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#936 2016 Australian Grand Prix

2023-01-21 23:00

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#2016, Fulvio Conti, Translated by Valentina Faustinoni,

#936 2016 Australian Grand Prix

Doomed to win. For history, for the fans who have been waiting anxiously for more than eight years, but above all for presidential diktat, because Mar

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Doomed to win. For history, for the fans who have been waiting anxiously for more than eight years, but above all for presidential diktat, because Marchionne, the president of Ferrari, on the eve of this World Championship which starts on Sunday in Australia is clear:

 

"There aren't any alternatives, the red must return to the top of the world, right from the first race, certainly at the end of the season".

 

We are fighting for three titles, the drivers' one, pursued more by Vettel than by Raikkonen, the constructors' one and the one on the stock exchange, given that the listed Ferrari also needs to be a winner, to guarantee better dividends. We are aiming for the maximum and winter work seems to encourage our dreams, with the Maranello team leading the timesheets for seven out of the eight days of testing in Barcelona, showing speed over one lap, an excellent race pace and, after a somewhat stunned start, hardly any reliability issues. Ferrari is there, they like it, but the wall of desires is put to the test by the unknown Mercedes, dominant in recent years and which also threatens to crumble the ambitions of 2016, as assured by its spiritual guide Lauda, once the idol of Maranello and now an image man of the enemy. The Germans hid in the tests, they did it deliberately, choosing to never use the ultra-soft compound, new for the season, tyres that favor speed in one lap and significantly increase performance. Hamilton and Rosberg, almost arrogantly, ignored the chronometer, never aimed for an astonishing time, perhaps a symbol of certain superiority, only to then declare in words that they were very afraid of Ferrari.

 

"Because we understood that they came very close".

 

So far Mercedes hasn't shown its full potential and some hope that behind the pre-tactics there is a little fear, the fear of direct confrontation, the desire to face each other seriously only from Friday in Australia, when bluffing will no longer be allowed . To understand if this is the truth, all that remains is to wait a few days. From Friday 18 March 2016 it’s going to get  serious and cheating will no longer be possible. For the moment there is only one certainty, it will still be a head-to-head between Mercedes and the dreamer Ferrari, because Red Bull is slowed down by the Renault engine, because Williams has the Mercedes engine, but not its chassis, and because the others, starting with Toro Rosso with a Ferrari engine and Haas, the American debuting with the technological support of Maranello, the engine from Modena and the Dallara chassis, can only hope to collect the crumbs. All in the midst of the usual regulatory chaos, with the Russian roulette of the new qualifications, the elimination of the slowest drivers in the three rounds, proposed by Ecclestone, which nobody likes and which nobody has ever tried before Australia, a jump into the unknown that we don't know how much show will offer. But that certainly scares all the teams. Hyper-technological Formula 1 should only have certainties. Instead, it continues to stumble more over the regulatory holes than those on the asphalt. With all due respect to an audience that often runs away. Nostalgic of a tussle for victory and a sound (now the engine is hybrid) that is no longer there.

 

"The dream is always the same: to win the title with Ferrari".

 

Sebastian Vettel launches Ferrari's ambitions and challenges Mercedes a few days before the first race of the 2016 F1 World Championship, which will start in Australia. After the four titles won aboard Red Bull, Vettel wants to return to triumph, this time with the Maranello team:

 

"I love racing, I've won the championship in the past years, but that doesn't mean I don't want to win it again. I don't know how the opponents feel, but I want to experience those feelings again, especially reliving them with Ferrari, because I think it would be a special emotion and an important step".

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Mercedes will still be the team to beat, even if the indications were not very clear in the pre-season tests. Vettel thinks about the track:

 

"Being at Ferrari after two years of domination by Mercedes and being back at the top is wonderful. The statistics and everything else are decided on the track, we don't want to lose anything. I wouldn't sign for a result that has already been written, because we would lose everything. We prefer to live the season and all the experiences, fighting is why we are here and we want to earn results. The work is difficult, but we believe in it".

 

And with him, all the millions of Ferrari fans. In the meantime, someone explains to Toto Wolff one of the theories that is the most popular in the paddock at this stage of the season. According to which, Mercedes has hidden so much advantage over Ferrari under the chassis that it can afford to not go to the maximum, manage the gap, and, in fact, simulate a competition that does not actually exist in favor of the camera (and sponsors). He looks at the audience in front of him, journalists and professionals who have come from all over Europe to witness the start of the Mercedes season, then he smiles and lets himself go.

 

"Lucky the pre-season ends today. Otherwise who knows what else they would have invented... You know how they say in motorsport: When the checkered flag waves, the bullshit ends?"

 

Ok, sayings aside: what Mercedes will we really see in Melbourne?

 

"Our car looks good and, above all, it has extraordinary reliability (in tests, Mercedes ran in 8 days for a mileage equivalent to around twenty Grands Prix, ed). Then, we'll see what happens on the track".

 

F1 is not an endurance race. What was the point of lapping so much in testing?

 

"We achieved all the mileage goals we set for ourselves. In terms of performance, we think we are among the top teams".

 

And Ferrari?

 

"In Barcelona it seemed to be in equally good condition. Some of their lap times in the race simulation were very interesting: it is an indication that the car is very fast. But the same rule always applies: when the checkered flag waves…".

 

After a season like the past one, where do you find the energy to outdo yourself?

 

"Every job, you have to do it to the best of your ability. Period . Self-congratulation is not in our mentality".

 

During the winter he threatened his drivers: If you create problems, I'll fire you. Are you your own worst rival?

 

"Our rival is Ferrari. It will be a real race. As we all hope. As for the drivers, that wasn't exactly the case. They asked me a question and I said that if their rivalry were to become a problem for the team then I would consider changing them".

 

It's not much different.

