the front of the sparse grid and stayed there. Pretty much for the rest of the day, give or take a pitstop.

In his wake into the first turn Rosberg prevailed over Massa’s Williams as just behind them the Ferraris fought over territory. Kimi Räikkönen had got better traction off the line than Vettel but was on the outside, Seb standing late on the brakes to regain the lost ground. Grabbing a lot of inside kerb threw Vettel a metre or so to the left, where Räikkönen already was. Kimi got out of the way as best he could, scrabbling round the outside briefly off the gas to keep from visiting the gravel. Cars darted all around the momentum-checked Ferrari as he tried to blend back into the pack and he was caught a glancing blow by Nasr, snaking the Ferrari wildly out of line back into the Sauber, which in turn flicked Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus heavily into the wall. Sainz took advantage to nip past Nasr for fifth just before the safety car was deployed, neutralising what was shaping up into a messy-looking scrabble. Räikkönen’s car had suffered slight front wing damage from Vettel and a significant chunk out of the rear floor area was missing, courtesy of the Nasr hit, but it was still running OK.

Compounding Lotus’ misery, Romain Grosjean was in at the end of the lap to retire, the Mercedes motor having suddenly lost power on its way to the grid. Sauber used the safety car opportunity to bring Marcus Ericsson in to change from the medium tyres which only he, Verstappen and Sergio Pérez had chosen. They were around 1sec slower than the softs but with both compounds very durable, one-stopping was the chosen strategy for most. A two-stop was only marginally slower but left you vulnerable to traffic.

For three laps the safety car headed Hamilton, Rosberg, Massa, Vettel, Sainz, Nasr, Ricciardo, Räikkönen, Verstappen, Nico Hülkenberg’s Force India and the rest. Pérez had passed Ericsson under the safety car period on the first lap so had to surrender the place once racing began again – which entailed also letting Button by as the Sauber was behind the McLaren.

Hamilton judged the rolling restart perfectly to pull out a big margin over Rosberg. As Massa and Vettel jostled, Sainz stumbled. With his software temporarily stuck in safety car mode, he was easy meat for Nasr and Ricciardo before the problem was corrected, while fending off Räikkönen.

Race results

1 L Hamilton Mercedes 1hr 31min 54.067sec
2 N Rosberg Mercedes +1.36sec
3 S Vettel Ferrari +34.523sec
4 F Massa Williams +38.196sec
5 F Nasr Sauber +95.149sec
6 D Ricciardo Red Bull +1 lap
7 N Hülkenberg Force India +1 lap
8 M Ericsson Sauber +1 lap
9 C Sainz Toro Rosso +1 lap
10 S Pérez Force India +1 lap
11 J Button McLaren +2 laps
DNF K Räikkönen Ferrari
DNF M Verstappen Toro Rosso
DNF R Grosjean Lotus
DNF P Maldonado Lotus
DNS D Kvyat Red Bull
DNS K Magnussen McLaren
DNP W Stevens Manor
DNP R Merhi Manor

Hamilton completed the first restart lap 2.6sec ahead of Rosberg who in turn was pulling easily clear of the battling Massa and Vettel. The Williams was just a little too quick down the straights for Seb to be able to pass, even after DRS was enabled. The Ferrari definitely looked quicker though, Vettel able to drop away and close back up at will. On one occasion he was wildly out of shape exiting turn four, losing a big chunk of time as he fought hard to keep it out the wall. Yet within a lap he was right back on Felipe’s tail. This didn’t go unnoticed in the Williams pit, presenting them with a strategic dilemma.

Nasr was driving immaculately in fending off Ricciardo’s attack, Daniel then coming under pressure from Räikkönen after the latter had passed Sainz on the seventh lap. It soon became clear that the Sauber was in fact simply a faster car on the day than the Red Bull. Although Nasr hadn’t quite made the Q3 cut and had been out-qualified by Red Bull and Toro Rosso, it was evident that in race trim the Ferrari-engined car simply had a lot more power available than the Renault machines, implying that it has much superior fuel efficiency. It’s clear both Ferrari and Sauber have benefitted enormously from a massive upgrade in the Ferrari power unit since last year, exacerbating Red Bull’s problems.

“The problem affects pedal application and confidence in the corners,” said Renault Sport’s Remi Taffin later, “so has cost lap time and points this weekend. It’s related to the maps, or the way the power unit is configured, so while it’s definitely not an easy fix, it does not require a complete redesign. We have got a lot of work to do before Malaysia.”

Sainz fell off the back of the Nasr/Ricciardo/Räikkönen train but on his faster soft tyres kept out of reach of his following medium-tyred team-mate Verstappen who was under no threat from Hülkenberg.

