If you were up early like any good F1 fan, you will know by now your F1 has changed. The same teams in the same colours (mostly) and possibly in the same positions (we’ll come to that). But everything else is different; the noise, the numbers, the lines, the endless lairy oversteer moments, the twitchiness, the endless trips in to the gravel, the uncertainty on the throttle, the uncertainty on the radio, the breakdowns.
We said anything could happen this weekend and, er, at lot of it already has. Maybe the least predictable thing to happen today was the performance of the man who ended the day fourth fastest — Sebastian Vettel. You can change everything in F1, but you can’t keep class down. Red Bull aren’t on the pace yet, but they are back in the game. Thirteen days ago the team couldn’t get the car to run. Impressive.
Mercedes set the pace today, of course. Lewis Hamilton, who looks to be in the condition of his life, did what he needed to do to let Nico Rosberg know who’s boss. Mercedes didn’t make it easy for him mind; he wasn’t able to complete a single lap in FP1 as Mercedes again demonstrated even the most reliable 2014 F1 car is far from bullet proof. While the stranded W05 was maybe the most surprising casualty of the day, it was certainly not the only one. It’s odd seeing F1 cars break down. We’d forgotten they can do that.
In most trouble last night/today were the Caterhams and the Lotus cars. Neither Caterham ran in the second session and only Romain Grosjean’s Lotus E22. But what a mess; right now the Lotus — four days’ testing behind the competition remember — looked hateful do drive, snappy on the exit as the torque kicked in, snappy on the entry as the brake-by-wire misbehaved. When the E22 finally threw itself in the wall towards the end of FP2 it was hard to tell whether that was anger or relief on the face of RoGros. Lotus, you might remember, won this race last year.
But we knew these new cars were capricious. What we learned today was that they really do sound very different. Significantly quieter, quiet enough at times to hear the tyres moving on the road. But there is a noise there, an interesting cocktail of bass growl and science. You might not like it. But we will get used to it. We’re already used to the way the cars behave on track, clearly much more on the limit and kind of old-school in their cautious straight-line exits from the corners.
The drivers are certainly having to work harder than they have had to in years. The consensus seems to be that although the most extreme physical demands are reduced, the mental effort to keep it on the island is significantly higher. New boy Daniil Kyvatt in the Toro Rosso was heard more than once on the radio complaining he simply didn’t have the bandwidth to process it all. Certainly there was a new thread to the pits-to-car conversations today when cars were simulating long-runs; “how’s my fuel looking….?”
Fuel, and not tyres, seemed to be the focus in the first practice runs, although most cars did get runs on both the mediums and the softs. We have then a pretty good idea of the relative pace of the new cars and, the Red Bull aside, there are no great surprises except maybe the absence of the Williams at the top of the sheets.
After the first 90mins of practice, Fernando Alonso and the Ferrari F14-T were on top ahead of Jenson Button’s McLaren MP4-29. Vettel was seventh in the RB10, which was behaving to type. By the second session the really very beautiful RB10 was apparently fixed and Vettel was able to run for the full 90 minutes, covering one third of the total distance he’d managed in the entire off-season.
By the end of the day F1’s big beasts — Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren — had the top ten covered off inside just under 1.5secs with only Valterri Bottas’ Williams and Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India breaking the money’s grip on the sport. Everything’s changed, but somehow maybe it has all stayed the same after all.
Top Ten Times, Australian Grand Prix Free Practice Two
1. Hamilton Mercedes 1:29.625
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1:29.782
3. Alonso Ferrari 1:30.132
4. Vettel Red Bull 1:30.381
5. Button McLaren 1:30.510
6. Ricciardo Red Bull 1:30.538
7. Raikkonen Ferrari 1:30.898
8. Bottas Williams 1:30.920
9. Magnussen McLaren 1:31.031
10. Hulkenberg Force India 1:31.054