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"It depends on your point of view. There is a rivalry between the two drivers. And you are free not to believe it, but we like it that way. It's part of the nature of the sport. They are two top drivers fighting for the title. It would be strange, fake, and ugly if they weren't fighting, they weren't rivals".

 

but…

 

"No buts. We just need to respect the team. For the rest, let's hope they show us interesting duels on the track".

 

Have you specified the internal rules? Is there anything written? A code of conduct?

 

"We have eased the bans. The new rules governing radio communications between the wall and the pilots were favorable in this sense. We took advantage of it. They will be free to compete as they see fit. We trust them".

 

If Ferrari were really very close, it would be a big risk.

 

"When we started the project in 2013 there was a lot of pressure on the team. It went well, in 2014 we won the championship and in 2015 we reconfirmed. Lewis and Nico dueled for a couple of years, and it worked. Giving them freedom is something we owe to them and to Formula 1. The game will be a little more difficult, but we have to do it this way. Regardless of the pressure and Ferrari".

 

The countdown to the start of the Formula 1 World Championship is about to end and Sebastian Vettel, comforted by the positive responses received in the pre-season tests, is charged up:

 

"There's a great atmosphere at the Australian Grand Prix. Melbourne is a fantastic city and everyone loves F1. It's a one-of-a-kind track, the layout is lively, the asphalt particularly undulating and it will be the first time we'll see where we are compared to the other teams".

 

In short, the feelings are positive and the expectations of the fans of the Reds are high, but only the response from the track will be able to give precise indications.

 

"Here I took pole two or three times, I won once and the best thing is that people are friendly and cheer a lot. There are many Ferrari fans who come to support us from all over Australia, but also from Asia which is not so far from here".

 

Meanwhile, Vettel lifted his reservations about the name of his second Ferrari, the SF16-H, and the choice fell on Margherita. Vettel, already during his time at Red Bull, was used to giving a name to his car: the first one  was Julie, with whom he won the first Grand Prix in Toro Rosso, then came Kate, Kate's dirty little sister, Luscious Liz, Randy Mandy, kinky Kylie, Abbey, hungry Heidi and Suzie. Last year, however, he chose Eva for his first Ferrari.

 

"2015 was a year of improvement for Ferrari. If the Reds continue to grow in 2016, then you will see a truly leading car which is what I hope for".

 

Also Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, former president of Ferrari, on the eve of the start of the Formula 1 World Championship in Australia, wanted to send his personal best wishes to the team.

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"The week leading up to it is always terrible, because you try to figure out where you are compared to your opponents. But work always pays off".

 

The question is dry:

 

"Do you and Ferrari really think you can compete with Mercedes this year?"

 

Sebastian Vettel's answer even more so:

 

"Yes, we think so".

 

The engines start up in Melbourne on Friday. And, for the first time since 2008, Ferrari doesn't start off beaten. On the contrary. The impression is that in Maranello they have metabolized the monstrous performance provided by Mercedes during the Barcelona tests and that, analyzing the data carefully, especially those of the long runs, they have concluded that Hamilton and Rosberg are no longer on another planet. Maybe still ahead, yes. But not too much. Let's say two-three tenths. And with the new rules and the little organized chaos that seems to be the fate of this 2016 season, anything is possible.

 

"We've worked a lot this winter. The project for this year's car started very early, during last season. That's why I think we'll see a very important improvement. A big step forward from all points of view. From the outside you have all seen the most evident new features but it is from inside the car, I assure you, that you can really appreciate all the improvements we have made. And I can say that we have done a great job. A job that will allow us to be fast from the start; but also to improve more over the course of the year".

 

This second point is fundamental. One of the limitations of last season's car was precisely this: in the last few Grands Prix the technicians struggled to develop. To put it in simple terms, it was ceiling-mounted.

 

"That's the good news. Whether it's good enough, I don't know yet. After all, the challenge ahead of us is ambitious. We all know what Mercedes' potential is. Over the last two years they have built a very solid and strong platform. Not just a great engine. But also an efficient car as seen particularly during last season. Now, let's assume they can't have made it any worse... so it's clear that the bar is very high. But we're there".

 

Curious Ricciardo-Vettel duet, at the press conference. The two former Red Bull teammates talk about the new name, Margherita, that Sebastian Vettel has decided to give to his new Ferrari.

 

"Did you call it that because it looks like a pizza?"

 

Ricciardo asks, answering a journalist's question instead of German, and probably referring to the white that this year Maranello has decided to put around the bonnet.

 

"If anything, because it reminds me of cocktails".

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Vettel tries to answer.

 

"The truth is that Margherita is just a nice name, which I like. Last year I chose Eva, this year Margherita. And I'm very happy".

 

Less happy with this quirk of the German driver are the top management of the Maranello team. For them, Ferrari is simply Ferrari, and the acronym that is given to the single-seater year after year is enough to indicate it. In this case Sf16-H (which stands for Scuderia Ferrari 2016 - Hybrid). In recent days, it is said in the paddock, in Maranello they have tried in every possible way to explain to Vettel that this thing of renaming the cars might have been fine when he was at Red Bull and that in Ferrari he would be better off letting it go, or in any case, not giving it too much prominence , but there was nothing to be done. And then, in the end they raised their arms, welcome Margherita, because, if she's fast and successful, no one will think about the name anymore.

 

"I can assure you that we will do everything possible to respect our history as the most successful team in Formula 1. We have one real goal ahead of us: to bring the title back to Maranello. I don't know when it will happen, but I want to assure you that we will try from the very beginning".

 

This was stated in a passage from his lectio magistralis at the inauguration of the academic year of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia,  by the CEO of FCA and president of Ferrari, Sergio Marchionne. And, on the other hand, even Lewis Hamilton fears that Ferrari has an ace up its sleeve to play in the first race of the year in Australia.

