With a raft of technical changes heralding the start of a more eco-friendly era in F1, Sunday's Australian Grand Prix wasn't the reliability catastrophe that many predicted.
Engine supplier Mercedes has gotten almost everything right with the newly-mandated 1.6-litre turbocharged V-6. While it's still early days, it appears that teams with a Mercedes motor slapped in their chassis will dominate, while the rest spend the coming weeks - and possibly months - playing catch-up.
Mercedes' Nico Rosberg drew first blood in Australia with a dominant lights-to-flag victory in the 57-lap race on Sunday and immediately became the early world championship favourite.
Although there's no doubt Rosberg put in a flawless drive and deserves praise, both Williams drivers should also be considered strong candidates for the 2014 title based on the jaw-dropping performance by Valtteri Bottas.
Bottas, who can be compared to two-time world champion and fellow Finn Mika Häkkinen, was easily the star of the show in Australia. He qualified 10th in his Mercedes-powered Williams, but started 15th on the grid due to a five-place penalty for gearbox change.
The penalty was erased by a rocket start that saw him make up those five spots on the first lap before he quickly moved up to sixth behind two-time world champion Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari.
Unfortunately, as he tried to harry Alonso into a mistake, Bottas made one of his own on Lap 10. His Williams ended up tagging the wall at the exit of Turn 10 and causing a safety car period to clean up the mess.
With a new wheel, Bottas recreated his earlier passing clinic and again found himself nipping at Alonso's heels in the late stages of the race. In the end, the 24-year-old overtook a total of 19 cars and crossed the line sixth, but was later promoted one spot when second-place finisher, Red Bull Racing's Daniel Ricciardo, was excluded from the race after the stewards ruled his car had exceeded fuel flow rate limits.
"We should have finished higher today than we did with the pace we had and I'm looking forward to seeing what we can do in Malaysia," Bottas said, obviously champing at the bit to get to the next grand prix at the Sepang International Circuit on March 30.
"I'm a little disappointed with myself because I was pushing a bit too hard and hit the wall which caused a puncture and put me back a long way. I spent the rest of the race trying to make up for that mistake and managed to make some good overtakes, but I need to learn from this and make sure it doesn't happen again."
The once-mighty Williams team may have turned things around after some tough years where it struggled to make ends meet and deliver good results. Drink maker Martini is back in the paddock as a title sponsor and seems to have used its throwback red and blue striped on white livery to regain former glory.
Unlike Bottas, Felipe Massa, Williams' veteran driver, didn't even make it through the first corner after being hit another car at the start. The Brazilian qualified ninth for the race, and may prove to be the bigger threat in the Williams stable, with his 12 seasons in F1.
The big loser on Sunday was easily Renault, which saw four of its six customers retire with engine-related problems, including reigning four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who drives for Red Bull Racing.
The only Renault-powered car that made it to the finish was Ricciardo and he was promptly disqualified, although Red Bull quickly announced they would appeal the verdict. The sixth Renault powered car, Caterham's Kamui Kobayashi, collected Massa at the start.
By the Numbers
Rosberg's win in Australia marked the 100th time a Mercedes-powered car took victory in F1. The first came in the 1954 French Grand Prix when five-time world champion Juan Manuel Fangio took the chequered flag for Mercedes at the Circuit de Reims-Gueux. Fangio went on to win three more times that year and took the first driver's title powered by a Mercedes engine, a feat he repeated the next season.
Fangio is one of only four drivers to win an F1 title in a Mercedes-engined car, with the most recent captured by Jenson Button in 2009 for Brawn GP. Following Button's title season, the Brawn team was sold to Mercedes and is the team that now employs Rosberg and 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton.
The other drivers' titles powered by Mercedes were both delivered by the McLaren team with Mika Häkkinen winning two (1998 and 1999) and Hamilton adding the other (2008).
Overall, Mercedes-powered cars proved to be the class of the field in Australia, taking all three podium spots and four of the top five places in the race. After Ricciardo was excluded, the only non-Mercedes powered car in the top-5 was the Ferrari of Alonso, who was fourth. Along with winner Rosberg and Bottas in fifth, the McLarens of rookie Kevin Magnussen and Button finished second and third respectively.
But it wasn't all great news for The German manufacturer after pole sitter Hamilton retired in his Mercedes just two laps into the race due to a misfiring cylinder.
The exclusion of Ricciardo from the Australian Grand Prix for breaching the maximum fuel flow rate of 100 kilograms per hour raises an interesting question: With the cars already limited to 100 kg of gas for the entire grand prix, why does the sport need a fuel flow limit during races?
With each car allowed 100 kg of fuel per grand prix, it's pretty obvious that sustaining a flow rate of 100kg/hr or higher would mean big trouble. It's a question of simple math: Consistently using fuel at that high a rate when grands prix normally last about 90 minutes would not get a driver far enough before the tanks ran dry.
If a grand prix unfolds in a way that fuel mileage is not an issue (such as a long safety car period), drivers should be allowed to crank it up and drive as aggressively as possible to deliver a win, rather than only race to some artificial limit.
Quote of the Week
When asked about the difference he's found moving to U.K.-based Williams after eight seasons at Italian legends Ferrari, veteran driver Felipe Massa explained it this way:
"The working is the same, but it's very different ... they are much more quiet. The Italians, they cannot talk without shaking their hands. I am like that because I am from Brazil as well, so for sure it's a big change for me. I'm trying to learn everything quickly, changing some names as well, understanding the way they talk as well, because I never lived in England, so that's also new for me. But it's nice, it's a nice experience as well, but definitely the mentality is pretty different."
The Last Word
F1 drivers aren't the only ones swapping engines this year. Canadian James Hinchcliffe opens his 2014 IndyCar season with a new Honda powerplant in the back of his Andretti Autosport racer. He returns to the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sunday after opening the 2013 season with his maiden IndyCar win there.
Hinchcliffe has agreed to be The Globe and Mail's IndyCar insider and will be offering insight into races as the 2014 season progresses. Here Hinchcliffe explains how he approaches his first race of the year:
"There are always a couple of new things you have to pay attention to – obviously on our side of things the engines are new, personally on the No. 27 car I have a new engineer, and we will be working with a new sponsor, so there are a couple of things you will be doing for the first time under pressure."
"We've gone testing and we know what the engines can do and I've worked with all the same people, but at the end of the day until there's something on the line, you don't know how everyone is going to perform. But it's also always so exciting and St. Pete is always seems so full of possibilities with the year ahead. You prepare a lot physically for it because it's the first time you'll do three days in the car in a row and a race distance probably in a long time. So, there are a lot of different things to take into account heading into the first event."
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