Analysis: Rosberg draws first blood

By on Sunday, March 16, 2014
Mercedes AMG Petronas

Rosberg cruised to victory. Mercedes AMG Petronas

Formula 1 has become accustomed to the dulcet tones of the German national anthem playing following the conclusion of a race but it was Nico Rosberg who took top honours as the sport kicked into life in Australia.

Rosberg took the lead at the start and controlled proceedings throughout. Aside from a minor problem at his second stop – in which the left front caketin was damaged - it was plain sailing. Rosberg’s advantage was ominously large over the rest of the field; he was able to cruise for much of the race and he still had a 20 second advantage over his nearest rivals. The tantalising question is how Rosberg will compare to Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton. The build-up to 2014 was all about which of the duo would thrive but Hamilton lasted three laps before he was forced to retire.

The pole sitter was down to third by the first corner and soon ceded that position to McLaren's Kevin Magnussen. Mercedes radioed Hamilton to retire, changed their minds and then reverted back to their original decision. Hamilton’s race lasted three laps after he lost a cylinder on Mercedes’s power unit. Pre-season fears of reliability problems were ultimately realised but the inherent pace of the car is there.

Ricciardo was disqualified. Red Bull/Getty Images

Ricciardo was disqualified. Red Bull/Getty Images

Behind Rosberg the uncertainty of Formula 1’s new era led to a fairly straightforward race. Daniel Ricciardo and Magnussen pulled away from Nico Hülkenberg but there was usually a significant gap between the Red Bull and the McLaren. Magnussen inched towards the home hero with a handful of laps remaining but Ricciardo usually had the legs through sector two, thus giving him a comfortable gap at the overtaking spots. Magnussen admitted that he had to back off for a few laps towards the end, such is the nature of 2014-spec Formula 1.

But anyone hoping for a thrilling contest was probably taking the naïve approach. Teams emphasised the importance of finishing and so it proved. Jenson Button jumped both Hülkenberg and Alonso by pitting earlier than his rivals, while Alonso stayed out longer than the Force India and profited from a few green sectors. One position lost and one gained, but it was hardly the start to the season that suggested that Ferrari is capable of mounting a title challenge this season. There were a couple of problems, but Alonso remains wary of the deficit to race winner Rosberg; the Spaniard has been in this position before with the team.

Most of the action was provided by Williams’s Valtteri Bottas. The Finn, entering his sophomore season with the team, was out of position after a qualifying penalty but he weaved his way through the traffic to challenge the likes of Alonso. A small flick of the steering wheel on the exit of turn nine was all it needed for Bottas to cause the day’s sole caution period. The rear of the FW36 made contact with the wall, damaging Bottas’s tyre and wheel rim. Williams serviced Bottas and returned him to the circuit but Bottas’s erstwhile wheel rim was still on track and race director Charlie Whiting opted to use the safety car.

Kevin Magnussen starred for McLaren. McLaren-Mercedes

Kevin Magnussen starred for McLaren. McLaren-Mercedes

That decision benefitted Button, who narrowly made it into the pits for his first stop just after the safety car was deployed, while Räikkönen and Kvyat had to wait behind their team-mates in the pits. The safety car also allowed Bottas to close up on the midfield and he began his fightback. He picked off the Marussia and Lotus drivers and then coolly watched Räikkönen slide wide at turn nine. A lurid moment for Jean-Éric Vergne on the entry to the final corner, which he held well, allowed Bottas an easy pass on the Toro Rosso driver down the pit straight. Bottas also passed Hülkenberg into the first corner, by which time Alonso was out of reach further up the road.

Räikkönen got through on Vergne when the Frenchman ran deep at turn 13 but it was a disappointing Ferrari return for the Finn, who struggled throughout the weekend.

Sergio Pérez endured a difficult weekend. The Mexican driver scuppered his chances in qualifying by running through the gravel and picked up a puncture at the start following contact with Esteban Gutiérrez. The Sauber drivers were completely anonymous and finished a long way off of midfield rivals Toro Rosso and Force India; matters there must improve if they are to score points regularly this year.

Lotus failed to finish. Lotus F1 Team

Lotus failed to finish. Lotus F1 Team

Marussia’s weekend was also far from plain sailing. Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi encountered technical problems with the MR03. Chilton’s car conked out on the formation lap, while Bianchi made it to the grid before he had to wave his arms frantically to inform Whiting that he was going no further. Chilton’s car was repaired quickly, while Bianchi joined in the fun six laps in arrears. But at least both cars made it to the finish, which was a feat that several teams did not manage.

