A Mercedes 1-2, with Sebastian Vettel in third position, appeared on the surface to be an underwhelmingly predictable result, as if 2015 hadn't quite finished. However, the path to the podium positions was one of intrigue, as Ferrari initially exploited Mercedes’ weakness before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory when an unexpected variable was thrown in its way.
Lewis Hamilton had romped to his 50th career pole position, joining only Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna in achieving the feat, having topped all three practice sessions, and each segment of qualifying, and was joined on the front row by Nico Rosberg, with Vettel a eight-tenths behind in third. Ferrari had closed the gap compared to 12 months ago, but it remained eye-catchingly large.
However, Maurizio Arrivabene’s steely expression turned to one of elation when the five red lights went out as neither Mercedes driver leapt away from the front row of the grid, enabling Vettel to slice between the pair and take the lead. It was strikingly similar of last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, and another piece of symmetry was that a second formation lap was required, this time due to Daniil Kvyat’s Red Bull RB12 encountering an electrical issue.
Pole sitter Hamilton was on the back foot but team-mate Rosberg valiantly tried to re-claim the lead from Vettel, though the Ferrari driver held firm and led out of the first corner. Rosberg locked up and was left off-line, his decision to hug the inside compromising his approach and increasing the required steering angle. Rosberg’s slower line left Hamilton at a disadvantage, with the Briton having to react to his Mercedes rival, and kink to the left in avoidance, with the two cars making the merest of contact. Hamilton absolved his team-mate of any malice, and rightly so, but in backing off he was overtaken by Kimi Räikkönen, Max Verstappen and Felipe Massa, his pole position turned into sixth place in a matter of seconds.
Rosberg’s bravado against Vettel caused him to drop behind Räikkönen, as the Finn placed his SF16-H in the middle of the track approaching Turn 1 and used superior traction exiting the corner to sweep around the Silver Arrow at Turn 2, completing a Ferrari 1-2. No wonder Maurizio was happy.
This was Vettel in dreamland and he pulled off the trick which he used to devastating effect in his Red Bull days. His lead at the end of the first lap was 1.5 seconds, but he was only able to add a second across the next 10 laps over his team-mate. Rosberg, who initially remained close to Räikkönen’s car, drifted to a second behind the 2007 champion, unable to mount a sustained challenge.
Mercedes reacted first and switched Rosberg from the Super Soft to the Soft compound tyres on lap 12; Ferrari responded with Vettel a lap later, keeping him on the Super Soft rubber, and he only marginally retained the lead, defending from Rosberg through the first sequence of corners.
Ferrari kept Räikkönen out for a further few laps, despite woefully tardier pace, presumably with the intention of shortening a later stint. By the time he pitted, he was some way back of the battle for overall honours. Hamilton stopped on the same lap, having quickly overhauled Massa before becoming stuck behind Verstappen, whose Toro Rosso was equipped with a 2015-specification Ferrari engine. Unable to get by, Mercedes prolonged Hamilton’s first stint before servicing him for Medium tyres, ostensibly for him to preserve until the end of the race. Unfortunately, the strategic differences were turned on their heads two laps later.
Esteban Gutiérrez had suffered an early power problem with his Haas and had yet to pit, with the Mexican returnee under pressure from McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who was on relatively fresh Soft tyres. Alonso, who had not properly raced a rival for the bulk of the last 12 months due to Honda’s deficiencies, latched onto the back of the VF-16 exiting Turn 2, with the intention of jinking to the outside at the last possible moment. However, as Alonso made his move, at precisely the wrong time so did Gutiérrez. Alonso’s right front clipped the left rear of the Haas and from thereon he was merely a passenger. After a heavy impact with the outside wall, the McLaren hurtled towards the gravel, being tipped into a terrifying roll, with Alonso perhaps fortunate that his barely-attached wheel dug into the gravel, eventually halting his horrifying journey, albeit upside down. He clambered from the wreckage and took a moment to compose himself, before surveying what was left of his MP4-31. Gutiérrez rushed over to Alonso’s aid, as they walked away from the scene of one of Formula 1’s biggest accidents in years. No-one was at fault, but it demonstrated once again how minor movements can have major outcomes.
“You see the sky, the ground, the sky, and you don't know where you are, then the car stopped, and I thought I would get out quickly as my Mum would be watching on TV and I want to be out quickly to say that I am okay,” said Alonso, whose survival was a testament to the relentless safety drive from the sport’s governing body and associates.
The Safety Car was initially deployed before the race was suspended altogether, with 18 of 57 laps completed.
The order in the pit lane was thus Vettel, Rosberg, Räikkönen, with Hamilton down in seventh. Mercedes, which had run the Medium tyres for the majority of pre-season testing, opted to fit the compound to both cars, but Ferrari kept Vettel on a set of Super Softs. He would therefore have to build a suitable gap before utilising softer, fresher tyres in the next stint if he was to open his 2016 account with victory. It proved to be too tall an order.
Vettel quickly built up a three-second lead but Rosberg began to match his lap times and on lap 31 started to close in. By the time Vettel swept into the pit lane a few laps later, his advantage was merely a second and the race fell into Rosberg’s lap. Though it was still not plain sailing. Debris caused an overheating brake caliper in his W07 Hybrid and Mercedes contemplated retiring the car on safety grounds, but wisely opted to leave Rosberg on track. His times were quick and consistent, with no-one a threat to his authority at the front of the pack.
