Australian GP conclusions: Show over sport and another Brazil-like Mercedes illusion?

Oliver Harden Australian Grand Prix conclusions Australian Grand Prix conclusions

Max Verstappen continued Red Bull’s perfect start to the 2023 Formula 1 season by winning the Australian Grand Prix, overcoming the uncertainty of a controversial late red flag to extend his lead in the World Championship.

Lewis Hamilton took his first podium of the year on a weekend that potentially raises more questions than answers for Mercedes, with Fernando Alonso claiming his third consecutive third-place finish for Aston Martin.

Here are our conclusions from Melbourne…

Welcome to the era of Drive to Survive red flags

Around five years ago, former Renault technical director Pat Symonds – in a column for what is now GP Racing magazine – revealed the details of a psychological study into the behaviour of sports fans.

It strongly suggested, he wrote with much excitement, that the public tend to have much fonder memories of an otherwise dull event when there is an exciting end.

It may have seemed a statement of the obvious, but served to underline the importance to sports bodies across the world of finishing with a flourish. Even the most uninteresting of contests can still be salvaged, their place in history totally transformed, by late drama.

Why is this significant?

Because since 2017 Symonds has worked as Formula 1’s chief technical officer, leading the work on the raceable new cars for 2022 as well as finding new and innovative methods to bring F1 to the forefront of the global sporting landscape.

Think moments like Abu Dhabi 2021, and the general rise in (late-race) red flag stoppages in recent seasons, happen by accident?

Think again.

F1’s move to post-red-flag standing restarts was announced a month after Symonds’ arrival and if it was a rule change made with good intentions over recent years it has been exploited to concoct grandstand finishes.

Almost inconceivably, the sport missed its last opportunity for a Drive to Survive red flag when Daniel Ricciardo’s McLaren stopped within sight of the chequered flag at Monza last September, and the outcry by media and fans on that occasion – all are complicit – ensured the next would not be wasted.

Which brings us to the Australia 2023, a race ultimately defined by two highly suspect FIA stewards’ calls.

Such is the lack of faith in F1 officials since that night in Abu Dhabi that it has become difficult to take decisions at face value without speculating about some ulterior motive.

Was the red flag for Alex Albon’s crash really to clear gravel from the track, or to push the race a little further back as the sun started to rise over Europe?

Was the debris from Kevin Magnussen’s meeting with the concrete barrier at Turn 2 nothing a Safety Car could not handle? No, but coming within six laps of the finish it once again gave F1 a chance to choose the path of show over sport.

Suddenly, having already won the Australian Grand Prix, Verstappen had to go out and win it again.

Hamilton and Alonso now had to jump over this final, unexpected, unnecessary hurdle to make sure of their places on the podium.

It is fundamentally unfair to those who have worked hard to place themselves in promising positions, almost making the previous 50 laps a test of endurance to get to this judgement point.

And the worst thing about these manufactured dashes to the finish? Only those at the front approach it with a sense of jeopardy and risk. The rest are blinded by opportunity.

It is a situation specifically designed to encourage recklessness and ill-considered, death-or-glory decision making, with the kind of breathless and inelegant racing the powers that be crave from the sprint format.

And so rather than Monday morning’s headlines focused on another frightfully routine victory for Verstappen and Red Bull, we instead read of a chaotic finish in Melbourne; of Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly resuming their rivalry at Alpine; of Alonso spun from and then reinstated to third; of a five-second penalty for Carlos Sainz, the collision annulled in Aston Martin’s world but not so in Ferrari’s.

This was a mess not so much of Formula 1’s making as of its cunningly constructed planning – and we, in our hunger for just a little entertainment, all went along for the ride.

Is F1’s boom built to survive another era of one-driver domination?

Haven’t you heard? Formula 1 is experiencing a popularity boom these days.

New additions to the calendar are instant hits, old favourites have been revitalised by record attendances and the sport has conquered America to such an extent that no fewer than three races will be held across the United States this year.

