Nico Rosberg started the new Formula One season much as he finished the last, with victory in an often thrilling Australian Grand Prix here on Sunday.
Rosberg, who won the last three races last year as world champion Lewis Hamilton’s season tailed off, completed an uneven weekend on a high. He finished eight seconds ahead of Hamilton with Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari completing the podium ahead of local hero Daniel Ricciardo, Felipe Massa and Romain Grosjean, who was an impressive sixth in new team Haas.
There was a spectacular crash on the 17th lap when Fernando Alonso crashed into the back of Esteban Gutierrez on Turn 3. His car flipped over twice and his McLaren was reduced to a pile of tangled metal.
He said: “I feel good. It was a combination of factors and it ended up in a crash. But we are lucky we are both OK. For the safety of those cars is why I am alive – and the safety wall. I think it was a racing thing and sometimes we forget we are going 300km an hour.”
It all looked much more promising for Ferrari at the start of the race when Vettel and team-mate Kimi Raikkonen stormed ahead of the two Mercedes car.
Hamilton in particular got off to a bad start from his 50th pole position, losing ground to not only the two Ferraris but also Rosberg, Max Verstappen and Massa. He was suddenly sixth and did not improve on that until he went past Massa on the fourth lap.
All eight leading cars were living on borrowed time because they started the race on the super-soft tyres they had used in the previous day’s qualifying session.
After the Alonso-Guttierrez crash the red flag was waved and there was a 20-minute delay in the action. It didn’t help Ferrari as the cars closed up behind the safety car, and there was another set-back for the Scuderia when Raikkonen’s car went up in smoke.
But the race revolved around the contest of strategies, with Mercedes deciding to do two stops, and rely on their harder, medium tyre lasting, while Vettel chose to go on softer, faster rubber, with three stops. Perhaps all those laps completed on medium tyres in testing in Barcelona last month paid off for Mercedes.
It was Rosberg’s 15th victory and his second in Australia in three years. He said: “It’s early days but it’s the perfect start. We have to keep an eye on the red guys. I was a bit worried when we restarted with the medium tyres because I was worried they might be a bit cold.”
Hamilton said: “It was a great race I loved the fact we had to come from far behind. I’m glad no-one was injured in the shunt and after that it was about trying to get up the field and it’s impossible to follow out there. I’ve had much worse in the first race and I’ll take it as a real bonus to come back from seventh.”
Mercedes motorsport chief Toto Wolff said: “Overall it’s a very happy moment. I’m very happy for Nico. I don’t think it’s a blow for Lewis because the pace was there and it was the start that compromised him. It will not be a big blow for him.”
Vettel said: “I went for it so obviously the start was mega. I was very happy - it reminded me of Hungary last year. We settled into a rhythm nicely. You can argue the red flag didn’t help us. We tried to go more aggressive, maybe it didn’t work but ultimately I’m very happy with third. It was very encouraging because this is one of our worst tracks.”
This article was written by Paul Weaver in Melbourne, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th March 2016 07.38 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010