Fuel-flow farce mars bright start to new F1 era

Formula One Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Formula One took its successful first steps into its brave new era in the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, only to trip and stumble straight onto its face.

The new "green" formula was inaugurated with Nico Rosberg taking a dominant victory for pre- event favourite Mercedes, ahead of a close fight for second between local hero Daniel Ricciardo's surprisingly competitive and reliable Red Bull and upstart rookie Kevin Magnussen's revitalised McLaren.

But what should have been a triumphal event turned into controversial farce.

Ricciardo had celebrated becoming the first Australian to start from the front row and then finish on the podium of his home race, winning the hearts of the 100,500 compatriots who had flocked into the Albert Park circuit. Five and a half hours later, he was excluded from the race as the FIA's race stewards ruled that his car had exceeded the mandated 100kg per hour fuel flow. That meant that his turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 hybrid Renault engine could have been developing more power than it should have, thereby conferring upon him an advantage that enabled him to keep ahead of Magnussen.

But for that controversy, the new formula would largely have been judged a major success.

Many had expected a high rate of attrition. There wasn't a single team that had come through winter testing without technical headaches, even Mercedes who had generally set the pace. And Lewis Hamilton's car had rolled to a halt within 12 minutes of the start of Friday practice, though it transpired that a sensor had taken exception to an oil pressure reading and shut the whole car down as a precaution.

And, true, the Briton was an early race casualty when his car went on to five cylinders, and so was four-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel, who had an extremely troubled weekend in his Renault-powered Red Bull. He struggled for power all through qualifying and lost turbo boost on the grid formation lap, then retired after five laps when, as team boss Christian Horner related, "his engine dropped a cylinder", too.

Yet 15 of the 22 starters made the chequered flag, and of the other retirements, only the two Lotuses of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado and Marcus Ericsson's Caterham broke down because of problems with their energy harvesting systems and oil pressure warnings respectively.

Had it been an aircraft manufacturer or a road-car company creating a new product, they would have required years of design and development and countless miles of testing. Instead, the F1 teams started work on the new cars no more than two years ago and ran the engines on their dynamometers only a year ago before testing the finished products from January onwards. Mercedes did the most running. As a team they managed a hair under 5,000km and as an engine manufacturer, 18,000 across their four teams. By any standard, that's limited.

And yet, had you been on Mars for the winter and then watched the race in Melbourne, you could have been forgiven for thinking that nothing significant had changed. That perfectly showcased the engineering excellence and sheer technical ingenuity of the race teams.

The racing was good, too, with plenty of action in the early stages among the upper midfield runners. Valtteri Bottas, notably, pulled off several spectacular overtakes after brushing a wall on the 10th lap in his Martini Williams and having to stop for a new set of wheels and tyres. And though Rosberg disappeared and there were none of the anticipated late-burst attacks, Ricciardo, Magnussen and Button were within five seconds of one another, while behind Fernando Alonso, Bottas, Nico Huelkenberg, Kimi Raikkonen, Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniil Kvyat were covered by 16.

The race also confirmed that rookies Magnussen and Kvyat not only deserve their places in the Big League, but that each will also mature into a top contender in the years to come. The former's confident debut was reminiscent of Hamilton's with McLaren seven years ago, and made him the first Dane ever to finish on an F1 podium.

If there was a widespread and justified criticism, it was that the new engines sound flatulent, and have lost the familiar scream of their V8 predecessors. That's hardly surprising, given that they are turbocharged and only rev to 10,500 rpm instead of 18,000, but the critics had a point. F1 should be about noise, about aural assault. But it's worth remembering that, when they were introduced in 2006, the V8s were decried because they lacked the distinctive tenor of the supplanted three-litre V10.

In a few weeks, the Ricciardo matter will have been forgotten and people will have got more used to the new sound. But in the meantime the damage to F1's image in Australia - and perhaps other parts of the globe - is regrettable, especially as it drew attention away from the myriad positive aspects.

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