- The Final Stint
FIA opens fuel floodgatesLaurence Edmondson March 17, 2014
After a fascinating opener to the 2014 season, the Final Stint looks back at the weekend's biggest talking points as the new sounds and regulations of Formula One came into sharp focus.
One clear winner
Even though the official classification of the Australian Grand Prix is set to be decided by lawyers, there is one position that will remain unchanged. As soon as the cars filtered through the first corner, Nico Rosberg's victory looked nailed on, and as the only driver to finish ahead of Daniel Ricciardo's Red Bull his result is set in stone. For anybody who followed pre-season testing, it will not have been a surprise to see the Mercedes out in front, but the extent of the dominance is a little worrying so early in the season. Lewis Hamilton's retirement was proof that no team is immune to reliability issues, but his was the only Mercedes-powered car not to finish for reliability reasons. There's little doubt Mercedes' rivals will close the gap over the course of the season, but it's also fair to say that we have not seen the Mercedes anywhere the limit. Such was Rosberg's lead that the team would not have risked pushing the limits and a 24 second victory with the wick turned down is rather ominous for the rest of the season.
A controversy of F1's making
It was inevitable with such a wide-ranging change in the regulations that someone would breach Formula One's new rulebook this year. The fact it was at the first race and the local hero was penalised may seem unfortunate, but this was a problem that has been rumbling on for some time. The inaccurate fuel-flow sensor at the heart of the issue was a known problem in the paddock right from the first test when a number of teams raised concerns. On Friday morning in Australia, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo warned of grey areas in the new regulations that had to be policed vigilantly by the FIA, which was a reference to the possibility of a situation like Ricciardo's. But while Ferrari called on the FIA to police the situation, Red Bull took matters into its own hands, ignoring the FIA sensor and monitoring the fuel flow itself. "We faced a situation where we would have been reducing significant amounts of power into the engine when we believed we fully complied with the regulations," Christian Horner explained. But rules are rules, and even though the sensors are clearly not up to scratch, it is still up to the governing body to police the sport. In essence, Red Bull has gambled on a successful appeal, running the car with the fuel flow it believed was correct to bank the highest position possible and then defending its actions after. Whether that gamble pays off remains to be seen.
The sound of change
It was clear from our feedback during live sessions that the sound of the new engines does not transmit well on the TV. Comparisons with lawnmowers were common, while one commenter asked whether the new engines are "powered by farts". Formula One's volume has been turned down dramatically over the winter - a point pushed home at the track by the V8 Red Bull demonstration car performing runs between sessions. But until you've heard the engines from trackside it's worth reserving judgement.
Gone is the scream of the past decade or two, but in its place are several more interesting sounds, including whizzes, groans and pops. Each engine sounds noticeably different, with the Mercedes offering a guttural roar and the Ferrari singing some more tuneful high notes. But even if the aural appeal has been muted, the cars are much more fun to watch, with the torque of the engine often overwhelming the grip of the rear tyres. For TV audiences, that should eventually make up for the loss of noise.
The power of power
The power advantage of the Mercedes engine was clear to see at the opening race of the season. Fernando Alonso's battle with Nico Hulkenberg showed up the Ferrari's lack of grunt in comparison to the Mercedes powering the Force India. Meanwhile, Renault is still refining the software mapping of its power units to give better drivability out of corners, which was part of the problem for Sebastian Vettel in qualifying. Red Bull boss Horner estimated his cars were down a second a lap on engine performance compared to the Mercedes, which is a significant deficit over a race distance. Getting more from the engines using software updates will become one of the biggest performance differentiators this season.
The Williams is quick
Williams may have scored more points in one race at the Australian Grand Prix than it did all season last year, but the result was still a bit of a disappointment. Valtteri Bottas' surge through the field validated the pre-season hype surrounding the FW36, and had he not cracked the rim of his wheel by hitting the wall on the exit of Turn 9 after 10 laps, a podium would have been possible. But that's not to say the Williams is without its issues. Bottas had a five-place grid penalty due to a gearbox issue on Saturday morning and both drivers struggled with the car in the wet, resulting in lower-than-expected grid positions. The team is confident it can address the wet-weather handling issues over the next few races (although it's unlikely to do so in time for Malaysia) and is genuinely pleased with the race pace it showed in Australia. It may not be the fastest car over one lap, but at the right track and in the right circumstances it is still a serious contender.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1