Ten Things We’ve Learned From Melbourne So Far
The Formula 1 season is finally under way, and talking points on Friday ranged from a resurgent Mercedes to a nose-diving Williams. Our reporters bring you the key things learned so far in Melbourne
While the shock loss of Charlie Whiting on Thursday cast an enormous shadow over those present at the Albert Park circuit, on Friday business continued exactly as he would have wanted – with track action under way and a dramatic pair of practice sessions.
Mercedes turned an apparently questionable pre-season into two sessions topped. But is it the de facto pacesetter? There was also a scare for the new Red Bull-Honda relationship, Toro Rosso’s Alex Albon started his F1 career in messy fashion and the Williams team ended up even further off the pace than expected.
Compiled by our team of dedicated reporters on the ground in Melbourne, here are the 10 things learned from the opening event of the Formula 1 season so far.
Mercedes’ fears might have been ‘BS’ after all
Lewis Hamilton said on Thursday that Mercedes’ need to improve wasn’t ‘BS’. Just over 24 hours later, his Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel jokingly suggested the pre-season claims Mercedes had been struggling were exactly that.
No surprise, given Mercedes’ massive eight tenths of a second margin over the next-fastest car at the end of the day. We’ll get to whether that’s a representative gap in a moment, but for now it’s worth focusing on why Vettel was moved to laugh off those supposed Mercedes problems as “bullshit” and declare Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas “in a league of their own” on Friday.
Mercedes was never going to stand still between testing and the opening race but its performance on the opening day in Melbourne was eye-opening.
Hamilton and Bottas lapped within half a tenth of each other in second practice with a commanding one-two on the timing screens, and that suggests they were pushing fairly close to the peak of the W10’s performance levels. As does the fact they were fastest by a long way on single-lap pace, and by a similar margin on soft-tyre long runs.
We do not know if that is enough to stay ahead when its rivals surely come out of the blocks more aggressively on Saturday, or if Mercedes has extra reserves it can dip into if required.
But if Hamilton and Bottas repeat this on Saturday they will send a powerful message to their rivals – and anyone who dared to read too much into pre-season testing.
Ferrari is quicker than it looks
Ferrari’s fastest lap was 0.873s off the pace of Mercedes in Friday practice, and just behind Red Bull. And the picture painted by the long runs suggested a similar deficit. So Ferrari’s testing pace was an illusion, right?
Not necessarily. We can be certain that Ferrari is significantly faster than it appeared to be even though we don’t have a true read on its pace relative to Mercedes.
There are several reasons for this that extend beyond it not looking right, and the knowledge that a Ferrari in qualifying trim is not going to be only a tenth faster than Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo.
Firstly, Ferrari did not make the usual step in pace from first to second practice. Ferrari improved its fastest lap by just 0.16s in those sessions, with the average gain for the other nine teams being 1.1s and Mercedes finding 0.999s.
Secondly, while the long-run pace on the soft rubber showed a similar deficit to Mercedes, things were different on the other two compounds. Vettel’s pace on mediums was almost identical to that of Valtteri Bottas, while Charles Leclerc’s pace on the hards was barely any slower than Vettel’s.
All of this tells us we can be sure Ferrari is faster than it looks. What it doesn’t tell us is by how much, and whether the advantage of around 0.3s over Mercedes it looked to have in testing has vanished.
Red Bull clears its first Honda scare
Red Bull could not have been more gushing about its pre-season testing preparations with Honda – having sung the praises of its new partner for its design, packaging, performance and reliability at Barcelona.
But while few doubted Red Bull was over-egging the performance aspects – as it openly targets five race wins this season – there have always been questions about whether Honda has made the reliability progress it needs.
So when Pierre Gasly suffered an unexpected loss of power at the end of second free practice in Australia, there must have been some nerves at Red Bull. Was this the start of the dramas that some have feared?
It did not take long though for Honda’s engineers to put the matter down to something “minor” and give Gasly’s power unit the all clear for the rest of the weekend.
Off the back of teammate Max Verstappen ending up third fastest in the afternoon session – crucially ahead of Ferrari – there was certainly enough optimism that the team has the platform it needed: both on the car and engine front.
Verstappen was never afraid to slate Renault when things were not going well. But there was no hint of Honda not giving him what he wants.