They say it’s all to do with Drive to Survive and the work on improving F1’s social media penetration. All very worthy – but what about the core product?

There is no question that most of the wider world’s awakening to Formula 1 occurred two years ago during the season-long struggle between Verstappen and Hamilton, the 2021 campaign arguably the most dramatic year in its seven-decade history.

It may have ended controversially, but 2021 spread the word far and wide that no sport is as gladiatorial or as compelling as F1 at its best.

The rest? The Netflix cameras and the Instagram likes? All just window dressing.

Yet that year was very much the exception in a sport in which the baton of dominance has passed from team to team and driver to driver throughout the modern era, and with Verstappen blasting past Hamilton with ease for the second time in as many races in Australia, those glorious days of 2021 – of Lewis and Max going wheel to wheel almost every weekend – are long gone.

The problem with F1? As exciting as it might be at its best, at its worst, when that rivalry and competition is stripped away, it is a sport that lies dormant.

Even the most committed of ‘legacy’ fans can be left cold, so what chance for the average Drive to Survive convert?

The thaw continued in Melbourne as Verstappen’s 17th victory in the last 25 races stretching back to the start of last season cemented his status as the overwhelming favourite for a third consecutive title in 2023 but has not diminished a growing feeling that he and Red Bull have become too good for the common good.

Already there is talk that rule tweaks could be implemented to slow Red Bull, much in the same way the changes to the floor of the cars for 2021 were said – but never confirmed – to have been specifically targeted at unbalancing Hamilton’s dominant Mercedes.

Wouldn’t that compromise F1’s integrity, you ask?

A wise man once said that sport is the only industry in the world that can serve up crap one day and get people to pay for the same thing a week later.

If Verstappen and Red Bull cannot be stopped soon, F1 might put that particular assertion to the test in 2023.

Another Brazil 2022-like illusion? Or did Mercedes really overreact to Bahrain?

In many ways Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team boss, is a walking contradiction.

He is a highly emotional man with one of the most dispassionate and scientific leadership styles in sport, with an attitude to failure more in tune with the aviation industry than a Formula 1 racing team.

When we lose, he often says, we are at our most dangerous. Every failure is a valuable learning opportunity. We at Mercedes choose to confront the problem, not the person.

He prides himself on the no-blame culture he has instilled at Mercedes – those within the team spell the word with a capital ‘T’ – but no-blame cultures are easy to maintain when there are only bumps in the road, when inconvenient strategy calls are the only blemishes on a backdrop of overarching dominance.

It was always going to be during a prolonged period of underperformance when the system was truly tested.

That is why Wolff’s outbursts over the Bahrain GP weekend, as Mercedes’ new reality hit home, was so alarming.

As he confessed the team had pursued the wrong development path for 2023 after the first qualifying session of a nine-month season, it felt that not only the judgement of the technical leadership, but the very fabric of the team itself, was under threat.

Coming just 24 hours after Mike Elliott and Andrew Shovlin had told the media of their optimism about starting 2023 with a stable platform than last season, Wolff’s observations on the team’s performance – and his call for “radical” changes to the W14 car – were at best unhelpful and at worst insulting.

More than that, though, his reaction utterly reeked of panic. recommends

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Listen to Wolff’s former right-hand man James Vowles in his new role as Williams team principal – and his insistence that any decision under his stewardship will be made with the team’s long-term interests in mind with no quick-fix solutions or short-term measures – and it is tempting to imagine those words nailed to the wall within the four walls of Mercedes’ factory.

Wolff’s comments – combined with those of Hamilton, who argued the technical team had ignored his guidance over the 2023 design – seemed totally at odds with the culture he had created.

Four weeks later, they now also look slightly misguided.

After George Russell was able to stay with Alonso’s Aston Martin following the Safety Car in Jeddah, close enough to initially inherit a podium when Alonso was penalised by five seconds, Mercedes stepped forth as Verstappen’s greatest threat in Australia, Russell two tenths off pole before Hamilton saw off Alonso for P2 in the race.

