March 16, 2014 — staff report — photo credit Peter J Fox/Getty Images — MELBOURNE, VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA — Nico Rosberg grabbed the lead at the start in Australia on Sunday and was never really challenged as he and Mercedes ushered in Formula One racing’s new 1.6-litre turbo engine era with a dominant 24.5s victory over local hero Daniel Ricciardo.
The Red Bull driver made the most of the team’s extraordinary turnaround to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at home. He was kept honest throughout after a hugely impressive drive from Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen, who led McLaren team mate Jenson Button home after some great strategic work from the team helped the Englishman to recover from his 10th place start.
The race began with drama when the first start had to be aborted as Jules Bianchi’s Marussia stalled at the start. Moments earlier team mate Max Chilton’s sister car had also stalled on the grid formation lap, so the two Banbury-built machines joined Romain Grosjean’s Lotus in starting from the pit lane. The race was thus shortened by a lap.
Polesitter Lewis Hamilton was very slow away in his Mercedes and immediately lost places to Rosberg and Ricciardo, and by lap three it was over for the Englishman as he brought his F1 W05 into the pits to retire. It was subsequently revealed that his engine was misfiring on one cylinder – an explanation for his tardy getaway.
The other drama at the start involved Kamui Kobayashi, who made what seemed to be a great start as he pulled alongside Valtteri Bottas’s Williams. Unfortunately the Caterham driver then got his braking wrong, locked up and made contact with Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari before clobbering the innocent Felipe Massa’s Williams as they headed into Turn One. Both Kobayashi and Massa were instant retirements, whilst the Japanese driver – who accepted responsibility for the incident – was summoned to see the stewards.
There was plenty of action in the opening laps as Rosberg headed Ricciardo, Magnussen, Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Raikkonen, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and the Toro Rosso duo of Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniil Kvyat.
Bottas was the man on the move, passing fellow countryman Raikkonen in a bold move round the outside on the eighth lap. But Williams’ chance of better than his eventual sixth place was compromised when he slid wide and hit the outside wall coming out of Turn 10, damaging his right rear tyre. He was able to pit to have it replaced, but the safety car was deployed on the 12th lap as a chunk of the FW36’s wheel rim had to be removed from the track.
McLaren acted very quickly to call Button in, and he was able to jump from ninth place to sixth.
When the race resumed on the 16th lap, Rosberg pulled away again and was able to control things easily from the front with few worries about fuel conservation. His one problem was some front tyre graining in his middle stint, but by staying out he was able to drive through that and keep up the momentum.
Ricciardo looked a comfortable second for much of the race, but towards the end the super-impressive Magnussen kept pushing after him as he alternately pushed then re-harvested energy before pushing again. In the end he didn’t quite have the pace to get closer than 2.2s by the flag, but he was delighted to be the first Dane ever to grace an F1 podium – and to score one immediately for a team that didn’t get close to one in 2013. He scored 15 points on a debut that mirrored Lewis Hamilton’s star turn for McLaren at the same track back in 2007.
Button moved into fourth place after another clever bit of pit work on lap 32 which put him ahead of Hulkenberg and Alonso. He closed in on his team mate for a while, but ultimately finished another 3.2s down. Their combined performance, however, puts McLaren at the head of the constructors’ points table with 27 points to Mercedes’ 25 as the team bounced back on the MP4-29’s debut.
Alonso got the jump on Hulkenberg in their final stops, and as he struggled a little the German lost sixth place to the flying Bottas in the closing laps. The Finn was another of the race’s stars, his speed leaving the revitalised Williams team to ponder what might have been without that wall-brushing incident, let alone if Massa had gone unmolested.
Raikkonen had a disappointing race, losing a place to Bottas after going too deep into a corner and sliding into the dirt. Behind him, Vergne was disappointed that his Toro Rosso lost pace in the closing stages which enabled the Finn to slip by, while team mate Kvyat drove superbly confidently on his debut to join the elite who have scored a point first time out. At 19, the Russian rookie also became the youngest points-scorer in F1 history.
Sergio Perez was a distant 11th after early delays hampered his run for Force India, while Adrian Sutil fended off Sauber team mate Esteban Gutierrez to take 12th. After their initial dramas, Marussia saw both their cars come home, Chilton finishing in 14th ahead of the delayed (and unclassified) Bianchi.
Besides Hamilton, the other high profile retirement was that of world champion Sebastian Vettel, who complained on the grid formation lap that his Red Bull was down on power and who retired after five laps. Marcus Ericsson ran as high as 11th early on but was one of those who lost out most under the safety car and was hauled in by rivals who were delayed in the first corner melee; he was instructed to switch off his Caterham’s Renault motor as it lost oil pressure. The Lotus duo had tough races; Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado both ran hard in the early going, but had to stop with further mechanical issues with the MGU-K units on their E22s.
Though a high rate of attrition was expected, 15 of the 22 starters were running at the finish – a testament to the excellence of F1 engineering and a hugely positive start to the new era.