“From the engine side, no problems,” he said. “It ran very smoothly and it was good. We will find out more tomorrow.”
Alfa Romeo top now… but midfield fight is insanely tight
Andrew van Leeuwen
We came to Melbourne expecting the midfield battle to be seriously close, and on first impressions we won’t be disappointed.
There were few clear-cut conclusions to be drawn from Friday’s running in terms of the midfield pecking order. On the numbers alone, Raikkonen and Alfa Romeo came out on top; the Finn’s 1m23.572s was the benchmark for those outside the big three, and the long-runs on the soft tyre indicate a narrow advantage to Alfa, to the tune of 0.023s over McLaren.
But there’s still so much to play out. Amid niggling issues for both Renault drivers, Nico Hulkenberg put in a lengthy stint that showcased impressively low degradation. Meanwhile, Romain Grosjean’s post-practice optimism wasn’t in keeping with long-run data that puts the Haas five tenths behind the Alfa Romeo, which suggests there’s more to come from Gunther Steiner’s squad on Saturday.
“Today the most important thing was to get the feeling, and I think the feeling was better than it was in Barcelona,” said Grosjean. “We did some good steps today and I’m very happy where we ended up in the afternoon.”
Plenty of drivers referenced how close the midfield battle will be following Friday’s sessions, but it was Daniel Ricciardo that laid it out in its barest form heading into Saturday: “I feel like in qualifying two tenths could make the difference of four places or something – so putting in a clean lap is going to be important.”
Ricciardo needs his ‘book of knowledge’
Ricciardo always knew things would be different with Renault once they finally got to a race weekend, and sure enough the reality of being a ‘new boy’ finally hit home on Friday in Australia.
After a whirlwind winter of getting used to life at Enstone, and a flat out two weeks of testing, the added intensity of the first GP of the season has left him acknowledging he needs a ‘book of knowledge’ about how best to get the most from his car.
“Today was for me personally about the car itself and understanding what area to focus on as well,” he admitted. “When I was with Red Bull for five years, you have a thing with your engineer and you don’t really think about the changes, you just do them because you just know from experience.
“Now if I feel something with the car, it’s ‘we can do that’ or ‘we can do that’ so it’s ‘which one do we do?’ and try to figure that out. There are little things.
“But it is all good. I’m still learning a few people’s names in the team but it is fine – being Australian you can call everyone ‘mate’ and it is not a problem…”
Don’t think for a second that Ricciardo’s lack of experience at his new home means he is on the back foot. Renault certainly seems to be firmly in that midfield mix – and you can be sure that Ricciardo will be leaving nothing on the table when it comes to the races.
The cars really are faster despite rule changes
The 2019 regulations should have, by rights, slowed the cars down. Without the more complex front wings to carefully pull the aerodynamic strings, the overall downforce level dropped over the winter – leaving a number of teams two to three seconds behind in their initial laptime simulations.
But, through clever manoeuvring and straying from the beaten path, the majority not only managed to recoup that pace – but also find a little extra in reserve. That’s down to the advances found largely in bargeboard development.
The change in dimensions has helped somewhat; bringing the leading edge further forward has assisted in diverting dirty, tyre wake-ridden airflow away from the underside of the floor.
Although the height of the bargeboards has been reduced, teams have – out of necessity – found the platform to be even more outlandish with their designs. Against the odds, laptimes were quicker in second practice compared to last season, Alfa Romeo finding over three seconds in hand over the best time Sauber could manage at this stage in 2018.
The development in this area continues to rumble on; Red Bull added the bargeboard geometry it briefly trialled in testing, while Racing Point turned up with an entirely new set – following Red Bull and McLaren’s lead in using a central horizontal element to offer more options in conditioning the turbulence shed from the wheel.
Albon’s steep learning curve gets real
One of three rookies in the field in Australia, along with George Russell and Lando Norris, Alex Albon had the misfortune to be the only one to damage his car on Friday.
It was a reminder that the Toro Rosso driver still faces a steep learning curve, and that – not counting the few laps he did at the car’s initial shakedown – this was only his fifth proper day in an F1 car.
Albon damaged the front and rear of his car when he spun off in first practice, blaming the wind in part for the indiscretion.
