The 2016 Formula 1 campaign got off to an exciting start in Australia, and provided plenty of talking points.
Formula 1 finally made its long-awaited start to the 2016 season last weekend, with the teams starting off a record-length 21-race calendar with a visit to the Albert Park street circuit in Melbourne.
With all the players finally putting their cards on the table, some may have been disappointed to see yet another Mercedes 1-2 go down into the record books. However, a closer look made it clear that there were several important things to be learned from the 2016 season-opener…
Mercedes retain their one-lap advantage
While Mercedes’ 2015 challenger, the W06, was dominant in all respects, it was especially over one-lap where the 2015 Silver Arrow really shone, securing all but one pole position over the course of the 2015 season.
On Saturday morning, with a small gap between Ferrari and Mercedes on the supersoft tyre, there was some optimism that the Italian team would be able to challenge Mercedes’ customary stroll to pole position.
In the afternoon, however, any such hopes came to nought as Lewis Hamilton secured the 50th pole position of his career in dominant fashion by lapping the Albert Park circuit a neat 0.340 seconds quicker than team-mate Nico Rosberg, who was in turn almost half a second quicker than third-placed Sebastian Vettel.
Starting from pole position no longer offers the advantage it used to before the introduction of DRS, but it still allows the pole-sitter to avoid the melee behind while heading through the first corner and focus on running their own race.
For Ferrari, always starting behind the Silver Arrows makes their task just a little bit more difficult, although their race pace was certainly encouraging.
Formula 1’s new qualifying format flops on debut
Formula 1’s new elimination-style qualifying saw the light of day in Melbourne, and while it made for some frantic action during the first and second segments of qualifying, it fell entirely flat during the third and final portion.
Instead of leading to a final showdown between the two fastest cars as the chequered flag waved, the new format resulted in the front runners all doing their best possible laps as early as possible and then staying put in order to save tyres for the race.
In fact, the four fastest drivers had all exited their cars with three minutes still left to run in the session, leading to an anti-climax and leaving Formula 1 with the embarrassing scenario of an empty track and a chequered flag that was being waved at nobody.
The new format was subsequently panned from all corners, including Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner, who felt obliged to apologise to the fans, and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who described the new format as “rubbish”.
A dream debut for Haas
While Formula 1’s newest entrant have always been quietly confident about their chances for success in the sport, not even they could have foreseen the success they would achieve on debut.
After qualifying in a lowly 19th and 20th places respectively on Saturday as a result of poor timing, both Haas drivers set to work on making their way up the order on Sunday. While Esteban Gutierrez was involved in a race-ending collision with Fernando Alonso on lap 18, Romain Grosjean made his way up to sixth position and withstood the challenge of Force India’s Nico Hülkenberg to secure a strong points finish.
A noticeably emotional Grosjean thanked his new team and told them that the result was equivalent to a race victory, a fair statement given how notoriously difficult it is for new teams to achieve success in Formula 1.
Of course, the Frenchman was helped by the red flag, which meant that he effectively gained a free pit-stop for new tyres, since he had not pitted when the safety car came out following the Alonso-Gutierrez accident. Regardless of this stroke of luck, however, Grosjean piloted his Haas VF-16 to the line in sixth place and that is all that matters.
Whether Haas can continue to secure such lofty finishes over the course of the year is, however, yet to be seen.
Red Bull to be best of the rest
Red Bull have been confident about the inherent pace contained within their new RB12 challenger from a chassis viewpoint. On the engine front, however, team boss Horner has been the first to admit that the team’s Tag-Heuer-branded Renault power units have some way to go before they can power Red Bull to consistent victories.
After qualifying in a rather ho-hum eighth place, which included being out-paced by both drivers from the Toro Rosso junior team, Daniel Ricciardo sprung a pleasant surprise by narrowly missing out on a podium finish and finishing fourth.
The encouraging race pace shown by Ricciardo on Sunday and a less-than-ideal outing from Williams should fill the Milton Keynes-based team with hope that they can claim third place in the constructor’s standings behind Ferrari and Mercedes.
However, the challenge that remains with regards to the power unit should not be underestimated, as watching Max Verstappen in the Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso follow Ricciardo’s Red Bull made it quite obvious that even the 2015-spec Ferrari engine is still capable of providing more pure grunt than the Renault at this stage.
The McLaren-Honda heartache continues
McLaren-Honda appeared to have taken a genuine step forward in performance over the course of the off-season with both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button ending up in the top 10 places after both of Friday’s free practice sessions, an outcome which raised spirits at the struggling Woking-based team.
On Saturday, however, it was more of the same from 2015 as the McLaren drivers qualified in 12th and 13th places respectively, with Sunday seeing Fernando Alonso retire and Jenson Button cross the finish line in a disappointing 14th place, one lap down on race winner Rosberg.
That this result is a small improvement on the team’s performance in Australia a year ago (where Button finished 17th and Kevin Magnussen, who was standing in for the injured Fernando Alonso, was 18th) is unlikely to do much for the morale of a team that has failed to taste victory since 2012.
While the 2016 McLaren-Honda is certainly a quicker, more reliable car than its 2015 counterpoint, the similar results all boil down to the fact that performance gains in Formula 1 are relative, and at this point it appears that any progress that the partnership has made since last year has simply been matched by his rivals.
The fact that Albert Park, as a street circuit, tends to be less reliant on raw engine power is further bad news for a team who have a very noticeable power deficiency to live with.
The jury remains out on Rio Haryanto
New Manor recruit Rio Haryanto has been hailed for being the first Indonesian to compete in Formula 1, and not much else – yet. Instead, most of the attention has been focused on his more-fancied team-mate, Pascal Wehrlein.
While most paddock observers felt that Wehrlein would comfortably have the measure of Haryanto, the Indonesian sprung a surprise and managed to outqualify the German, although he would be forced to start behind his team-mate due to a three-place grid penalty for driving into Romain Grosjean in the pitlane. Haryanto’s advantage did not carry over to Sunday however, as, by the time of his retirement on lap 18, he was already 11 seconds behind Wehrlein and with little hope of catching up.
It will be interesting to see how Haryanto measures up against Wehrlein when both of them manage to run a trouble-free weekend, but at this point, the smart money is on the Mercedes-backed youngster to come good.