 

"I think this season the cars' performance will be closer than in the last two World Championships. And I think Ferrari has something up their sleeve. I think this weekend they will be much closer than they said. They come here with a low profile, but they could start again at the top".

 

Says the World Champion, who for his part assures that he is not satisfied by the two consecutive titles won:

 

"Perfection doesn't exist, you have to try to improve and grow further. You're always looking for a perfect lap and race, you're always trying to raise the bar".

 

Mercedes proved to be very reliable during the pre-season tests:

 

"We came to the tests with the aim of reaching 800km a day and we did it. Perhaps the performances could have been tested more, but we followed our plans".

 

However, there was no comment on the video that shows him driving a motorcycle on a busy Auckland road which risked him getting into trouble with New Zealand justice.

 

"I don't know what to answer, I have nothing to say about this".

 

Saying these words must have been very painful for a man not inclined to self-criticism like Fernando Alonso. But the Spanish says:

 

"If Ferrari were to win, the regret would be great".

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And yet it happened, in the Melbourne paddock, amidst the incredulity of the reporters who also solicit it.

 

"If something like this were to happen, I won’t help but think about the fact that I still had two years on my contract, last year and this one. And that therefore I would have had the car to win. Let me be clear, I said if he were to win the World Championship. Ed the if to which this possible regret of mine is linked is a very very big if".

 

In other words, the chances of Vettel snatching the title from Hamilton are, according to the Spaniard, very slim.

 

"And for me, there's no difference between finishing second and finishing twenty-first. I'm only happy if I win. And I don't know when, not sooner or later, but I know that McLaren Honda will win one day".

 

The one launched on the eve of the first race of the season by Niki Lauda, president of Mercedes, is not a generic alarm.

 

"Attention. Ferrari has returned to its former glory. Since the end of last year she had already been on the right path. And now we have to expect another big leap".

 

It is rather the expression of a very specific concern: if the Stuttgart-based team made the mistake of underestimating their opponent, the price to pay could be very high. Lauda does not say it openly, but from his words it is clear that there is something, in this start of the season, that does not leave him completely calm. A concern. As if he had the impression that his men have indulged in some form, however tiny, of presumption. Many, for example, have observed that to carry out that monstrous program during the Barcelona tests (the equivalent of more than 20 grands prix kilometers were covered), the Mercedes people have never tested the car with the super soft tyres. . Which they will therefore find themselves using for the first time tomorrow during the race, with all the uncertainties associated with debuts. But that is not all. Even the story of the two drivers free to fight each other, heralded by team principal Toto Wolff, does not please Lauda at all. Many years spent in Ferrari, where the old Enzo considered team orders one of the inevitable elements of the sport, have taught him that when the competition is fierce, it is better not to leave room for chance. Also because, as Gerard Berger explains, between Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg and Vettel it is the latter who has the greatest mental strength. So Niki Lauda concludes:

 

"In our team everyone has to run freely, it's our policy and it won't change. However, it is good that the number one is in front of the red car".

 

A red car which, moreover, is just waiting for a minimum gap to enter. The idea of compactness, in the Ferrari house, is absolute. Sergio Marchionne put monstrous pressure on Maurizio Arrivabene's shoulders. And Arrivabene has transferred it to the whole team. Whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage, it is too early to tell. The impression is that a lot will depend on how things turn out after the first two or three races. If Ferrari were to be competitive, then all that pressure would turn into positive energy. Conversely, with the expectations of the president and the fluctuations of the title on the stock exchange, it will be a semi-catastrophe.

At the moment, Arrivabene puts on the classic good face:

 

"Pressure from the president? I would say that everything is normal. He expects the team to do more than they did last year. And we will do our duty".

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Also helped by Sebastian Vettel who, today as yesterday, seems to be Ferrari's real added wepon. As Jock Clear, the chief of track engineers at Maranello, one of the technicians that Ferrari managed to snatch from Mercedes last year and on whom Arrivabene has bet for the reconstruction, clearly explains:

 

"Michael Schumacher always spoke to me about Sebastian. I was looking forward to working with him. And he lived up to expectations. He is someone who has won four world titles and it shows in everything he does, from driving the car to testing on the simulator. He knows how to communicate well with all the elements of the team and knows how to get the most out of those who work with him: all characteristics that only true champions have".

 

And it is precisely the presence of Vettel, on closer inspection, that worries Niki Lauda most of all:

 

"Because he is strong, because he drives a Ferrari, and because he is German".

 

Friday 18 March 2016 strong winds and lots of rain mar both free practice sessions in Australia. As expected from the weather. So the great enigma of this phase of the season lasts one more day, and it will be necessary to wait for Saturday, the day of qualifying, to understand a little more about what the real power dynamics are on the grid. For what little they can count, both sessions were dominated by the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton who did very few laps (14 laps in the morning and 5 in the afternoon) always recording the best time: 1'29"7 and 1'38"8. As far as Ferrari is concerned, Vettel did not set any times in the morning, while in the afternoon he recorded a insignificant time of 1'40"7. Kimi Raikkonen finished FP2 with the third fastest time, behind Lewis Hamilton and the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg. To note the accident of Nico Rosberg who in the middle of the second session loses control of his Mercedes and crashes, damaging the car, against the wall. And then he spends the rest of the afternoon in front of monitors. Says Sebastian Vettel at the end of the tests:

 

"I don't think it was a completely lost day. We did a few laps, but certainly in terms of preparing for the race and finding the rhythm for the weekend, it was a pretty lost day. In the end we managed to do some checks, to see if the car is behaving well. All of us drivers were waiting for this day, even if we didn't run much. So we look forward to tomorrow, let's hope we can do a good session in the morning. The weather forecast isn't very positive, let's hope we find some sun and stable conditions".

