2014 Australian GP analysis: Delving into the detail of Sunday's race and F1's new era
How much speed has F1 lost over the winter? Did Valtteri Bottas throw away a podium? And just how far were Mercedes really ahead?
By James Galloway and William Esler
Last Updated: 18/03/14 6:40pm
How much slower is F1 2014?
Amid all the Doomsday prophecies doing the rounds about the new generation cars during pre-season, one of the most prominent was how much slower the V6 turbo challengers were going to prove relative to their V8 predecessors. The fact the brand-new cars were some eight seconds off the pace in Jerez compared to 2013 didn't exactly allay fears F1 was set for a big increase in laptimes following the reductions in downforce and move to harder tyres - yet less than two months on, it's clear that F1's technical boffins have already clawed started to claw much of that time back.
The headline statistics from the opening race weekend are that F1 is - at present - about three seconds a lap slower than it was 12 months ago. Nico Rosberg's fastest race lap of 1:32.478 from Sunday compares to Kimi Raikkonen's quickest effort of 1:29.274 from the 2013 race, whereas the fastest laps from practice - both years experienced rain-hit qualifying hours - were a similar range apart (1:29.375 v 1:25.908).
However, while drivers may be taking slightly longer to complete a full lap, significantly the increased power and torque delivered by the new power units mean that in terms of outright speed they are actually travelling faster in a straight line than before. Indeed, the fastest time recorded through the speed trap from the race was 316.9kph (McLaren's Kevin Magnussen) which was quicker than anything seen during the eight-year V8 era.
It just really depends how you like your eggs...
Did his clash with the wall cost Bottas a podium?
Williams' Valtteri Bottas was one of the quickest cars on circuit throughout the Australian GP, eventually finishing fifth following Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification and recording the second-fastest lap of the race, just 0.09 seconds slower than Nico Rosberg. But could the Finn have finished on the podium had he not broken his right-rear wheel when he tagged the wall whilst chasing Fernando Alonso?
Having started 15th following a gearbox change, Bottas had stormed to tenth at the end of the opening lap and was in sixth position - the position he would take the chequered flag in - by lap eight and, albeit 15 seconds off the lead, he was less than five seconds behind third-placed Kevin Magnussen at that point. Given that minor time loss to the Dane whilst the Williams driver worked his way through traffic proves just how fast Bottas was in the opening stages - he was able to lap to within a couple of tenths of leader Rosberg between laps five and seven, despite passing Jean-Eric Vergne and catching Kimi Raikkonen in that period.
Then on lap ten disaster struck as Bottas hit the wall whilst catching Alonso and was forced to limp back to the pits for a slow stop - the total time in the pitlane of 34.921 seconds was 11.8 seconds slower than his scheduled stop on lap 36. He rejoined in 16th - penultimate place - and would cut the timing beam on lap 11 1:46 off the lead. The Safety Car which followed to recover debris deposited by the FW36 reduced the gap to 8.6 seconds as the cars took the restart, but the Finn was still in 16th. However, it only took him four laps to work his way into the top ten and was still only 14 seconds behind third-placed Magnussen.
Subtracting the additional 11.5 seconds the Finn spent in the pits over the Dane and the fact that he had to work his way through traffic, it is clear the Williams driver had the pace to be on the podium and be best of the rest behind the dominant Mercedes of Rosberg. The fact that he eventually finished 20 seconds behind Magnussen owed more to time lost behind both Toro Rossos than a lack of pace on his part.
How far behind are Ferrari?
"The plain truth of the situation is that, even when considering their problems today, Ferrari are nearly half a second per lap off the pace of the Mercedes - and that is huge." That was the summary of Sky F1's Ted Kravitz as the post-mortem into Ferrari's latest underwhelming start to the season commenced on Sunday night. The Scuderia certainly weren't alone in heading away from Melbourne needing to find answers to the precocious pace of Mercedes, but for a team - F1's most successful ever no less - that have made the 2014 title their unmistakable target for 2014, their pace deficit represented groundhog day.
So just how much time do they need to find with the F14 T? It's first fair to point out that Alonso, Ferrari's lead runner all weekend, experienced a compromised race on Sunday due to electrical problems, which afflicted both cars, and being trapped behind Nico Hulkenberg all the way to lap 33, by which time Nico Rosberg was half a minute up the road. Yet even then once ahead of the Force India for the final stint, Alonso was unable to stay with Jenson Button's McLaren, eventually finishing five seconds adrift of the Briton, while making no impression on the gap to a now clearly-cruising race leader.
Discounting the ever-unrepresentative Friday P1 session when Alonso headed the timesheet, Ferrari didn't finish within half a second of the fastest time in any session all weekend, wet or dry. All of which means they head to Malaysia playing a familiar game of catch up.
Did the Safety Car underplay Mercedes' advantage?
Nico Rosberg crossed the line 24.525 seconds clear of Daniel Ricciardo, but did the Safety Car prevent Mercedes from being as dominant as some feared? Ahead of the Australian GP Christian Horner said the Silver Arrows could win by two clear laps, but even without the race being neutralised on lap 12, Rosberg wouldn't have lapped the entire field once, let alone twice.
Using Rosberg's fastest lap of the race, a 1:32.478 - and he only made it into the 1:32s on five other occasions - he would have needed the rest of the field to be lapping three or even four seconds a lap slower than him to lap the other runners twice and that simply wasn't the case. The German's quickest time was posted on lap 19 and on the same lap the second-placed Ricciardo was only 1.5 seconds slower than the Mercedes. Even struggling Lotus would only have been on cusp of being lapped twice assuming Rosberg maintained that pace for 57 laps.
When the Safety Car was called for after 11 laps, Rosberg's lead over Ricciardo was 7.719 seconds, with Kevin Magnussen a further 6.5 seconds further back - those gaps made it unlikely either driver would even be lapped once. However, looking at Rosberg's consistently quick times - discounting pitstops and double waved yellows at the start of the race he only dropped into the 1:35s five times in the 57 laps - it is clear Mercedes hold a big advantage over the rest of the field. But just not as big as Christian Horner warned ahead of the race.
How big was Red Bull's recovery?
While Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification from second place in Melbourne is currently the story surrounding Red Bull, the bigger picture from the opening weekend of the season in wider championship terms shouldn't be forgotten: the World Champions are back in much better shape after the most wretched of winters.
Granted, the RB10 still doesn't yet possess by some distance either the pace over the short or longer distances to take it to the Mercedes W05, reliability remains a problem and Ricciardo's higher-than-permitted fuel flow rate would certainly have aided performance, but the ground the team managed to make up inside two weeks between the end of the final Bahrain test - when they finished four seconds off their rivals' pace - and P1 at Albert Park, when both cars were suddenly in the top seven, was quite remarkable - and ominous. The World Champions, having completely played down their Melbourne prospects up until Friday, typically gave little away as to what fixes had allowed them to start unlocking the inherent speed that most had always assumed was hidden in Adrian Newey's latest creation, but you certainly get the feeling that this is only the start for both them and engine suppliers Renault.
In terms of race pace, Nico Rosberg consistently pulled away from Ricciardo by anything between half a second and one second and their respective fastest laps - 1:32.478 v 1:33.066 - underlines that gap, although perhaps ominously Rosberg's time was set some 30 laps earlier in the race on lap 19, when his W05 would have still been heavy with fuel. So, while giant strides have been made already, Red Bull still have a long road ahead of them to resume their winning ways.