The only predictable feature of the Australian Grand Prix was that Nico Rosberg won it. Almost everything else was new, refreshing and largely unexpected.
Mercedes had been pre-season favourites following three exceptionally productive test sessions but few expected their man, Rosberg, to be joined on the podium by Daniel Ricciardo and rookie Kevin Magnussen any more than it was anticipated there would be as many as 14 classified finishers from the 22 starters.
I said ‘almost everything else was new’ because, at the end of a long day in Melbourne, Ricciardo was disqualified due to a technical infringement regarding the all-important fuel flow on his Red Bull. That put Jenson Button into third place and McLaren into the lead of the Constructors’ Championship; neither McLaren-Mercedes had missed a beat, another factor that was unexpected.
Nonetheless, the anticipated technical problems had been evident even before the opening round of the championship got under way. When the Marussia of Jules Bianchi shut itself down on the grid (team-mate Max Chilton having experienced the same problem as the cars set off on the parade lap), an aborted start was the last thing the teams needed.
Lewis Hamilton was already in trouble, his pole position Mercedes firing on just five of its six cylinders. Sebastian Vettel was in similar difficulties, his questions about the Red Bull’s lack of power on the parade lap being answered with the news that this was a deliberate engine mode to save fuel. In fact, it was much more than that, Vettel going nowhere on the opening lap and ending a difficult and disappointing weekend with retirement. Hamilton’s similar struggle finished not long after.
Meanwhile, at the first corner, a promising weekend for Felipe Massa had been ended when the Williams, in its smart Martini livery, was taken out by Kamui Kobayashi’s Caterham. First appearances suggested the Japanese driver, rusty after a year’s absence from F1, made the basic error of misjudging his braking, but that was to do Kobayashi a disservice.
The fly-by-wire rear braking (new for 2014 as part of the more complex energy harvesting sequence) had failed, leaving only front-wheel braking. Worse still, the low nose (also new for 2014) had got under the rear of the Williams and actually tipped the white car onto its front wheels. Given this was at slow(ish) speed, it begged the question about what might happen in a high-speed shunt.
Four cars out in as many laps: how long would everyone else last during the course of the remaining 53 laps?
While Rosberg was controlling the race as he pleased, there were superb battles throughout the field, many of them providing excellent performances from the relative newcomers. Ricciardo held off Magnussen, the Dane showing maturity and fast reactions when he somehow saved the McLaren within seconds of the start when too much throttle almost sent him into the wall.
Valtteri Bottas crossed the line in sixth place after being fortunate to get away with tapping the wall and damaging the right-rear on the Williams. The Finn chased down Fernando Alonso in the closing stages to exacerbate a disappointing weekend for Ferrari with a car that had battery and energy recovery problems, was 0.4s per lap off the winning pace and, allegedly, 18kgs overweight.
An equally unhappy Kimi Raikkonen – ‘we had lots of problems; I dunno….’ – finished eighth ahead of the consistent Toro Rossos, Daniil Kvyat becoming the youngest driver to score a championship point when he finished 10th on the road.
A day of mixed messages, then, with F1 spoiling an encouraging start to the season by not declaring the results official until several hours after the finish and having Red Bull appeal Ricciardo’s disqualification. At least the winner was clear on where he stood.
‘Now we finally know where we are,’ said Rosberg. ‘We were so fast; my car was unbelievable, just a pleasure to drive. The reliability, for me at least, was good. All in all a great start to the season. No one can image from the outside how tough it really is. The hours that they worked at the factory was only possible with incredible passion. It’s such a great feeling to have such an awesome car. Can’t wait for the next race in Malaysia. The way I feel now, I’d like it to start tomorrow.’
The second round of the championship will be on 30 March.