It’s unusual to get this far without making significant mention to world champion Sebastian Vettel. The German driver suffered problems with his power unit in qualifying and that left him mid-grid. Those problems plagued him as early as the formation lap and after frantic messages between driver and team, the crippled RB10 called it a day on lap five. Vettel hung around on the pit wall afterwards to soak up as much information as possible.

Lotus’s weekend was disastrous from start to finish as the car was slow and unreliable, as well as giving drivers Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado little confidence in its handling or braking. Grosjean started from the pits and was already slapped with a drive through penalty as Lotus sent him to the end of the pit lane too soon. Maldonado ran as high as 11th but it came as no surprise to see both cars pull off the circuit. Nonetheless, considering their lack of running prior to the race, Grosjean did well to make it to the 45th lap. The E22 could be a fundamentally good car and Lotus will progress up the grid as time advances.

Kobayashi's return didn't last long. Caterham F1 Team.

Kobayashi's return didn't last long. Caterham F1 Team.

Caterham returnee Kamui Kobayashi gave the team something to smile about by starting in 14th place but his race lasted a single straight as a problem with rear brakes. It initially looked as if over-exuberance was the cause but there was no blame to the driver. Sadly he took out Felipe Massa in the process, which resulted in an angry reaction from the Brazilian. More worrying for the FIA will be the manner of the accident; Kobayashi dug underneath Massa and it was exactly the scenario which Red Bull’s Adrian Newey warned about at the first test in Jerez. With more speed and slightly different angles, the consequences could have been worse. In resolving the problems of high noses, the low noses have presented a different safety concern. Kobayashi’s Caterham team-mate Marcus Ericsson fared well before stopping courtesy of an oil leak.

Ricciardo celebrated his maiden podium with vigour as he lapped up the support of the jubilant Australian crowd, who have waited too long for a home hero to climb onto the podium. But there was a sucker punch post-race when news filtered through of Ricciardo’s RB10 exceeding the required fuel flow limit across the course of the race. After a lengthy period it was confirmed that Ricciardo had been excluded from the results. Red Bull immediately announced their decision to appeal. It was far too long to wait for confirmation of a rule breach that fans know little about. It’s not necessarily that the new regulations are too complex, but information – especially from on-screen television graphics – have been too poor and explanations of the fuel limit not forthcoming. It remains frustrating that fans are robbed of such a moment and memory, but rules are rules. The stewards report plainly stated that Red Bull had been given sufficient warning.

The decision elevated Magnussen into second place, meaning that he secured the best result for a rookie since Jacques Villeneuve in 1996. It was an incredible result for the Danish debutant and a reward for McLaren’s faith. Jenson Button was elevated to third due to Ricciardo’s exclusion while Pérez picked up a point.

So one down, 18 to go. For now it’s advantage Rosberg, but expect Hamilton to fight back.

16Nico RosbergMercedes58Winner325
DSQ3Daniel RicciardoRed Bull Racing-Renault58+24.5 secs2
220Kevin MagnussenMcLaren-Mercedes58+26.7 secs418
322Jenson ButtonMcLaren-Mercedes58+30.0 secs1015
414Fernando AlonsoFerrari58+35.2 secs512
577Valtteri BottasWilliams-Mercedes58+47.6 secs1510
627Nico HulkenbergForce India-Mercedes58+50.7 secs78
77Kimi RäikkönenFerrari58+57.6 secs116
825Jean-Eric VergneSTR-Renault58+60.4 secs64
926Daniil KvyatSTR-Renault58+63.5 secs82
1011Sergio PerezForce India-Mercedes58+85.9 secs161
1199Adrian SutilSauber-Ferrari57+1 Lap13
1221Esteban GutierrezSauber-Ferrari+1 Lap20
134Max ChiltonMarussia-Ferrari+2 Laps17
NC17Jules BianchiMarussia-Ferrari+8 Laps18
Ret8Romain GrosjeanLotus-Renault+14 Laps22
Ret13Pastor MaldonadoLotus-Renault+28 Laps21
Ret9Marcus EricssonCaterham-Renault+30 Laps19
Ret1Sebastian VettelRed Bull Racing-Renault+54 Laps12
Ret44Lewis HamiltonMercedes+55 Laps1
Ret19Felipe MassaWilliams-Mercedes+57 Laps9
Ret10Kamui KobayashiCaterham-Renault+57 Laps14

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