After a seemingly interminable winter, the 2015 Formula 1 season is finally upon us and Qualifying for the Grand Prix of Australia went down earlier today at Albert Park in Melbourne. Would Mercedes still reign supreme after last year’s romp to the double World Championship? Or would Williams, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren have found something to take the fight to the Silver Arrows? It was all there on display Saturday, the moment of truth after a long off-season of testing, driver changes and just plain waiting for the engines to be fired in anger for that one-of-a-kind thrill: the start of a new Grand Prix season…
Hamilton opens title defense with dominant Pole in Melbourne, Mercedes’ teammate Rosberg a familiar 2nd; Massa 3rd for Williams proving 2014 was no fluke
Ominously for the rest of the paddock, 2015 started out much like 2014: With the Mercedes chassis dominant from the start and the Drivers’ Championship looking like a strictly intramural battle between reigning World Champion Lewis Hamilton and his runner-up teammate, Nico Rosberg. Continuing the momentum of his end-of-season rampage that clinched last year’s title, Hamilton got the better of Rosberg in the first Qualifying session of the new year, laying down a blistering 1:26.3 in Q3 at the beautiful Albert Park street circuit, which so often serves as the season’s first field of battle. His archrival Rosberg, whose car appeared to suffer from minor mystery maladies all weekend long, nevertheless cruised to second on the grid, a mere .6 behind the Englishman. Also following last year’s trend line, the Mercedes-powered Williams of Filipe Massa qualified a strong 3rd, just under .8 seconds behind Rosberg. Again, it looks like Mercedes is the engine to have in the rebirth of the turbo-charged era and that the factory team, along with its superlative duo of pilots, has the chassis to beat.
All was not an exact copy of 2014, however, and perhaps no team seemed more revived than Ferrari, who appear to have put last year’s dismal and dysfunctional campaign well and truly in the rearview mirror. With 4-time Champion Sebastian Vettel defecting from Red Bull and replacing the departed Fernado Alonso, as well as a completely redesigned chassis and overhauled management structure, the Prancing Horse was back on song Down Under, with Vettel hooking up a fast lap good enough for 4th on the grid and returning teammate Kimi Raikkonen a solid P5. The Ferraris were only a hair’s breadth behind Massa, indicating that Williams has got a new rival for their aspiration to pick off second in the Constructors’ Championship. Both teams can view that goal as realistic because formerly dominant Red Bull seemed to take another step backwards with this year’s RB 11 chassis, or more precisely the underperforming, Renault-supplied engine. With Red Bull and Renault looking like they’re headed for a messy divorce, the Aussie ace Daniel Ricciardo could muster no better than the 7th fastest time in front of his home fans, while new teammate Daniil Kvyat was bedeviled by mechanical issues, getting just one lap in the dying moments of Q2 and that only good enough for P13.
Massa’s Williams teammate, Valtteri Bottas had a lurid slide on the final corner of his final lap of Q3 but managed a respectable P6. Afterwards it was revealed that the Finn was suffering serious back pain and his participation in Sunday’s Grand Prix will be a race day decision. First-year man Carlos Sainz was a mega-impressive P8 for Torro Rosso, easily outpacing his 17-year-old teammate and fellow rookie, Max Verstappen, who made a few mistakes and was P12. Two things should be noted about that: one is that Sainz is only 20 and in most years would be the one being referred to as the up-and-coming young guy. Either way, the kid’s father was a World Rally Champion and it appears racing is in his blood and he’s not phased by the F1 circus — watch out for him. Number two is that Torro Rosso doesn’t look to be far off the pace of the senior Red Bull team. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them take points off of Red Bull as the season progresses even though they are ostensibly running the same much-maligned Renault power unit. That should create an interesting dynamic between team bosses Christian Horner (Red Bull) and Franz Tost (Torro Rosso) to say the least. Rounding out the Top 10, Lotus saw reason for renewed optimism after a hapless 2014, with Romaine Grosjean securing 9th on the grid and Pastor Maldonado coming home P10.
Other notes from Saturday’s Qualifying: McLaren are in deep trouble and look to be engaged in more of a full rebuilding mode rather than striving to seriously compete in 2015. After last year’s dismal performance, the team made the switch to Honda power, totally redesigned the chassis and brought in Fernando Alonso while demoting Kevin Magnussen. It’s early days yet but none of that appears to be a quick fix to McLaren’s problems. Alonso will miss this race weekend while recovering from concussion and the Honda engine has had to run in detuned form because of lack of warm weather testing and the resultant fear of engine failure so early in a season where teams are now limited to a mere four power units per car before penalties are imposed. The result? A woeful 17th for the veteran Jenson Button and 18th for Magnussen subbing for Alonso, slower than the entire field bar the Marussia/Manor team, which did not run at all in Quali. Anyone looking for a McLaren rebirth this year is in for disappointment and probably no one will be more disappointed than Alonso, whose decision to abandon Ferrari just as they are on the ascent again for a McLaren drive that looks years away from being competitive could go down as one of the epic miscalculations in F1 history.
Top 10 Qualifiers in Australia:
|7||Daniel Ricciardo||Red Bull||1:29.788||1:28.679||1:28.329||22|
|8||Carlos Sainz||Toro Rosso||1:29.597||1:28.601||1:28.510||22|
Tomorrow’s Aussie Grand Prix airs on NBCSN here in the States starting in the wee hours at 1AM Eastern. So brew some coffee or set your DVR because Formula 1 begins this Sunday morning with Round 1 of the 20-round championship. Hope to see you then!