“I was just building up my confidence, and was getting a little better,” he said of his first incident.
“Then I was caught out by the spin at the end of that run. I think it was just a little bit of inexperience, and the tyres were a little bit too hot.
“There are big tailwinds, which is really new to me. So with these cars, they’re so sensitive that tailwinds, headwinds, they’re changing balances massively.
“I was already used to it from the previous laps, but of course it doesn’t help when you have a gust or tailwind into Turn 1.”
Later he gave himself a fright when his left hand got caught under the side of the headrest in the ultra fast sweep at Turns 11/12, and he had to momentarily take it off the wheel.
“It was a weird one and I’ve never had it happen before,” he said. “I was going through Turn 11, and as I was going into 12 I couldn’t open the steering. So I was kind of stuck on the headrest. I just had to lift off my hand and abort the lap. Nothing too serious, but it took me by surprise.”
Williams is even worse than feared
Speaking a day before his first free practice session as a Formula 1 race driver, George Russell joked that expectations for Williams were so low from the outside that he and the team couldn’t fail but to exceed them.
Sadly for the venerable team, they did. Watching at the Turn 1-2 right/left during the morning session showed that the Williams was all over the place.
Russell and teammate Robert Kubica certainly weren’t the problem, but the lack of downforce meant that either the front or the rear end was not quite doing what they wanted.
Both drivers were noticeably later on the power than the rest and the gap to the midfield looked bigger even than testing suggested.
In the end, the fastest Williams lap was 1.7s off the back off the midfield. And that matched what the car looked like on track, underlining just how big a job Williams has got to achieve even a modicum of respectability this season.
It’s true that gains in downforce will mitigate a lot of vices. While Russell insisted that the car didn’t feel as bad as the laptimes suggest and that Williams has a solid foundation to build on, it’s clear that it’s going to be a long hard season.
The one positive is that jokes about Williams struggling to qualify on the 107% rule are well wide of the mark.
New tobacco company money is a real concern
FIA president Jean Todt and F1 CEO Chase Carey gave a joint press conference on Friday, in which they were asked about tobacco advertising in F1.
They were not responding directly to anything specific a team has done, but the messages were clear. Advertising tobacco products are forbidden. And companies have strict rules that they must follow.
The timing of those comments is relevant now because of the scrutiny being placed on Ferrari and, to a lesser extent, McLaren, for their respective sponsorship deals.
Ferrari’s Mission Winnow branding is an advert for Philip Morris International’s vague initiative based around new technology and a better future.
McLaren’s deal with British American Tobacco showcases a similar idea based around BAT’s ‘A Better Tomorrow’ slogan.
We’re witnessing the impact of that scrutiny in Melbourne this weekend. Both Ferrari and McLaren have removed their branding for this weekend’s season-opening grand prix, and arrived with tweaked liveries.
They did so voluntarily, for neither has been declared to have committed any wrongdoing, but in response to an Australian investigation into Ferrari’s livery.
It is symbolic more than anything else. Money from tobacco companies was always going to prick up ears and draw attention. We’ve seen in Melbourne that such companies cannot just return to prominence in F1 without serious inspection.
Whiting ‘replaced’ but is irreplaceable
The late Charlie Whiting’s duties as race director were taken on by Australian Michael Masi in Melbourne on Friday, and to everybody’s relief it was a relatively smooth day – with a red flag caused by Albon and a €200 pitlane speeding fine for Lance Stroll the only incidents that exercised race control to any great degree.
Meanwhile, tributes continued to pour in from the racing community, and Whiting’s loss was marked by many people in the paddock – including his FIA colleagues – wearing black armbands. The Haas cars carried special stickers, with boss Steiner stressing how helpful Whiting had been when F1’s youngest team was being put together.
Carey and Todt both paid tribute to their lost colleague, with the FIA president asking the members of the media present to join them in a minute’s silence.
Todt admitted that the FIA now faced a challenge in trying to replace Whiting for the long term.
“We did not have a plan to have a different organisation,” he said. “But now we are faced with this emergency situation for the weekend we are going to have one emergency plan to be able to deliver a good job.
“We are going to work very closely with the F1 teams and we have started to think. Our team in Geneva is trying to see what are going to implement for the future.”