Start, Albert Park, 2014

Heartbreak for home hero Ricciardo as Rosberg and Mercedes dominate

2014 Australian Grand Prix reviewPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Every year the mantra of Melbourne is that the first race of the year tends not to give an accurate impression of the season to come.

Last year Adrian Sutil led a chunk of the race and Kimi Raikkonen won it – two things which never happened again.

Albert Park is something of an outlier as F1 circuits go. It’s a temporary facility which isn’t shaped in the derivative mould of more recent additions to the calendar. It tends to produce unusual results.

That counts double when qualifying is disrupted by rain, as happened on Saturday. And again when many teams arrive at the first race of the year with so much potential still untapped in their new designs.

But the emphatic, assured manner of Nico Rosberg’s cruise to success affirmed every suspicion around Mercedes pre-season test form. They are in very strong shape indeed, and in the opening phase of the season the contest for victory is likely to be exclusively between their two drivers.

Engine failures sideline champions

Start, Albert Park, 2014On this occasion it was decided before the race even started, though it took a few laps to become apparent. Having taken pole position Lewis Hamilton found his engine had turned into a V5 instead of a V6.

Rosberg blasted past from third to take the lead as the race started, and Daniel Ricciardo lunged down the inside to reclaim second. Further around the opening lap Kevin Magnussen – following in Hamilton’s footsteps as the first rookie to make his race debut for McLaren in seven years – also dispossessed him.

Mercedees quickly took the decision to save Hamilton’s power unit – one of just five he may use this year – and pulled him in the pits to retire.

Minutes later Sebastian Vettel took the same course of action due to problems with his Renault V6 turbo. “In the beginning I thought I just had no power from the battery,” he said afterwards, “but it turned out that the engine failed in some way”.

He was much less sanguine at the time, angrily telling his team about the loss of power from his engine and MGU-K: “Do something! I’ve got no power, less ICE than normal And no K. That’s ridiculous guys.”

Kobayashi eliminates Massa

At this point it looked like the fears over mass retirements during the season-opening race were being realised. Three drivers had started from the pits due to various problems, including Jules Bianchi, who was unable to get away from the grid at the original start, forcing a second start.

Two drivers had got no further than the first corner. Kamui Kobayashi suffered what later turned out to be a failure in his brake-by-wire system on the run to turn one.

He ricocheted off Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, somehow not breaking its left-rear suspension, then ploughed into Felipe Massa, taking the Williams driver out of the race with him.

Both drivers were unharmed. But worryingly Massa’s car was lifted off the ground by Kobayashi’s in the impact, indicating the lower noses mandated by the FIA this year on safety grounds may put the new cars at grater risk of ‘submarining’ – something Adrian Newey warned about earlier this year.

Bottas hits the wall

Valtteri Bottas, Williams, Albert Park, 2014Rosberg extended his lead steadily over Ricciardo, holding a five second advantage after eight laps. Nico Hulkenberg had taken up fourth behind Magnussen. Fernando Alonso closed within a second of the Force India but even with the aid of DRS he couldn’t pass the Mercedes-engined car.

The sole remaining Williams of Valtteri Bottas was also having its Mercedes power plant wielded to good effect. He picked off the Toro Rosso drivers in the opening laps, then put a superb move on Kimi Raikkonen at turn three.

Alonso was his next target, but on lap ten Bottas swiped the wall coming out of turn ten. Vettel did much the same in qualifying but dealt the wall a glancing blow square-on. For Bottas the rear stepped out – easily done with the torquey new V6 turbos – and he wrecked his right-rear wheel.

Bottas had fortune on his side, however. Not only was the damage slight enough that it could be repaired with a trip to the pits for a new wheel, but the chunk of debris he left behind was large enough that the Safety Car had to be deployed, cancelling out much of the time he lost.

As the Safety Car boards appeared Jenson Button was heading towards the final corner. He reacted immediately, diving for the pits before anyone else could get in. That instinctive response bought him three places.

Most of the other drivers pitted on the following lap. The unfortunate Raikkonen had to wait behind new team mate Alonso and the delay dropped him behind Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso.

Button makes places in the pits

Jenson Button, McLaren, Albert Park, 2014When the race resumed Rosberg pulled away more quickly from the chasing pack more quickly than he had at the start. Even so he set his fastest lap on the 19th tour and was clearly maintaining a steady pace thereafter, staying off the kerbs and not stressing the car too much.

Button made his second pit stop early as well and this one was also beautifully timed and well executed – apart from a mechanic knocking the tip off the MP4-29’s nose. The McLaren driver had been running behind Alonso, who still trailed Hulkenberg, but after all three had stopped their running order had been reversed.

The slow running behind the Safety Car and the shortening of the race distance by one lap served to ease concerns about fuel consumption under the tight new rules. In the closing stages the drivers were clearly exploring the limits of their cars more fully and several battles for position developed.

Most drivers had a fresh set of medium tyres for their last stint but Ricciardo had to make do with a used set. Magnussen now had Button behind him and the pair pressed on after the Red Bull, but never got close enough to mount an attack.

Bottas, however, was regaining lost ground. He passed Raikkonen again – both Ferrari drivers had electrical problems but his were more acute. Bottas then passed Vergne when the Toro Rosso driver got out of shape in the final corner, one of several points on the track which the combination of lower downforce and increased torque have made much more challenging for the drivers.

Hulkenberg was the final scalp for Bottas, meaning he finished the race behind Alonso, the position he had occupied before his brush with the wall. A case of what might have been.

Rookie Daniil Kvyat began to close on team mate Vergne at the end, so much so that the elder Toro Rosso was reminded not to hold him up. The order remained unchanged at the finish, and Kvyat made history as the youngest driver ever to score a point in Formula One.

Sergio Perez finished out of the points in 11th – though that would change – followed by the lapped Saubers and twice-lapped Marussia of Max Chilton. Bianchi was still running at the end, albeit eight laps down and not classified following his earlier problems.

Ricciardo stripped of second

Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Rosberg, Kevin Magnussen, Melbourne, 2014Three jubilant drivers stood on the podium after the race.

Rosberg basked in the glory of victory and the realisation of two-and-a-half years’ work on the new engine by his team in Brackley and Brixowrth – masterminded, it must be remembered, by the now-absent Ross Brawn.

Ricciardo was greeted by rapturous applause as he became the first Australian to stand on the podium at his home race. And Magnussen had brilliantly and unobtrusively taken a podium finish in his first ever start.

But one of them was about to be cruelly disappointed.

It took well over five hours for the stewards to decide to disqualify Ricciardo from the results. His car had exceeded the maximum fuel use rate of 100kg per hour on multiple occasions, something his team had been repeatedly warned about. Though it was no consolation to Ricciardo, the stewards’ lengthy report conceded “this parameter is outside of the control of the driver”.

The race had given an intriguing glimpse of the competitive order in 2014 and the nature of racing under F1’s new rules. But it ended under a cloud and with a disappointingly familiar storyline: one of a race decided long after the chequered flag had fallen and the crowd departed.

An already complicated sport has become even more nuanced and more tightly policed in 2014. The FIA still were still rewriting the rulebook mere days before practice began in Melbourne.

As the stewards pored over the myriad new regulations governing fuel flow rates and their measurement in order to decide who finished second the first lesson of the year became clear: Making Formula One ever more complex has its consequences.

2014 Australian Grand Prix

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Images © Daimler/Hoch Zwei, McLaren/LAT, Williams/LAT