Vettel dropped back to fourth place on Soft tyres, his slim hopes of victory dashed further by a slow stop. Third was assured once Daniel Ricciardo made his final stop but he remained a few seconds back on Hamilton until the Briton handed him an opportunity. Hamilton ran deep into Turn 9 on lap 51, losing two seconds, and leaving Vettel within DRS range. The Mercedes and Ferrari circulated within touching distance but Vettel erred with three laps remaining, locking up at the penultimate corner and sliding onto the grass, ending his pursuit.
“Obviously the red flag, you can argue, didn't help us but nevertheless we had our chance,” said Vettel. “We didn’t expect probably what both of them did going on let’s say the hardest compound and going to the end. So we tried to go more aggressive. Maybe it didn’t work but ultimately very happy with third.”
"Our pace was good in the first part of the Grand Prix, before the race was red-flagged, but we shouldn't use it as an excuse," said Arrivabene. "This only show that you shouldn't count your chickens before they're hatched. The race should serve as a lesson to us to push even harder, with even more humility and dedication."
Either way, if Ferrari is to wrestle the championship away from Mercedes, it cannot afford to drop points from a winning position, particularly considering the pace of the W07 Hybrid. Mercedes will not present Ferrari with a golden opportunity every race weekend.
For Hamilton, second was a positive result, having dropped to sixth at the start before finding himself seventh after the restart.
“I’ve had much worse in the first race,” he said. “Honestly, I take this as a real bonus to have come back from seventh. A long, long way to go; I’ve bagged good points.”
Fourth position went to an encouraged Ricciardo, who was a beneficiary of the red flag period before sweeping past Soft-clad Massa on his Super Softs during the final stint. Massa’s low-key run to fifth place was well-received by the man himself, as Williams collected more points courtesy of eighth placed Valtteri Bottas, who recovered from a messy qualifying lap and a subsequent gearbox-related grid drop.
Astonishingly it was Romain Grosjean who crossed the line in sixth position. Grosjean and Haas were caught out in qualifying and started on the penultimate row of the grid but ran long on the Soft tyre to the extent that he was up to ninth when the race was halted. Haas’ strategists opted to put Grosjean on the Medium tyres, despite being unsure that they would last for the remaining 39 laps. Thanks to the experienced and wise Frenchman, they did, and he even pulled away from Force India’s Nico Hülkenberg towards the end. This was an accomplished debut from Formula 1’s new team; there was fortune involved, but it had the nous to execute its approach with aplomb.
“This feels like a win,” said Grosjean, whose elation was clear on the slow down lap. “For all the guys who worked so hard over the last few weeks, this is unbelievable.”
It also resulted in the quirky statistic that Haas scored points on its Formula 1 debut, without the need to make a single pit stop. The last time a driver scored points without a pit stop was Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix - a race also red-flagged due to an accident involving Alonso!
As one team benefited, another was caught out. Toro Rosso had enjoyed a fine weekend, with Verstappen in fourth and Carlos Sainz Jr. running seventh during the first stint, demonstrating the pace of the STR11 chassis, and the fine work undertaken by all at Faenza. However, by fitting the Soft tyres after the red flag period another stop was required, while Sainz Jr. was serviced first, a situation which angered Verstappen, who fell behind his team-mate, a predicament accentuated by a slow stop. This was because Toro Rosso was not prepared for Verstappen in the pit lane. Verstappen repeatedly expressed his frustration and demanded to be allowed through, as Sainz Jr. took time to pass Renault’s Jolyon Palmer, who was having a fine debut. Sainz Jr. eventually usurped the Briton, as did Verstappen, but the youngster remained livid, and clipped the other STR11 during the closing stages. Verstappen had reason to be annoyed, but disparaging his team-mate’s ability and publicly criticising the team is not a wise approach, particularly this early into a campaign.
Palmer demonstrated the racecraft which brought him the 2014 GP2 title as he collected 11th on his maiden outing in the sport, while team-mate Kevin Magnussen recovered to 12th after suffering a puncture on the opening lap, the former McLaren man permitted to unlap himself prior to the restart. Sergio Pérez was undone by a slow getaway (he dropped two positions), traffic, the red flag period and worsening brakes and struggled to 13th position, while McLaren’s Jenson Button was 14th, though the result was far worse than the potential demonstrated by the MP4-31. Button was one of only three drivers to try the Super Softs at the restart (the others were the Ferrari pair) but the strategy backfired and he lost time with an extra stop. Sauber looks set for a season of struggle after a completely anonymous showing; a year on from his starring run Felipe Nasr was 15th, with team-mate Marcus Ericsson holding the upper hand until vibrations halted his C35. On the basis of Melbourne, points may be hard to come by in 2016.
Manor displayed its potential as debutant Pascal Wehrlein surged from 21st to 15th on the opening lap and kept rivals from Sauber and Haas at bay across the first stint. This was encouraging from a team which spent 2015 rooted to the back of the field, though Wehrlein regressed throughout the remainder of the race as high tyre degradation and worsening brakes substantially slowed his pace. His team-mate, Rio Haryanto, had a modest debut and was unlucky to suffer a driveline failure.
And what of an erstwhile frontrunner? Räikkönen’s race was undone when his SF16-H when the unreliability witnessed in pre-season testing came back to haunt Ferrari, as a minor fire ignited in his air box, forcing the Finn out for the second successive season in Melbourne.
Up front there were no such problems as Rosberg collected the victor’s trophy for the second time in three years.
“It's early days but of course it's perfect start. But we’ve got to keep an eye on the red guys as they’re very close as we saw, so we have to give it everything to stay ahead.”