Ericsson had passed Button who was then left to dice with the Force India of Sergio Pérez. On the 14th lap ‘Checo’ tried a late lunge down the inside of the McLaren into turn three; Jenson refused to be intimidated and turned in. The Force India spun as contact was made. He restarted with a bit of wing damage and would much later finally make the same move stick. “He was behind me all those laps. How gutted must he have been?” Button joked later in reference to how uncompetitive the McLaren-Honda was in its first race. The slightly cooler conditions of race day had given Honda the confidence to turn the ers up to something beyond the 35 per cent of full power it had been running in qualifying. But that still left it a long way behind. This race was nothing more than an extended test session whilst desperately trying to keep the engine in one piece. Magnussen’s blow-up had already ensured that Fernando Alonso has lost one of his allocated four units for the year. In completing the distance (albeit two laps down), Button far exceeded the total mileage the car had achieved during all of winter testing. It’s very early days, the combination obliged to race before it’s anywhere near ready. Button continued to be complimentary about the feel of the car – “and through the corners we were not far off being as quick as the Red Bulls,” though that meant less in Melbourne 2015 than it might previously have done.

With Räikkönen badly held up by Ricciardo, Ferrari changed strategy, converting him to a two-stop and bringing him in at the end of the 16th lap. A fresh set of yellow-walled softs went onto the car, the front jack man lowered it just a fraction too early, triggering Kimi into releasing the clutch paddle – but the rear was still off the ground, the spinning wheels delaying the mechanic on the left-rear. As he completed his task a further 5sec were lost and, unknowingly, the wheel peg had been damaged. He rejoined the fray just ahead of Button but on his fresh soft tyres was soon lapping faster than anyone, despite the damaged floor and front wing. At this rate, the team reckoned, he was on schedule to join the Vettel/Massa fight before the end, even after taking the additional pitstop.

That particular fight was entering a crucial phase as the stops loomed. Massa just could not get Vettel off his tail no matter what he tried. It was plain the Ferrari was quicker – if only it could get by. “If he came in before us he would definitely get ahead,” reasoned Rob Smedley. “If we came in before him, we might be able to stay ahead. So we had no real logical choice but to defend the undercut.”

Approaching the window for a one-stop on lap 21, Felipe was brought in. His speed up to the pitlane line was aggressively quick, the stationary time as a set of the white-walled prime-tyres went on was just 2.8sec – and he was on his way. It was crucial he nail a hard pace in the next few laps as Vettel let rip on the now-clear track, the Ferrari lapping a full 0.8sec faster than when it had been stuck behind the Williams.

Drivers’ championship

1 Lewis Hamilton 25
2 Nico Rosberg 18
3 Sebastian Vettel 15
4 Felipe Massa 12
5 Felipe Nasr 10
6 Daniel Ricciardo 8
7 Nico Hülkenberg 6
8 Marcus Ericsson 4
9 Carlos Sainz 2
10 Sergio Pérez 1

The combination of low tyre degradation and the necessity of switching to the slower prime tyre at the single stop meant it was quite feasible that Vettel would be faster on his old tyres than Felipe on his new primes. But Felipe managed to get them switched on more or less immediately. On his out-lap he matched Vettel’s sector two time, but through the tighter twists and turns of the final sector Seb was a couple of tenths quicker. With the old soft tyres holding up just fine, Vettel stayed out for a further two laps pushing to the absolute maximum, the Ferrari aggressively darty on entry with a front end that responds to steering input and a rear that slides progressively. Next time through, Massa was a couple of tenths down on the Ferrari through the first sector, another tenth off in the middle – and now he was fast-approaching the old-tyred Red Bull of Ricciardo on an in-lap. He caught it at an awkward place, and made a half-hearted attempt at passing down the inside into turn 14. Ricciardo resisted, forcing Massa to run wide and losing him 1.5sec. A few moments later Vettel made for the pitlane. He too was aggressively fast, taking an almost identical time to Massa from pit entry to the speed limit line. The car was stopped for 0.6sec longer than Massa’s had been – but the combination of Vettel’s full-attack laps and Massa’s fumbling of the Ricciardo pass got Vettel out ahead of Massa by 0.9sec. From there, he was able to pull away, confirming the Ferrari-Vettel combination was definitely faster.

This was all happening a long way behind the two Mercs. Hamilton had maintained his gap of just over 2sec over Rosberg, but was using less fuel in the process. As the first stops approached he upped his pace and Rosberg had no answer. On lap 25 Hamilton pitted from 3.8sec ahead of his team-mate. He ran a little past his marks as he stopped, incurring a delay of around 0.5sec as the mechanics shuffled up their guns to match. Next time around, Rosberg was around 0.3sec slower on his in-lap but stopped on his marks, knocking 0.5sec off Hamilton’s stationary time. It wasn’t enough to change anything and as they began their final stints now on the medium tyre, Hamilton was 4.7sec ahead.

