In The Driver's Seat

Formula One: Amid crash drama, Ferrari show they can run Mercedes close

McLaren driver Fernando Alonso crashing into the wall after colliding with Haas' Esteban Gutierrez during the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. While the incident changed the entire complexion of the race, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel proved that he
McLaren driver Fernando Alonso crashing into the wall after colliding with Haas' Esteban Gutierrez during the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. While the incident changed the entire complexion of the race, Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel proved that he can give the Mercedes pair of reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg a run for their money.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Australian GP was the fillip that Formula One desperately needed. A gripping race had it all - Ferrari leading after Mercedes made poor starts, a hugely dramatic accident involving Fernando Alonso and Esteban Gutierrez, intense midfield fighting and, eventually but only after individual struggles, the expected 1-2 for Mercedes' Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.

After all the pre-race speculation whether Ferrari have matched Mercedes' pace, it provided some hard data for analysis.

Hamilton said he couldn't tell because he was never near enough them on track to form a conclusion. But he did point out that up until Vettel's final pit stop on the 35th lap, Rosberg had no problem staying with him despite running medium-compound Pirelli tyres while the Ferrari was on the fastest supersoft rubber.

The difference in tyre strategies clouded the issue and makes definitive comparisons difficult, but certainly Ferrari were confident prior to the race stoppage following the incident that they could win.

Where it went wrong was when they stuck with the supersoft tyres at the restart and thus committed themselves to another pit stop, whereas Mercedes put both their cars on the mediums so that they could run non-stop to the chequered flag.

Where it went wrong was when Ferrari stuck with the supersoft tyres at the restart and thus committed themselves to another pit stop, whereas Mercedes put both their cars on the mediums so that they could run non-stop to the chequered flag.

Team boss Maurizio Arrivabene said they were comfortable with their strategy in the early stages after Vettel and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen had grabbed the lead from the slow-starting Mercedes pair, but conceded that there were no guarantees they would have been able to stay ahead of the two Mercedes cars had all three been running the medium tyres.

Effectively, both sides have made their pleas in this opening race, but just as each expected, the jury will remain out for the first few races.

In that uncertainty, however, lies the hope that, despite Mercedes' advantage in qualifying in Albert Park, there will as Hamilton suggests be times when the fight between them is very close this year, and that Vettel will be proved right in his feeling that his Ferrari is the right car to allow the Scuderia to pressure Mercedes a lot.

The bad news is that F1 yet again sent out mixed messages to its global fan base.

First there was the farce of the new qualifying format, which was universally panned.

The team principals have agreed to revert to the old system, which worked well, after a meeting on Sunday morning, but it still needs to be ratified by the powers that be in time for Bahrain.

If they decide against that, the only conclusion is that ego trumps common sense, which would be a bad thing for a sport which keeps trying to convince the world that it listens to its fans.

Then there was the U-turn on the ban on radio communications. That was unexpected and came on Sunday an hour before the start, confusing teams and fans alike since the original ban was intended to spice up the racing by making the drivers more self-reliant.

The teams had argued that the radio traffic was entertaining for fans, and the FIA decided to allow engineers more leeway to discuss strategy in the race rather than having to watch the driver trying to do it all himself.

Thus Hamilton in particular was able to talk through a strategy change after his poor start, but it wasn't all good news for Mercedes, who still weren't allowed to warn Rosberg of problems which could have denied him his 15th victory.

After the race, team boss Toto Wolff disclosed that an overheating right-front brake caliper and a problem with the left-rear tyre losing temperature had them worried that he might not finish.

So have the FIA got the radio transmission thing right yet?

It seems not. Where fans would still rather see the drivers having to work things out for themselves - though Vettel had a point when he said they are here to race as hard as possible, not to play some memory games - it seems crass that he had to wait to be told by a journalist afterwards what had happened to his own team-mate.

It would surely have been more entertaining for fans had they known of the struggles Rosberg was having in the cockpit, rather than assuming he was just cruising to the win.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Amid drama, Ferrari show they can run Merc close'. Print Edition | Subscribe