 

And Kimi Raikkonen adds:

 

"Today the conditions weren't ideal but it was the first time we drove the car in the rain and it went well, we only did a few easy laps, a pity for the spectators but we couldn't race in suitable conditions. The gap from Hamilton and Rosberg? There will not only be Ferrari and Mercedes on the circuit. We will certainly know more but it is not possible to know what the weather conditions will be, there will also be a new qualifying format, we hope to race in the dry to find the right set-up for  the car".

 

Regarding the new qualifying format, Kimi Raikkonen says:

 

"We will have to see how things unfold, it will be the first time and it could be insidious for many, we hope to get everything right".

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Twenty-four hours from the start of the Formula 1 World Championship, more than the excitement for the start of a new season and even more than the desire for redemption of the defeated, the feeling that dominates unchallenged in the paddock, among the drivers, the engineers and even among journalists, it is a mixture of confusion and impotence. As if a huge doubt was covering everything, making the horizons blurred, the curves imprecise, the straights uphill. It is the great doubt of the new regulations. Normal people, i.e. those who live outside the paddock, those who watch F1 on TV on Sundays, or read reports on websites or in newspapers, probably haven't even noticed. But this year many things will change. The main ones are the format of the qualifications, given that elimination will take place, every ninety seconds the slowest driver will be eliminated, until the final duel; the choice of tyres, no longer two types per team at each race, but three per driver; the management of radio dialogues between teams and drivers, who will no longer be able to be remotely controlled by the track engineer but will have to choose their own strategy, as they used to do in the past. A small revolution, one might be led to think. But no. Because, by intervening on decidedly marginal aspects of the now chronic F1 crisis, these regulatory changes will obtain the paradoxical result of complicating the outline of the show without improving its substance, the spectacle, the competitive spirit. If on Sunday he has the fantasy of waking up at dawn, the European spectator will still witness a complicated and largely boring qualifying, he will continue to understand nothing about the compounds, and wonder why in 2016 a car cannot do a whole race with four wheels, and finally he still won’t understand a word from the radio dialogues between teams and drivers. In the meantime, overtaking and excitement will continue to be lacking on the track, unless it rains or there is some accident at the start. To understand how little this revolution convinces even the protagonists themselves, just take a stroll in the paddock and, perhaps, listen to Fernando Alonso:

 

"I don't want to say that it was better before... but, in short, let's trust these innovations".

 

Or Nico Rosberg:

 

“The good news is that at least we drivers will no longer be muppets. However, these are rules designed to make the results unpredictable, that is to say to reward those who are not necessarily the best".

 

Most inconsolable of all, however, are the television commentators. Their broadcasters bought the broadcasting rights from Ecclestone at a very high price and therefore they cannot be completely honest. They will have to explain with an enthusiastic tone, simple words and in television times (30 seconds) complicated if not senseless rules, such as the tyre one.

 

"How do you do it?"

 

one of them asks, turning over the FIA press release announcing the revolution in his hands. Luckily the weather predicts rain for Friday and Saturday when the drivers will try out the new qualifying format for the first time. Under the rain and with a wet track, confusion could turn into a real show. Or in a big mess. The equatorial downpour that hit Melbourne, making the two free practice sessions useless at least gave the drivers some time to try to assimilate the many new regulations of this season. Innovations were so complicated that the International Automobile Federation organized a special meeting between Charlie Whiting, the race director, and the paddock operators (journalists, commentators and more). The first innovation introduced, the one that is destined to change the scenarios the most, and with unpredictable results, is the one concerning radio communications, which will in fact be banned for everything concerning strategy. In synthesis, the engineer will no longer be able to suggest anything to the driver. He will only be able to communicate details of his situation in relation to the current stint, but nothing predictive, explains Charlie Whiting.

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"We will rigorously check every communication and a camera will frame all the billboards that will be displayed on the straight in front of the pits to prevent improper indications from being given".

 

Nico Rosberg replies enthusiastically:

 

"We're finally going to stop being muppets".

 

To which is added the comment by Fernando Alonso:

 

"We will no longer be robots in the hands of engineers".

 

This in theory. In practice, with the complication of the races desired by FOM and FIA in recent years, the variables relating to tyre wear (see the next point), the sophistication of aerodynamics, without some key data available to the drivers - who can therefore only rely on their instinct - they seem destined for a lot of bad impressions. Says Charlie Whiting:

 

"After all, by now we had reached a level of assistance for the drivers from the teams that was truly unacceptable".

 

If the squeeze on communications is therefore understandable, the decision to further complicate the tyre selection process is much less so. If you have a little patience here you will find the official regulation, published by Pirelli. Just take a look at the first few lines to understand how all this was decided by someone who doesn't care at all about a viewer's point of view. In essence, each car will have 13 sets of tires available. Two of these sets will be imposed by Pirelli which will choose the compound. While a third set, the softest, also imposed, will be used for Q3. On the other ten, the drivers have the freedom to choose between three compounds "appointed" by Pirelli. The top ten drivers will have to start the Grand Prix on used tires to establish the best time in Q2. A small revolution will instead concern the format of the qualifications. Always divided into three sessions, Q1, Q2, Q3. The principle of direct elimination is introduced. After the first six minutes of each session, the slowest is gradually eliminated at a rate of one every 90 seconds. Until the final duel. This rule is intended to prevent the drivers from staying in the pits to make a safe lap at the last second, as often happened up until last year, when many qualifying sessions resulted in whole hours of absolute boredom. This system, which many have assimilated to the Royal Rumble of Wrestling - everyone in the ring fighting until only one is left standing - should guarantee a little more show. In reality, the first team simulations have shown that, especially in Q1, it shouldn't change much compared to last year. 

