Conclusions from the Australian Grand Prix
Ferrari lose the race but the big picture wins, Mad Max shows his age, and why there was nothing lucky about Alonso's escape...
By Pete Gill @petegillF1
Last Updated: 21/03/16 1:37pm
Alonso's lucky escape
Except there was nothing lucky about it. While the accident was a reminder of the perils every F1 driver accepts when he climbs into a vehicle capable of such staggering speed, its end result - an unscathed man climbing out of a multi-million pound machine reduced to twisted metal - was ultimately testament to the work the sport has devoted to improving safety over the last two decades. Luck? Luck didn't come into it.
The crash is reported to have been measured at 46gs at impact and left Alonso's MP4-31 unrecognisable as a motor vehicle. But the wheels, while ripped from the bodywork, remained tethered and Alonso's 'survival cell' did precisely the job it was designed to do. "I am alive thanks to the job of the last ten years in Formula 1," the Spaniard later remarked. "This shunt shows that Formula 1 is still and will always be a dangerous sport but also shows how far we have come with safety," added team-mate Jenson Button. Of that, there can be no doubt.
Sportsmanship still exists in F1
One further point about the Alonso crash. Despite having his life flash before his eyes as his McLaren took off in a double somersault - "you are not exactly aware where you are, you are just flying and then you see the sky, the ground, the sky, the ground and you don't know" - the Spaniard's first thought was to extricate himself from the wreckage of the car to assuage the concern of his mother. "I went out quickly just to make sure that my mum, who was watching the race on TV at home, could see that I was okay."
His second action was to shake the hand of Esteban Gutierrez, with whose car he had collided. Fernando was equally quick to later absolve the Haas driver of blame. While the image didn't carry the dramatic appeal of Alonso's wrecked car defying gravity, their embrace was the picture of the day. In the circumstances, and in its own quiet way, it was sportsmanship of the highest order.
A race lost by Ferrari not won by Mercedes
To appreciate just how badly Ferrari erred in keeping Vettel on supersoft tyres after the restart, consider what Haas did. Why Haas? Partly because they are Ferrari's 'B Team' and partly because Haas' tactics were driven by Ruth Buscombe, their race strategist who is on loan from Ferrari to the debutants this year.
While Ferrari elected for aggression, knowing full well that Vettel would have to stop again, Haas and Buscombe sent Romain Grosjean back out on the mediums, to run to the finish in the knowledge that overtaking is a tall order around the deceptively narrow confines of Albert Park. The result was sixth place - a finish which Grosjean equated to a victory - while Vettel was relegated to third in a race he should have won. "In hindsight everything is always crystal clear," rued Sebastian. But Ferrari's belief they required aggression at the restart when Vettel's lead of the race naturally called for conservatism only added to the bafflement. A race lost, not a race won.
Phew. Ferrari have closed the gap
The big picture story of race day, however, was altogether more positive. While Ferrari are not yet a match for Mercedes - that was immediately obvious from qualifying when Vettel was half a second slower than Lewis Hamilton even before both Silver Arrows returned to the track to extend their advantage - they look to be far closer to the world champions than in 2015. "Our speed in the race was clearly better than in qualifying so there are a lot of positives to take from today," said Vettel. Nor were they flattered by the Albert Park characteristics. "Melbourne was a bit of a weak point for us last year, and we did surprisingly well today," added the German. "That means that our car is stronger, giving us more opportunities, and that should also work in Bahrain."
Oh, and something else is different already: for the first time since September 2014, Hamilton isn't in the lead of the Drivers' Championship.
Palmer makes his point
Looked good, didn't he? Under pressure to avoid the Q1 drop, the Renault rookie delivered an excellent lap and beat team-mate Kevin Magnussen in the process. On race day, the 25-year-old proved up for a fight, belying his race rustiness by driving Max Verstappen beyond frustration and into petulance, while defending robustly from Valtteri Bottas. Palmer didn't leave Melbourne with any points in the bag but he did depart with a point proved: he deserves his place on the grid.
Verstappen must curb his age
Lest we forget, Max Verstappen is still a teenager. His age barely featured as a talking point - except as an awed reminder of his prodigious talent - last year, but it loomed large as the 18-year-old launched a series of expletive-ridden rants over team radio while following team-mate Carlos Sainz. For the first time in his F1 career, Verstappen sounded like a teenager - and a sulky one at that.
It was silly, it was unnecessary and it was counter-productive. "A calmer head would have finished further up the road," noted Sky F1's Martin Brundle. Verstappen would also do well not to under-estimate Sainz. The Spaniard receives a fraction of the acclaim Verstappen justifiably attracts, but it was Carlos who won the Toro Rosso qualifying duel last year and there was just a tenth between them this Saturday. Their final score in 2015 was a convincing points victory for Verstappen but the difference owed plenty to the bad luck the Spaniard consistently endured. If he doesn't keep his feet on the ground, 2016 could still take a very difficult turn for Max.
Grosjean will be a contender to replace Raikkonen
He's fast, he's still improving, he's doing the hard yards at their junior team and he's even learning Italian. Make no mistake, Romain is very much in the frame to replace Kimi Raikkonen if, as is likely, the Finn leaves Ferrari and F1 at the end of the year.
Assuming Sunday's bouts of petulance will not be regularly repeated, the year will surely end with Verstappen in pole position to partner Vettel in 2017. But if a vacancy emerges at Mercedes for the Dutch teenager, the underrated but increasingly conspicuous Grosjean will be at the front of the queue with Daniel Ricciardo for a seat in F1's most famous house.
F1 new rules needs to be to sit still
The fundamental peculiarity to the meddling with qualifying wasn't the timing - although, delivered just two weeks before the season's start, that was very odd in itself - or even the revamp ratified, even though it predictably proved to be a catastrophic own-goal. No, the essential problem was that F1 gave such scant consideration to the message it sent out by changing one of its central tenants. All it said, regardless of what was being put forward as an alternative answer, was that there was something very, very wrong with the sport.
Except there isn't much wrong with qualifying or even F1. While a host of improvements could be made - starting with reducing the amount of dirty air churned out to prevent one car closely following another - F1's biggest and most fundamental problem is the negativity which pervades the paddock.
Nobody could explain why qualifying needed changed. As a result, nobody could say how the success (or otherwise) of the new format would be measured. And yet it was changed anyway, without a thought about the message being sent out. Madness, absolute madness.
Don't miss the F1 Report for all the reaction and analysis from the Australian GP. Natalie Pinkham is joined by David Brabham and former McLaren mechanic Marc Priestley on Wednesday at 8:30pm on Sky F1.