Formula 1 had an interesting and at times controversial offseason heading into 2014. The FIA imposed the biggest technical and sporting rules changes the sport has seen in decades and this weekend marked the beginning of Formula 1’s next turbo era. After a slew of driver shakeups in the winter months and testing heavily dominated by Mercedes power, the teams arrived at Melbourne’s Albert Park not really knowing what to expect.
Historically, the Australian Grand Prix is unique in the way that virtually anything can happen, while at the same time telling us very little of how the season will ultimately play out. In many ways it’s an extension of winter testing, a exhibition race and a chance for the teams and drivers to feel things out and readjust to the grueling schedule of the next 9 months.
Heading into the weekend one thing was abundantly clear, Red Bull were not the favorites.
After a very difficult showing at winter testing, Red Bull struggled to keep the RB10 on track. A slew of mechanical problems from the new Renault V6 turbo engines and Red Bull’s own chassis design faults had many jumping ship on hope that they would win their 5th consecutive championship. The season is still in its infancy however and anything can happen. This point was proven when Daniel Ricciardo outdrove his teammate Sebastian Vettel all weekend long, eventually finishing in 2nd place, his first Formula 1 podium. But for as fast as Ricciardo tasted success in front of his countrymen, it was taken away when the FIA disqualified him.
With the introduction of the new V6 turbo engines, a slew of complex and frankly boring technical regulations have been implemented in 2014. The intricacies of exactly why Ricciardo was disqualified are complex and difficult to understand but ultimately the RB10 exceed the required fuel flow of 100kg/h. In short, his team let him down.
Red Bull were well aware of this particular rule and rather than using an FIA approved fuel sensor, they opted to use their own. Conspiracy theorists have claimed that the move was intentional and Red Bull remain confident that they can win their appeal of the ruling. In the meantime, Ricciardo will have to play the waiting game and emotions of yesterday’s podium will reduced to what ifs. Despite the technicalities, Ricciardo had an excellent drive and showed everyone that he’s ready to take on Vettel and hold his own at one of the sport’s most successful organizations.
Questions loomed as to how many of the cars would actually finish the Austrailan Grand Prix. With so many unknowns following testing, it was a coin toss as to who would come out on top. Embarrassingly both Marussias had to start from pit lane after stalling on the grid and causing a second formation lap. Also starting from the pits was the Lotus of Romain Grosjean who suffered a gearbox failure on Saturday. After the highs of last season, Lotus have had a hellacious start to 2014 after losing Kimi Raikkonen to Ferrari and Team Principal Eric Boullier to McLaren.
After an unspectacular start, the Caterham of Kamui Kobayashi experienced a KERS failure which caused his rear brakes not to work. He collided with a rejuvenated Felipe Massa in the Williams, ending their days prematurely.
Pole sitter and favorite to win, Lewis Hamilton retired within the first 5 laps after the engine of his Mercedes Silver Arrow went kaput. It was a surprising development after both Mercedes’ looked fantastic heading into the season opener. Hamilton’s teammate Nico Rosberg on the other hand, built a fantastic lead and piloted the W05 to his first victory at Albert Park. The drive was Vettel-esque and showed everyone just what an advantage the works Mercedes team has over the competition.
A little further back McLaren had their own rejuvenation. 2013 was a disaster for McLaren and their worst season since 1980. After a brief, unsuccessful stint with Sergio Perez, the team signed rookie Kevin Magnussen in the offseason. Hoping to catch a similar lightening in a bottle to Hamilton’s rookie debut, the Dane didn’t disappoint.
McLaren had one of the busiest off seasons of any team in Formula 1. After last year’s disaster, Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh was shown the exit. The move allowed Ron Dennis to re-shift his focus to the company’s motor sports program after stepping away to oversee McLaren’s road car division.
With Dennis back at the helm, Eric Boullier made a sudden exit from Lotus to join the Woking team. McLaren are certainly in rebuilding mode in 2014 and will continue to be through the end of next season as they adapt to their new partnership with Honda. In the meantime, they had a fantastic showing at Albert Park. Magnussen drove as cool as a cucumber and secured a comfortable 3rd place finish with his teammate Jenson Button 3 seconds behind in 4th. If the Ricciardo disqualification holds, the McLaren boys will be bumped up to 2nd and 3rd place respectively. The team’s consistency has them leading the Constructor’s Championship headed to Sepang. Though it’s only the first race of the season, it’s a remarkable result for a team that lost it’s identity in 2013.
McLaren’s main rivals at Scuderia Ferrari proved they still have a lot of work to do. Kimi Raikkonen appeared uninspired throughout most of the weekend, while Fernando Alosno did his best to cope with the new car. Ferrari have struggled with the learning curve over the last few seasons and proved they have a lot of work to do still. Alonso finished 4th overall with his teammate Raikkonen in 7th.
Further back Valterri Bottas produced a solid drive in the new look Williams Martini Racing FW36. The start of his second season in Formula 1 saw the Finn finish 5th overall. Williams were heavy favorites heading into the weekend and I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of them up front in 2014.
Nico Hulkenberg had a nice showing in the Force India and proved he made exactly the right decision to leave Sauber. The German was very racy and had a proper wheel-to-wheel bout with Alonso. The Force India pairing of Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez could prove to be the most exciting young driver combination of 2014. After Raikkonen’s weak Ferrari debut, many are scratching their heads over whether or not the Scuderia made the right driver signing.
Retirements were abundant at Albert Park on Sunday. With Hamilton and Vettel forced to call it quits in the opening laps, we leave the season opener with even more questions than answers. It was interesting to see the way the young drivers have adapted more quickly to the new cars than the veterans. Pirelli also remained largely out of the controversial limelight with longer lasting tire compounds which saw a 1 stopper.
For all the hype about the new V6 turbos, they’ve fallen short in nearly every regard. While seeing and hearing the cars in person is a massively different experience, the majority of fans at home have been left largely unimpressed. The new engine notes are so quiet they’re virtually unheard on TV. The cars also appear quite a bit slower than last year’s spec. From a spectacle standpoint the 2014 cars have (so far) fallen flat. Promises of heavy oversteer, more competitive wheel-to-wheel battles, steeped in a space age soundtrack where largely missing from the weekend’s events. While it’s still very early, you can’t help but question if Formula 1 has indeed sold it’s soul to the environmentalists. Motor sports should be an escape for fans. We should be treated to something that’s wildly different than what we encounter on the daily commute. Pushing the envelope and doing so in stunning style has always been Formula 1’s party piece. They’ve become too sensible, too governed, too vanilla. The result is 10 teams running scared. There are so many rules to follow, so many technical regulations to adhere to that rather than push for 58 laps, Formula 1 Grands Prix have become exercises in conservation. The sport’s bottom line as been reduced to such a level that many fans are jumping ship.
We’ll witness many exciting personal and team story lines this season but the product on track will continue to be marginalized I fear. The changes need to start at the top. The FIA just need to let the drivers go out and race.
Photos courtesy of F1 Fanatic.