 

On Saturday 19 March 2016, the third and final free practice session began with a collision between Romain Grosjean's Haas and Rio Haryanto's Manor while leaving the pits. However, both can take part in the session. Following this incident, the Indonesian driver will be penalized with the loss of three positions on the starting grid and two points on the Superlicence. The fastest is Lewis Hamilton, ahead of Nico Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel. All the drivers cover a large number of laps in order to make up for part of the time lost due to bad weather on Friday. A few hours later, the first driver eliminated with the shoot-out system, in qualifying, is the German Pascal Wehrlein, who has the last valid time on the stroke of the seventh minute of Q1. Soon after, his stablemate Rio Haryanto was also eliminated. The two Haas, making their debut in the World Championship, and the Russian Daniil Kvyat, on Red Bull Racing, are also excluded from this stage. The Russian was surprised by the cut while he was in the pits to change tires and try to improve his time. The fastest of the session is Lewis Hamilton, ahead of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. Hamilton is still the fastest in Q2 too. The first of those eliminated at this stage is Kevin Magnussen (Renault). 

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Then followed Jolyon Palmer in the other French car, the two McLarens, Valtteri Bottas and the two Force Indias. Also in Q3 Lewis Hamilton immediately sets the best time, followed in the standings by Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen and by his teammate, Nico Rosberg. However, no driver tries a second attempt, except for the two Mercedes drivers, in order to save the tyres. Hamilton lowers his time again, as does Rosberg, who climbs from fourth to second place. The World Champion thus took pole position, the seventh in a row for Mercedes. Hamilton on pole, Rosberg second, then the two Ferraris with Vettel ahead of Raikkonen. The same picture as last year, but abysmal gaps: Vettel is almost a second behind Lewis (0.838 to be precise), many, very many. Not only that: the Mercedes lapped almost two seconds faster than they did last year (0.3 seconds off the track record). In short, rocketships. All of this on the debut day of the new qualifying system, which on balance  did not satisfy. Eloquent statements by Bernie Ecclestone, who clarified how the system needs a further change, which must be agreed by all parties. Kimi Raikkonen is fourth, 1.196 seconds behind. However, the two Ferrari drivers gave up running five minutes from the end of qualifying, probably to conserve their tires for the race. Another bad thing because it has never been seen in the history of F1 for a driver to leave the car right at the climax, at the end of qualifying. Subsequently Sebastian Vettel went to the press conference with a less smiley face than usual. Seeing him enter is enough to understand that he is disappointed. He knew that Mercedes, especially in qualifying, was still ahead of Ferrari, but perhaps he didn't expect this much. He doesn't say it, but his expression suggests it.

 

"I'm not disappointed. On the contrary. We did a good lap. We knew that Mercedes was strong. Tomorrow, in the race, the gap should be smaller. We knew that in qualifying it was going to be difficult. However, I'm very happy with what we did. It's going to be a long year, and we have a car with a lot of potential".

 

Speeches identical to those heard in recent years, that Vettel would pay out of his own pocket not to have to do today as well: 

 

"In the race, you can always create something more than in qualifying. Tomorrow we'll try to push and achieve something. We hope to put more pressure on Mercedes than we did today. Maybe even using that little bit of uncertainty created by the new rules".

 

Speaking of the new rules, the qualifying format is being harshly criticized by both Hamilton and Rosberg. But Vettel is the toughest of all:

 

"In the end, the stopwatch went on and people didn't go around on the track. They're wrong. We said from the beginning that it was going to end like this. Now I don't want to hear anyone saying they are surprised. In Q1 and Q2 we had to manage the traffic , nobody was running in Q3. I'm especially sorry for the fans".

 

Formula 1 crashes into itself. And this time he gets seriously hurt, burning on the bonfire of its own ineptitude that little credibility it still had left. The new qualifying format, the wrestling-style knockout format, was an absolute failure. And the Albert Park crowd, shivering and disappointed, had nothing left to do but boo the drivers, technicians, anyone passing through the pit lane at that moment. It all happened at the end of Q3, i.e. at the decisive moment of the race weekend, the most anticipated of every Grand Prix for 60 years, i.e. the final duel between the three or four fastest drivers on the track. At that moment, instead of taking to the track and putting on a show, the drivers got out of their cars and secretly went to take a shower, leaving the track deserted and silent for long minutes, with the stopwatch running, in vain. They wanted to save a set of tires for the race. Mortified Maurizio Arrivabene will say:

 

"I heard my engineer say qualifying was over. I looked at the clock and saw that there were still seven minutes left, so I kept the headphones on my head out of respect for the audience".

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In the meantime, however, he saw, behind Arrivabene with headphones, Raikkonen and Vettel go away, with the latter enraged:

 

"This way qualifications are shit".

 

Indeed, the expression describes the scene perfectly. So much so that even the big boss, Bernie Ecclestone, decides to follow Vettel on the path of bad language to summarize the situation, and says in connection from London:

 

"Actually, they’re just bullshit".

 

If Vettel's anger is more than understandable, Ecclestone's is much less so. The German Ferrari driver has a car which, although second to Mercedes, would seem able to support him in his run-up to his rival: being blocked by a poorly written regulation must not have been pleasant. Ecclestone, on the other hand, has no reason to complain about the regulation. If only because he wrote it. Written and imposed.

 

"My goal was to make the races less predictable. Today, anyone can play all their possessions on the fact that Hamilton will win in the end".

 

Even so, Hamilton gave Ferrari 0.5 seconds in practice, and will start from pole. The difference is that he competed alone for half the session. Exhausted and humiliated, the pilots stage a riot. Everyone takes sides with Vettel.

 

"We are not in kindergarten, nor can we make fool of those who watch us from home or those who pay for the ticket. We experimented with something we knew wouldn't work. That's enough, it doesn't work".