Räikkönen on his out-of-sync strategy was still gaining fast on Massa but with an extra stop to make. In the 19-lap gap between Massa’s final stop and Räikkönen’s, Kimi reduced a 13sec deficit to little more than 4sec.

Nasr had pulled out enough distance over Ricciardo that Sauber could afford to let Red Bull pit a couple of laps before them without risk to their position. “With all due respect to Nasr, we couldn’t do anything about the Sauber today,” said Ricciardo, “so that tells you where we are lacking.”

Sainz was running only around 5sec behind Ricciardo – and they are both Renault-powered. So has Red Bull built a car no quicker than a Toro Rosso? “I think that’s a false picture,” said Christian Horner. “Because the power unit masks so many things regarding corner entry, exit, degradation, slip control of the tyre. You’re not able to drive the car properly, you then move the brake balance around to compensate so you are so far away from optimum, you start losing temperatures in brakes and the tyres don’t work as they should. It just spirals. They were having these problems too but I’d say it was having a more dramatic effect on our car.

“Renault need to respond quickly. Ferrari has made a step forward. I doubt Sauber has found that much on their chassis from last year to this, because most of it is the same – same front and rear wings. So at just the time that Ferrari has made a big step with its engine Renault has made a retrograde step. It’s frustrating but we’re behind where we were in Abu Dhabi last year in both power and driveability.”

Verstappen on his prime tyres kept the soft-tyred Sainz in sight until the latter’s pitstop. Max then stayed out a further eight laps, nailing a hard and consistent pace, driving with great panache – aggressive yet super-precise. He was set to have been fighting Hülkenberg for seventh before the engine broke on his out-lap. It would have been interesting to have seen his pace on a set of the soft tyres and, if he had cleared the Force India at the stop, whether he could have caught Ricciardo who by then was on the slower tyre. Sainz had fallen out of this battle with a repeat of the mapping glitch as he’d made his pitstop, the car reluctant to return to full race mode. This has lost him well over 20sec and he was now way back – between Pérez and Button. Had both Toro Rossos run cleanly, the gaps and the respective performances of the soft and medium tyres suggests that Verstappen’s combination of tyre strategy and the pace he’d maintained on the slower tyre would have seen him comfortably beat Sainz.

It was late afternoon now, the light was dimming and the temperatures dropping. From its earlier 39-deg C, the track temperature was down in the high 20s. Rosberg sensed this might be his chance. He’d felt all weekend he was more comfortable than Hamilton on the prime tyres on a cool track. Cool temperatures and a hard compound tend to make for graining of the front tyres – and Hamilton seems to induce this more readily than Nico. Sure enough, that earlier 4.6sec gap was down to less than 2sec within eight laps. Rosberg was giving it everything. But this was where Hamilton’s earlier fuel saving paid him back. As Rosberg got the gap down to just 1.5sec on lap 36, Hamilton was able to turn up his engine, burning up the Petronas he’d saved to compensate for his slight discomfort with the tyres on the cooling track. As he let rip on extended power, Rosberg could only respond for a couple more laps before he had to bring his fuel consumption back on schedule. The cars are around 2sec faster than last year and this has extracted a toll on fuel consumption, making them around three per cent thirstier. Albert Park induces the second-highest fuel demand of the season and these things combined meant Rosberg had very little wriggle room. Lewis had essentially got him beaten from the moment Nico had to turn down the engine. “He drove like a champion today,” said Rosberg afterwards, “and I just couldn’t get close enough to even try a move.

The main point of interest now was what the delayed Räikkönen, on his two-stop strategy, could do about Massa’s fourth place. He pitted from 4sec behind the Williams on lap 40. With 18 laps still to go, he was set to exit 27sec behind. He would need to average 1.5sec per lap faster for the remainder – on prime tyres that would be 20 laps fresher than those of Massa’s. Was that feasible? Sadly, we never got to find out, as part of the left-rear wheel peg damaged at the first pit stop was lodged in the stub axle. This was why the guy on the left-rear was unable to tighten it fully before the car was released. Upon releasing the situation Ferrari instructed Räikkönen to pull off, to reduce the risk of an unsafe release penalty. The FIA investigated the incident but was satisfied that the team had acted responsibly.

Räikkönen’s retirement had reduced the field to 11 cars, meaning all but one of the runners would get points. Button was the odd man out. Ericsson made a late third stop, which put him behind Sainz but on his fresh tyres was able to pass the Toro Rosso for eighth three laps from the end.

Hamilton and Rosberg were over half a minute clear of the nonetheless delighted Vettel at the end, with Massa a few seconds adrift from there, but a long way clear of Nasr, the last un-lapped runner. Ricciardo was lonely in seventh, half a minute clear of Hülkenberg. Ericsson, Sainz and Pérez completed the points scorers.

Brilliant venue though Melbourne is, great drive though Hamilton’s was, Formula 1 projected a shaky image last weekend. As a season-opener, it contained some very worrying signs.

 

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