The inaugural race of the 2016 F1 season has just finished, and straight away I can say it was a considerably more entertaining fare than last year’s offering.
Qualifying -New Format is a Farce
For 2016 the aim had been to shake things up with a new ‘elimination style’ qualifying format, with the slowest car being knocked out every so many seconds, until the time for the session was up completely. Whilst this did, to an extent, mix things up a little in Q1 and Q2, it also led to teams being unwilling to run in Q3, in the interest of preserving tyres, and already F1 bosses are looking to revert to the 2015 format – it would be fair to say, the new format has been an unqualified (if you’ll pardon the pun) disaster.
Nor did it impact the outcome – Lewis Hamilton parked his Mercedes on pole, Nico Rosberg lined up next to him, and the Ferraris followed in 3rd and 4th. One slight surprise was the strong showing of the Toro Rossos (Verstappen was 5th and Sainz 7th), suggesting they might be on for a good points haul. The McLarens, whilst more or less in the middle of the pack, produced a much better performance than at the same stage in 2015, whilst newcomers Haas were down toward the back with Manor.
Hamilton fluffs his Lines
Having qualified quite comfortably, Hamilton might have expected to enjoy a good race, but any notions of that were dashed with a poor getaway that saw Rosberg, both Ferraris, Massa and Verstappen get in front of him. To begin with, it looked like he might only lose out to Vettel and Rosberg, but Hamilton was forced to slow up to avoid going into the back of his teammate in turn 1, and that allowed the others to slip by. Hamilton would dispatch Massa fairly quickly, but would be stuck behind a calm and collected* Verstappen for a number of laps.
Rosberg’s fortunes weren’t much better. He lost out to both Ferraris, which then began to gradually eke out a gap that would potentially allow them to control the race. Whilst there had been a difference in pace during qualifying, the Ferraris were clearly not so far behind in the race, and whilst Rosberg was able to get with DRS range of Kimi Raikkonen, he didn’t quite have enough speed to close up and get past.
It was a weekend to forget for Danill Kvyat – his car failed as he came around to complete the formation lap – he didn’t even get to start the race!
Alonso’s Almighty Shunt
It’s not often these days that I fear for a driver after a crash, but the scale of the crunching accident that Alonso suffered was enough to put my heart in my mouth for a few seconds. At first the TV cameras showed Gutierrez’ stricken Haas, which had suffered damage to the rear-left side of the car and was stuck in the gravel at turn 3. When the camera angle changed, it took a moment for everyone to realise there was a second car, half upside down and resting against the barrier – this shell of a car was what remained of Fernando Alonso’s McLaren.
Alonso had been trying to sweep by Esteban Gutierrez on the run up to the corner, aided by DRS, and he dinked to the left of the Haas just as Gutierrez braked a little earlier than expected. The front-right tyre of the McLaren caught the rear-left of the Haas and sent Alonso into the barrier on his left at high speed – the car then slid off the track and hit the gravel still carrying great speed, the result of which caused the car to flip and spin through the air, actually hitting the ground once more on its way into the fence. I am struggling to recall the last time I saw an F1 car so thoroughly destroyed, as the pictures below show:
Amazingly, despite appearing to be a little winded, Alonso walked away unharmed – a testament to how strong F1 cars are. The accident triggered a red flag period, that would go on to have repercussions for the leaders…
Ferrari get their Strategy Wrong
Normally the Italian team can be relied upon to nail their tactics during a race, but today they were unable to adapt to the situation as it unfolded, and perhaps robbed via Alonso’s crash of what would have been a fantastic 1-2 finish. As it happened, Raikkonen had to retire with gearbox problems (and had flames shooting around above his head, not that he seemed to mind), and Vettel, who was on the super-soft tyre, was unable to build up a reasonable gap over Rosberg behind him, who had opted for the medium compound. Such was Rosberg’s choice (having taken advantage of the red flag spell) that he was able to go to the end of the race without stopping again, whereas Vettel would have to, and would need a gap of 24 seconds at a minimum to get in and out of the pits without losing the lead.
Unfortunately for Vettel, the tyres fell off the cliff and wouldn’t allow him to open up any sort of meaningful advantage, and when he pitted, he fell back, behind the second Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton (who was also running on the medium compound). He would close right in on Hamilton before the race’s end, but a late off-track adventure ended his hopes of 2nd, and Mercedes secured their predicted 1-2 finish – just with more sweating than they’d expected.
Sweary Radio Messages
*You may have wondered why I placed some doubt over Verstappen being calm and collected. That’s because in the second half of the race he was anything but calm. The youngster was quite passionate over the radio, firstly when his teammate Carlos Sainz (who was ahead of him but barely at the time) was pitted first (Verstappen had apparently been complaining about his tyres and felt he needed the stop more), and secondly, when the two Toro Rossos were trailing Joylen Palmer’s Renault. Sainz spent several laps trying and failing to get by the Renault, huffing and puffing and being unable to make a clear move, and behind him, Verstappen was venting his spleen, insisting he be allowed to have a crack at Palmer. Sainz was in no mood to just move over, and thus Verstappen kept complaining.
This was a scenario that would repeat itself late on as the Toro Rossos (which in the second half of the race were more or less glued to each other) came upon the train that was Grosjean, Hulkenburg and Bottas. Once again Verstappen was on the radio, demanding to be let past Sainz, and once again Sainz was not yielding. Things came to a head when Verstappen clipped Sainz but succeeded only in putting himself into a spin as they came out of the second-last corner.
A Points-scoring Debut
Taking advantage of the mixed-up tyre strategies and the red flag period (which was Grosjean’s only stop), Haas were able to score points upon their F1 debut, a feat not managed by a brand-new (that is, not a team that took over another team) team on their debut since 2002. A few years ago Grosjean was seen as a liability – today he was composed, keeping the Mercedes-powered Force India of Hulkenberg at bay without any obvious worry for much of the race.
Formula 1 returns in two weeks’ time with the Bahrain Grand Prix – a circuit very different in layout, weather conditions and character. Can we expect another exciting race? I hope so!