 

And in the end they win. Meeting of the teams and in the space of a handful of days, in time for Bahrain, a new regulation: either you go back to the previous years or you create a hybrid one, with Q1 and Q2 with direct elimination and Q3 as in the past. Sunday 20 March 2016 the starting procedure of the Australian Grand Prix was suspended due to a technical problem on Daniil Kvyat's Red Bull, who was accompanied to the pits by the marshals, and could not take part in the race. A new formation lap is launched, so  the duration of the race is reduced by one lap. At the start, the two Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen started better than the Mercedes and moved into first and second positions: Nico Rosberg was third, ahead of Max Verstappen, Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton. In the first laps Massa gave up two positions, first to Hamilton and then to Ricciardo. The Brazilian stopped on lap eleven to put on the soft tyres. During lap 12 Nico Rosberg made a stop, and during lap 13 Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo also put on a set of new tyres. The German returns to the track ahead of the Mercedes driver. During lap 16 the other two Ferrari and Mercedes drivers, Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton, also made their stops. Sebastian Vettel therefore preceded Nico Rosberg, followed by Kimi Räikkönen, Daniel Ricciardo, Lewis Hamilton and the two Toro Rossos of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr.. During lap 18, Fernando Alonso impacted the left rear tire of Esteban Gutiérrez's Haas. The Spaniard's car crashed into the wall then reared up while going out onto the escape route, overturning several times and ending the race against another barrier; Alonso left the car unharmed. The race direction first sent the Safety car onto the track, then decided to interrupt the race with the display of the red flag, to allow the track to be cleared of debris. The cars restarted shortly after, with Hamilton down to seventh, behind the two STRs. On lap 22 Kimi Räikkönen retired with a turbo failure, with flames escaping from the airscope. During lap 31 Carlos Sainz Jr. made a pit stop, and during lap 32 Max Verstappen also made a pit stop. However, there was a problem with the mechanics fixing a wheel. During lap 34 Sebastian Vettel put on Soft tires and dropped to fourth position, behind Nico Rosberg, Daniel Ricciardo and Lewis Hamilton. During lap 41 the Briton overtook the Australian driver and took second place. The Australian made another stop one lap later, climbing to fifth position, behind Felipe Massa. 

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The Brazilian is overtaken by Daniel Ricciardo after four laps. In the final laps Sebastian Vettel approached Lewis Hamilton, tried to pass him, but on the penultimate lap he missed the braking point in the penultimate corner, thus giving the green light to the Mercedes driver. Nico Rosberg wins the Australian Grand Prix and takes the fourth consecutive victory (seventh for Mercedes), ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. Romain Grosjean finishes sixth, thus obtaining the first championship points for Haas, at its debut in the F1 World Championship. It is the first rookie team to score points in its first race since the 2009 Australian Grand Prix, when Brawn GP scored one double. The F1 World Championship begins with one of the most beautiful races ever, full of twists and turns and - above all - a fierce Ferrari-Mercedes fight. In the end, the result doesn't do justice to the news: one-two for Mercedes, victory for Rosberg, followed by Hamilton and Vettel only third. It seems like last year’s usual race but no. The race was in fact a duel between the Ferraris and the Mercedes from start to finish. Beginning in the truest sense of the word because the two Ferraris immediately took the lead, making the fans dream. In fact, Hamilton got off to a terrible start, sinking into the group where he was unable to pass a Toro Rosso. At that point Rosberg was third but was unable to keep up with the pace of the two Ferraris. Maranello fans began to dream. Then Alonso's terrible accident - without consequences - stopped the race. Red flag. The Mercedes changed their strategy, choosing the one with one stop less and in the end they scored a one-two. Nico starts the World Championship in the best possible way:

 

"It was a great weekend. The team did an incredible job, beating this Ferrari was great and I'm super excited. Did I win duel with Hamilton? It's still very early to tell, it's only the first race, we got off to a good start, we have to keep Ferrari behind us. See you in Bahrain. It's nice to start the season like this. The start was difficult, the strategy was beastly to beat these red cars, with all due respect. I was on the dirty side at the start, but Vettel did very well. I tried to brake late too, but I was at the limit".

 

And Lewis Hamilton adds:

 

"It was a great race, we had to recover, it was very complicated. I'm happy that no one was hurt in the accident between Alonso and Gutierrez. I had to deal with a lot of traffic and with rivals who had fresher tires than mine. We brought home the maximum result, but the road will be long"

 

And to think that Ferrari's more aggressive strategy could have still given great satisfaction in the end: Vettel arrived with the least worn tires in the closing laps. But at that point he was only third, at most he could have beaten Hamilton and stolen second place from him, nothing more. Operation then concluded due to an error by the German in braking. It is therefore a third place that leaves a bad taste in the mouth for how the race started but which in the end is welcomed by Ferrari as the sign of a car that will be the protagonist.

 

"Glass half full? I saw it all full".

 

Says team principal Maurizio Arrivabene.

 

"We got off to a good start, we had a 12-second lead, do your math, too bad. We tried a more aggressive strategy, in hindsight we could have changed, but in short, we're here and this is the most important thing".

 

Sebastian Vettel fails to be satisfied with third place. With a great start, the German had leapt into the lead before the accident to Alonso disrupted the plans with the race stopped and then resumed:

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"I tried, the start was perfect, everything was going as I wanted, but then with the red flag everything went wrong. We used a more aggressive strategy and it didn't work, they (Mercedes, ed) used the mediums to go till the end".

 

Kimi Raikkonen's race had also started very well, the spurt at the start had pushed the Finn into second position. After the stop due to Fernando Alonso's accident, he retired.

 

"I don't think it was an engine problem. There must have been another cause, we'll sort it out with the team. An unfortunate episode. We knew we wouldn't be too far away, we are fast in the race, we have the speed but we also need to finish the race. There is still work to do. We have to put things in the right place. Important step? We have done what we had to. The first part of the race is encouraging, but we still have to work".

