The Ferrari Owners’ Club
of Great Britain

GRAND PRIX : Australia : Can It Get Worse?

27-03-2015

By Winston D’Arcy

Towards the end of the winter closed season the excitement always builds. We’ve watched all the comings and goings, the shuffles around in the various teams, the latest crop of pay-drivers, and the ever-optimistic statements that ‘The Team’ would ‘definitely’ move up the grid in the new season. It’s always bothered me that if every team moves forward, who’s going to be left at the back?

The pre-season testing brought some sort of clarity. The Mercs had if anything got better, the Ferraris were possibly also better, but the Red Bulls, indeed anyone with a Renault engine, were going nowhere. How could an engine manufacturer makes his engine worse over the winter? That takes some doing. The Merc engines were clearly the class of the field but the poor McLarens with their new Honda engines were so far behind that it made you wonder where all their combined skill had gone.

Also getting worse over the winter were the finances of the F1 industry. Caterham and Marussia were toast and were threatening to be joined by the next weakest, Lotus, Sauber and Force India, which would have left a disastrously small grid for what is supposed to be a world-class sport and entertainment. Even last year, after the introduction of the hugely expensive and complex V6 engines with all their so-called energy recovery systems, 22 cars managed to make it to the grid but this time round we were pondering whether we might have as few as 13 there.

In the end, with an advance payment from Bernie, the Lotus, Sauber and Force India teams managed to make the trip to Melbourne, but in various stages of disarray which made the F1 world look just silly. Sauber managed to get themselves into a precarious legal tangle after hiring three pay-drivers for two cars and at one stage it looked as if their assets could be seized by the Australian courts. Guido van der Garde had apparently already paid £8m for his 2015 seat but then got gazumped by Felipe Nasr who paid an even greater amount. Sauber neglected to return his money to vd Garde and he took them successfully to court.

Meanwhile the resurrected Manor team turned up in the paddock with two cars, two drivers and 40 team members but no software to fire up their Ferrari engines. How could that be allowed to happen? Fair enough, the software had been wiped from all the engine management systems, but why force them to make the expensive trip to Australia? Mystery surrounds this team in that why would anyone bother to invest money to keep them going unless it’s just to collect the $30m payment due to Marussia for last year…

Before the depleted grid could form up there was more bad news – Valtteri Bottas could not start with a back injury, and the McLaren-Honda of Alonso substitute Kevin Magnussen blew its engine on the way to the grid, and the Red Bull of Daniil Kvyat also ground to a halt. There were just 15 cars on the grid, a sorry show.

The Ferrari news was somewhat better. The new F1 car was clearly an improvement over last-year’s disaster and new boy Vettel managed to qualify it in fourth with team mate Raikkonen just behind. But they were still over 1.5 secs behind pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton in the Merc . Surprisingly Rosberg was over half a second behind Hamilton and looked no threat, with Massa’s Williams in third but well over a second behind the dominant Mercs.

The race was one of the dullest I have ever watched. The two Lotus’ retired straight away, Maldonado with a lap 1 accident (not his fault, though) and team mate Grosjean with an engine failure during the ensuing safety car phase. We were now down to 13 runners

At the front the Mercs disappeared into the distance, with Hamilton maintaining a few seconds gap over Rosberg which he held to the end. Massa was in third but always had Vettel close behind and at the only pit-stops for the two of them the Ferrari managed to leap-frog the Williams and get a well-deserved place on the podium. Raikkonen again had the bad luck, a cross-threaded wheel nut from an earlier stop causing a problem at the next one, and he stopped by the side of the track shortly after leaving the pits.

There were just 11 runners at the end and Button nearly managed to get a point in the reluctant McLaren. It seemed about 200 horsepower down on the rest after the Honda engineers turned the wick down to try to get it to finish, which it did but some two laps behind the ones they have ambitions of unseating from their dominance – the Mercs.

After the race more silliness ensued. The Red Bull squad are clearly past being fed up with their Renault engine supplier and tried a two-pronged attack; firstly, threatening to withdraw from F1 altogether and then floating the idea that engines should be pegged back so they are all level. Presumably Christian Horner meant that they should all be as bad as the Renault engine. The repost to this from the others was predictable: get your own engine sorted and stop whining! No one remembered Red Bull offering to go slower during their dominant years.

Quite what lies in front of us in this season I am not sure. Hamilton will probably rack up another championship, but behind him and Rosberg there might be a good contest between the Ferraris and the Williams’. Red Bull are in a complete pickle – their engine supplier has managed to make basically the same engine worse than last year, and they are not about to be supplied with a Merc or Ferrari engine instead. Is the posturing vis-a-viz Renault a lead-up to an acrimonious divorce? Will RB develop its own engine? Is that why Mario Illien has been engaged as an engine consultant? Will Ilmor make the new RB engine?

But more important right now is the question of whether F1 can straighten its financial structure to ensure that we have a least 20 cars left on the grid by the end of the season.