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2016 F1 season opens with a bang

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The 2016 Formula 1 Australian GP lived up to the pre-season expectations of fans and pundits alike. It had all the excitement of wheel to wheel racing that was missing in past races; Ferrari showed they had the speed to keep up with the powerful Mercs, even jumping them at the start; modified exhausts ensured that the much loved roar was present in the 2016 spec cars; newcomer Haas Racing had everyone sit up and take notice of the team from the US of A, despite qualifying 19th Romain Grosjean finished strong. Daniel Ricciardo had the Aussies dreaming of a repeat of last year’s podium position, by qualifying in P8, Red Bull fans believed that he was surely in contention for a podium finish. For the very first time, Australia had the race red-flagged. Pirelli brought forth new tire compounds to the mix, providing three choices for the teams’ use all weekend; and despite the erratic weather, fans, both local and foreign, were present at the circuit from the time it opened to the time it closed. It was indeed a great start to the 2016 Formula 1 season!

Mercedes locked up the front of the grid with Ferrari closely behind, and, all indications was that Hamilton would once again claim the win at Albert Park. But that was quickly dashed as the Brit got bogged down off the line, this gave Vettel and Raikkonen the chance they needed to bolt past both Mercedes’ into turn 1; the much awaited win for the Italian marquee was within their grasp. But the race was red-flagged on lap 18, and Ferrari opted to put both their cars on options instead of Pirelli primes, like their rivals. The short life span of the Pirelli soft compounds meant that Ferrari had to stop again for tires near the end of the race.

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In the finals stages it was Nico Rosberg claiming the lead and eventually winning the inaugural Grand Prix. Lewis Hamiton, who gallantly fought off Sebastian Vettel in the closing laps, took second, with Sebastian settling for the last spot on the podium after an uncharacteristic mistake in turn 15 whilst hunting down Hamilton. The driver of the day was Frenchman Romain Grosjean who drove the Haas VF-16 to finish 6th after starting the race back in 19th place; this gave the rookie team their first ever championship points. Duplicating the feat of Toyota F1 Racing; that of scoring points in their first ever race in 2002.

But it was the accident of Fernando Alonso on lap 18 that lit up the paddock and the web. Alonso was running in the slipstream of the Haas VF-16 of Esteban Gutierrez in the run up to turn 3, Gutierrez seemed to drift a bit to the left, and, this small move was enough for Fernando to misjudge his passing manouver. The McLaren clipped the rear tire of the VF-16 and break its suspension, it then slid into the gravel trap and dug in; this launched the MP4-31 up into the air, and rolling twice before landing upside down with Alonso still inside the cockpit.

Memories of Jules Bianchi, slidding sideways into a recovery vehicle in Suzuka and his eventual demise, immediately came to mind.

Attesting to the safety of current F1 cars, Fernando Alonso emerged from the wreckage, limped a bit, but walked away from the violent crash that would have been fatal a few decades before. With the improvements on the monocoque design, and sturdiness of the carbon fiber shell, plus all the breakaway parts ensured that the g-forces were drastically reduced and dissipated before the car came to rest on its head.

The following days headline labelled the Spaniard the “luckiest man alive”.

Another talking point in Melbourne was that of the “Halo” driver protection system. As it stands, the most vulnerable portion of the driver is their exposed head. The protective cockpit device in theory could prevent another Bianchi incident. The protective device seemed a welcome addition to the sport that deems safety of the drivers as paramount. But the Alonso accident also showed another point of contention; that of, should the driver find himself upside down, just like Fernando; it would take considerable effort and machinery to extricate the driver from the monocoque; worse, should a fire occur while a car is turned over, the “Halo” will make escaping more difficult.

Some drivers favor the halo device but some do not. Discussions and tests will continue till the FIA reach a beneficial design to protect the drivers. In the mean time, F1 drivers can console themselves with the fact that they are participating in one of the safest if not the safest motorsport discipline.