 

Fourth position for the home idol, Daniel Ricciardo, who preceded the Williams of Felipe Massa and the Haas of Romain Grosjean. The Force India of Hulkenberg was seventh ahead of the other Williams of Bottas and the Toro Rosso of Sainz Junior. The other Toro Rosso of Verstappen closes the top ten, which preceded the Renault of Palmer. But the 2016 Australian Grand Prix will go down in history for Alonso’s terrible accident, who emerged unscathed from a car reduced to pulp: on lap 18, Fernando ramed the rear left tire of Gutierrez's Haas with the front right tyre (apparently due to a sudden slowdown, Gutierrez at that moment had the electronic steering wheel all dark) and his McLaren took off. In the flight he flips over and then - all at 200 km / h - crashes into the barriers and shatters. The Spanish driver leaves his completely destroyed car unharmed. Creepy images that demonstrate how the F1 carbon safety cell manages to do its job. Another twist then for Raikkonen's arrival in the pits: long flames appear from the engine air intake, just above the pilot's head, extinguished on the fly by a mechanic. Too bad, Kimi was having a really good race. In any case, flames or not, the Ferrari flies. And at the Australian Grand Prix they proved that they have a much faster car in the race than in practice. This year the World Championship promises to be much more closely fought. And not just in the leading positions: with the incredible sixth place, Haas immediately proved to be a competitive team. Same thing for the Scuderia Toro Rossos, the debuting Renault and the legendary Red Bull in search of the tunnel exit. In short, the battle is open.

 

"I was at the pitwall. Vettel was first, Raikkonen second, I glanced at the track engineer's computer and saw the simulations on the outcome of the race. They said we would finish in first and third place. Bad that it was first and fourth. Then there was Alonso's accident, and everything changed".

 

Maurizio Arrivabene shakes his head. The Melbourne race ended an hour ago with the usual one-two Mercedes. And he still doesn't get over it. After all, Ferrari hadn't been at these levels since 2010.

 

"We were leading the Grand Prix for 38 laps, I can't think about it".

 

Let's be clear, the Mercedes that wins in Melbourne, the opening race of the 2016 season, is still stronger than Ferrari. And he knows this too. But this time the gap is minimal. So much so that Vettel's Ferrari seriously risked winning. And if it didn't happen it was only due to the combination of an event that hadn't occurred since 2009 (a very serious accident, that of Alonso, with the interruption of the race) and two small mistakes by the Maranello team: an uncertainty while changing tires, costing a couple of seconds, and a wrong reading of the strategy.

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"And so, in the end, we're still here to applaud the competition. And to eat our hands".

 

But, however paradoxical it may seem, this is the good news of the day. There is something to complain about. Because after a winter spent fearing the Anglo-German power of Mercedes, the team from Maranello has discovered that they can keep up with the competition. Not so much in qualifying, where the difference is still too much, as in the race where the pace of Vettel and Raikkonen proved to be absolutely competitive. The standard phrase that accompanied the performance of Mercedes is no longer valid today: another car has landed on the planet of Mercedes, and it is red. Now all that remains is to try and fill the gap that remains. First it’s necessary to improve in qualifying. At the same time, however, work on tyre wear is also needed. Because that is what Mercedes has built the difference on. Having gotten into trouble due to an unfortunate start, Mercedes easily recovered by putting Medium tyres and doing forty laps at a frantic pace that mortified any ambitions of the competition. It was already clear from the tests in Barcelona that the excellent wear of the harder tires was going to be Mercedes' extra weapon. But that it could be so lethal was beyond suspicion. A Little embarrassed, Toto Wolff commented at the end of the race:

 

"We didn't even imagine something like this".

 

Nobody believes him; indeed, there is the suspicion that the Anglo-German cars have not yet expressed their full potential. Which may also be true but that doesn't erase the data of the day: given the difficult start of the two Mercedes drivers and without the interruption due to Alonso's accident, Ferrari would have won. In the evening, before leaving Albert Park, a journalist approaches the team principal and asks him the question everyone has been waiting for since December, when Marchionne said he had given Arrivabene everything he needed to win already in Australia.

 

"And what did the president say?"

 

Arrivabene stops:

 

"If I were him I would be very angry, no president likes to lose".

 

And he makes a bad face. But he can be seen smiling inside.

 

"What did I feel? I do not know. I only saw sky and earth, then sky and earth again and I thought of my mom. But what I felt, exactly, I don't know".

 

Fernando Alonso is still shaking. On lap 18 his McLaren got on one of the wheels of Gutierrez's Haas. And the world suddenly turned upside down. It was undoubtedly one of the worst accidents ever seen in Formula 1. Something similar to the one that cost Gilles Villeneuve his life. Guenther Steiner, team principal of Haas says:

 

"I saw Gutierrez stopped on the side of the track and I was trying to understand how he could have spun by himself. Then my engineer pointed me to a spot in the background. It looked like a boulder. But what was a boulder doing at the end of the escape route?"

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It was the unrecognizable, smoking wreck of the McLaren. For a few seconds, as the liturgy of cases like this dictates, the entire paddock gasped, and time stopped. Inside that lump of carbon at the foot of the barrier, no movement, no form of life could be distinguished. Then, like a contortionist from his box, Alonso crawled out of the wreckage. Hunched over and visibly shaken. Limping. Gutierrez, who had just jumped out of his car, started running towards his colleague to lend a hand. But luckily there was no need. Alonso was fine. So much so that when he arrived at the motorhome, after the medical tests, he recounted those moments in detail.

 

"I can't tell if it was anyone's fault. I'm just sorry that happened".

 

He was trying to pass Gutierrez but the cars touched, the McLaren making an early bounce onto the track. Alonso lost control of the car which crashed the first time into the wall, then began to skid sideways and when it went off the road, it took off, spinning around twice before crashing, at 181 km/h, against another wall.