Despite the team already deviating from their original 2023 plan at Wolff’s instruction, perhaps this breakthrough performance was proof that refinement, rather than total reform, is the best course of action for Mercedes.

Or, alternatively, could this merely be another illusion like Russell’s victory in Brazil last season, when Red Bull’s failure to find a workable setup in the limited practice running on a sprint weekend flattered Mercedes and convinced them to persevere with the zero-pod concept?

Did the cooler conditions of Melbourne, and the struggles to get the tyres working, favour the high-downforce Mercedes in qualifying, with the W14’s generally improved performance on a Sunday carrying them through the race?

This may prove the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for Mercedes, or it could only add to the confusion.

The trick for Toto? Keep it rational, treat both imposters just the same and stay true to your principles.

Ferrari: When your luck’s out…

Charles Leclerc admitted towards the end of last season that he knew his hopes for the 2022 title were done when Verstappen won from 14th on the grid at Spa.

This year the towel has entered the ring in almost record time, Leclerc describing 2023 as “the worst start to the season ever” after retiring from two of the opening three rounds.

What a difference a year makes, eh? It is almost exactly 12 months since Leclerc stood on the Albert Park podium clutching that famous winners’ trophy after his second victory in three, extending his points lead over Verstappen to 46…

If Leclerc’s engine failure in Bahrain revealed Ferrari’s work on improving reliability over the winter had not been as productive as hoped, his weekend-defining grid penalty in Saudi Arabia told as much about another glaring weakness in F1’s regulations as Ferrari’s capacity to be their own worst enemies.

If someone has to drop down the grid for exceeding their engine component pool for the season after a single race, after all, surely the problem lies not with the team but the rule.

Leclerc started ahead of Verstappen in Jeddah but finished five places behind as the last car of the leading group, the Ferrari lacking the potency of the Red Bull package, before his season took another turn for the worse this weekend.

For the first time in 2023, Leclerc was outqualified by Sainz – whose more abrupt technique was more adept at generating tyre temperature in the cooler of conditions of qualifying in Melbourne – before sliding into the gravel on the opening lap.

At the circuit where his season entered a state of crisis in 2022, Sainz enjoyed what seemed like a breakthrough performance on this occasion until – with his eyes no doubt lighting up – he slid into Alonso at the second restart.

Clearly it was his fault. But considering that Alonso was allowed to retake his place on the podium, having been spun against the wall at Turn 2 at the restart, why was Sainz punished for a collision that technically did not happen?

Sainz was understandably annoyed, and his argument that the stewards had not waited for his side of the story was convincing, but when your luck’s out…

Albon crash reveals the effort required to make Williams competitive

And it was going so well for Albon, running as high as sixth – sixth! – for Williams having outpaced Gasly’s Alpine for P8 on the grid.

For those who tracked the team’s progress last season it will come as no surprise that Williams’ straight-line speed performance was their biggest asset in Australia, Albon fastest of all through the now chicane-less second sector in qualifying.

That he was only mid-grid in the first and third sectors, however, with team-mate Logan Sargeant ranked in the bottom four in both, shone a light on the effort required for Albon to keep mixing it with more competitive cars at Albert Park.

Williams’ unstoppable performance in a straight line comes at the cost of their overall downforce, placing an emphasis on Albon to drive like a man possessed in the twistier sections dotted around the rest of the lap.

For a driver like Albon, who has never properly addressed the spikes in his technique that ultimately buried him alongside Verstappen at Red Bull, the limitations of his car necessitate a high-risk approach and is unsustainable over the course of a 58-lap race.

Maybe it should not have come as a surprise, then, that the mistake on Lap 7 came at Turn 6, the last true corner before the flat-out blast where he gained so much of his time, Albon looking to squeeze every last drop of pace out of the Williams and being caught out.