Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg has continued his winning form from 2015 into the first round of the 2016 Formula 1 season, claiming victory in today’s Australian Grand Prix. The German’s win was not straightforward, as both Ferrari’s were a threat in the race.
Rosberg lined up second on the grid, behind his reigning world champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton who had been on form throughout the weekend. After an aborted start caused by the Red Bull of Daniil Kvyat breaking down as he lined up on the grid, the red lights went out and the new season began in earnest. Both Mercedes were slow off the line, and the Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen seized the opportunity and were ahead of the Mercedes pair by the first corner. Hamilton had a particularly poor start, and was squeezed out at the apex of turn one by Rosberg. This loss of momentum caused Hamilton to be passed by Max Verstappen in the Torro Rosso and the Williams of Felipe Massa before they had reached turn two. By the end of the first lap the pole sitter was in sixth place, while Vettel in the lead had extended his advantage over his team mate to 1.5 seconds. Rosberg was a further second behind Raikkonen.
Hamilton was fortunate to quickly find his way passed the Mercedes-powered Massa when he was caught out behind the Renault of Kevin Magnussen who had just exited the pits after changing his tyres due to a puncture sustained on the opening lap. Soon Hamilton found himself inspecting the gearbox of Verstappen, but could not find a way past. His frustration was evident in his radio messages, with his team quick to assure him that his strategy would be changed by extending his current stint. Out front, Rosberg was maintaining a gap of two seconds to Raikkonen, with Vettel in the lead and with the advantage of a clear track, extending his lead. Vettel would soon pit for a new set of the less durable but much faster supersoft Pirelli tyres, while Rosberg came in a lap earlier and fitted the soft tyre compound. Rosberg had managed to use the undercut to his advantage, and passed the late-stopping Raikkonen for second. Vettel was controlling the race from the front, but his lead was wiped out by a red flag waved on lap 17, temporarily stopping the race.
The cause of the red flag was a spectacular incident involving Fernando Alonso in his McLaren and the Mexican of Esteban Guttierez, driving for F1 debutantes Haas F1 Racing. Alonso was pursuing Guttierez down the straight towards turn three. Guttierez braked early, and made a slight move towards the left side of the track. This slight movement caught the late braking Alonso unaware, and the gap that he had intended to place his car in order to overtake the Haas suddenly disappeared. The result was an immense impact, Alonso smashing off the rear of Guttierez’s car and colliding with the barrier lining the side of the track. Such was Alonso’s speed that by the time his McLaren reached the gravel trap at the end of the straight it quickly became airborne and flipped several times in the air, before coming to rest hundreds of meters after the initial point of impact. Alonso, visibly shaken but otherwise ok, quickly clambered out from under the smoldering wreckage of his Mclaren.
The incident was a godsend for any car that had not yet pitted, as with the race stopped it meant that all cars in effect got a free pit stop. Each car was fitted with new tyres, and it was this choice of compound that would ultimately decide the eventual winner. Both Mercedes cars chose the hardest and most durable medium compound tyres, while Vettel chose another set of the supersoft tyres. While both Rosberg and Hamilton had tyres that would last the race distance, Vettel would need to stop again. It was therefore imperative that Vettel build a substantial lead over Rosberg in second prior to his final pit stop. Hamilton was not in the battle for the lead, having pitted a lap before the red flag, and found himself seventh at the restart.
The battle for the race win was over mere laps after the restart, when it became clear that Vettel could not maintain his pace advantage over Rosberg. The Mercedes was able to keep pace with the Ferrari, and over several laps reeled Vettel in, eventually passing him. Meanwhile on lap 21 the other Ferrari retired, with Raikkonen pulling up into his pit box, flames rising from the air inlet above the driver’s head. Vettel soon pitted for soft tyres and began trying to reel in Hamilton, who was up to second after the drivers in front of him all pitted for fresh rubber. After a small mistake by Hamilton Vettel was within one second of Hamilton and looked like mounting an overtaking move for second place. The spectators in Melbourne were robbed of such a show when the German ran wide at the second last corner in the dying laps of the race, ensuring Hamilton of second. Rosberg cruised to victory, and with it the haul of 25 points and the championship lead.
Further down the field Daniel Ricciardo gave his fellow countrymen something to cheer about, finishing fourth at his home Grand Prix. Massa finished a quiet fifth, and Romain Grosjean finished a superb sixth for Haas, meaning the American team joined an exclusive club of teams who scored points on their debut. Nico Hulkenberg was seventh for Force India, Valterri Bottas was eight for Williams and the squabbling youngsters of Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen rounded out the points scoring positions, finishing ninth and tenth respectively.
The F1 circus now heads to the desert setting of Bahrain for round two of the championship.