 

"In those moments you don't even know where you are. You're in the air and all you see are the sky and the earth alternating and you can hardly tell them apart. Then I stopped and saw a very small space to get out of the car. I jumped out running because I know that those moments are terrible for those who stay at home and try to see if those on board are well or not. My mom was watching me on TV and I didn't want her to worry about me".

 

Only once out of the cockpit, looking at the remains of his car, did he realize the scale of his accident.

 

"I was very far from the track. And I didn't expect it. I had a nice flight, I told myself. And it was curious because then I realized that I had experienced everything that had happened in slow motion, I remember that I wanted the car to stop and instead it kept going round and round and yes, I admit it, I was scared".

 

Only ten years ago, such an accident would have cost him his life.

 

"But I'm fine. My knees hurt, because, in short, I bumped everywhere inside the cockpit. But I'm fine, or so it seems to me. Maybe tomorrow morning when I wake up I'll be able to tell you more precisely".

 

Seeing the terrible images of Alonso's accident, and the carcass of his McLaren, the whole world wondered: how did he get out of it without a scratch?

 

"All safety devices worked perfectly. And what's more, he was lucky".

 

Getting out of the car or, better, what was left of it, Fernando Alonso thanked the FIA:

 

"If I'm alive I have to say thanks to them".

 

The engineer Laurent Mékiès, safety director, i.e. the man in charge of supervising the safety of the single-seaters, thanks in turn:

 

"Fernando must also compliment McLaren, they are the ones who built the car and they did it very well".

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Thanks aside, how many and which devices saved Alonso's life?

 

"The machine itself is a safety device. The chassis is designed to absorb tremendous shocks and every year we at the FIA raise the bar by setting ever higher parameters".

 

How exactly do you achieve such a level of security?

 

"The car has four crash boxes: front, rear, right and left. They are specific areas of the frame that serve to absorb shocks. Then there is what we call a roll hoop. It is the device that prevents the driver from being crushed in the event of a rollover".

 

The one who saved Alonso's life?

 

"Exactly, together with the right side crash box. In fact, if you look at the images it was completely destroyed: a sign that it worked. Every year we subject these parts to increasingly tougher tests. The roll hoop to say, to be approved, this year had to withstand a static load of about ten tons".

 

Other devices?

 

"The others are almost all inside the cockpit. Perhaps the most relevant is the padding, that semicircular piece that the pilots take off when they get off the car. Our studies show that it is the most delicate point of the car, the one against which the driver's helmet comes into contact during accidents. Even today it played a key role".

 

What material is it?

 

"Some sort of sponge. The stiffness of which we have calibrated thanks to the data provided by the accelerometers that we have miniaturized to be able to introduce them into the ears of the pilots together with the radio earphones".

 

It looks very sophisticated.

 

"It is. Security is an ever-evolving concept and ever more precise data is needed to face the challenges it presents. For fifteen years, machines have had a black box (accident data recorder) on board which has allowed us to have decisive information around which we have built new machines. From this year we have also introduced a high speed accident camera, a video camera which, by shooting 400 frames per second(instead of the traditional 24), will allow us to study the dynamics of accidents like never before. Starting with Alonso’s, which will become a school case".

 

Night has already fallen in the Mercedes motorhome. The Champagne left over from the celebrations for the first victory in the World Championship, which to be honest is very little, winks languidly from above a table, while diligent logistics workers disassemble like a Lego castle what was the monster's lair. Just outside, a red hat flails in the dark. Below, is Niki Lauda. He is the chairman of Mercedes, but he is also one of Formula 1's iconic men, as well as a close friend and adviser to Bernie Ecclestone.

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"I'm very worried".

 

And if it weren't for the fact that it’s better to never believe someone like him, you still want to listen to him. And why is he worried?

 

"Because today we risked losing, didn't you see it?"

 

It has been seen that in fact the gap between Mercedes and Ferrari appears to be small.

 

"But what are you saying? What gap are you talking about? Ferrari risked winning the race, all right".

 

In the paddock it is said that Mercedes' game is to make Ferrari appear as close as possible. It's still a show.

 

"Nonsense. The truth is that there was no gap between the two cars. And indeed, that red flag saved our lives".

 

Do you think that without the interruption due to Alonso's accident you would have lost the race?

 

"Exactly, there would have been no way to catchVettel ".

 

To be fair, youalso contributed with that start.

 

"We need to get our act together on that. Ferrari made a perfect start. And if we don't learn to improve in that aspect, we risk a lot".

 

Rosberg did not give Hamilton any discount on that occasion. Enzo Ferrari would have something to say.

 

"As we said the day before, we let them fight. And Rosberg fought. Thank God they didn't throw eachother out at the first corner. I tell you: we haven't seen anything that hasn't already happened in the past years. The problem is that now there is Vettel in the middle".

 

Is it pretactic?

 

"Not at all. I will say more about the gap between us and them. After the start, Mercedes also lost a bit of a lead to Ferrari. And this is, in my opinion, what should make us think more today. We have to study and understand what went wrong".

 

Did you like the race?

 

"And who didn't like it. It was fought from the first to the last lap. And this is precisely because Ferrari has bridged the gap that separated them from us. It was an exciting Grand Prix, the likes of which I haven't seen for at least three years".

 

Really?

 

"I think it was the best Grand Prix of this era. Races like this restore the sense of sport and bring the public closer".

 

By the way, you made quite a mess with the new qualifying format.

 

"It was the biggest mistake we've made in recent years. Thank God we all decided together and without any hesitation to immediately apologize to the people who follow us and to reset everything from the next race".

 

Is it true that apologizing to people was youridea?

 

"Yes. I said, guys, we mistreated these people, who are our audience. Now let's go outside, admit the mistake and apologize".


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