Nico Rosberg picked up where he left off at the end of 2015 by taking his fourth consecutive Formula 1 victory in Australia on Sunday.
Rosberg recovered from a poor start to switch strategy under a red flag, allowing him to pass Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and make a one-stop strategy work in Melbourne to win the opening race of the season.
Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton also managed to recover from a bad start to end the race in second place after fending off a charging Vettel late on.
In a race full of drama, Haas F1 Team enjoyed a dream debut as Romain Grosjean finished sixth after also benefitting from the red flag period, making it the first brand-new operation to score points on debut since Toyota in 2002.
At the start, Vettel made an incredible start to dive between the two Mercedes drivers and move into the lead of the race at the first corner. Hamilton was pushed out wide and dropped down to sixth place, while Rosberg slipped behind Kimi Raikkonen as the Finn made it a Ferrari one-two at the end of the first lap.
Vettel quickly looked to put his foot down up front and open up a lead to Raikkonen behind, who soon became occupied with Rosberg in his mirrors. Hamilton recovered fifth place from Felipe Massa at the end of lap four, before then coming up behind Max Verstappen in fourth. The world champion toiled behind the Toro Rosso, telling his Mercedes engineers “I can’t get past this guy!” to prompt them into a strategy rethink.
Rosberg was the first of the leaders to pit at the end of lap 12 in a bid to get the undercut on Raikkonen. It worked perfectly for the German, allowing him to close up on race leader Vettel when he pitted just one lap later. Rosberg tried to pass into Turn 3 but was knocked back by Vettel, who duly pulled clear once his super-soft tires had warmed up.
Hamilton grew more and more frustrated as Mercedes looked to extend his stint. Vettel passed the Briton with ease at Turn 2 to move a pit stop ahead, prompting the team to bring Hamilton in and move him onto his sole set of medium tires and try to go to the end of the race.
All strategy went out of the window on lap 19 when the race was red flagged following a huge crash involving McLaren’s Fernando Alonso and Haas driver Esteban Gutierrez. Alonso tried to pass Gutierrez on the run down to Turn 3, only to run over the back of Gutierrez’s car. Alonso’s car came to a rest upside down after digging into the gravel, but thankfully, both drivers walked away unharmed.
The amount of debris on track prompted the officials to suspend the race at the end of lap 19. The drivers were sent to line up in the pit lane, where they were permitted to make any changes they wished to the car, allowing them to switch tires.
Hamilton retained his set of mediums, planning to go to the end of the race, with Mercedes also switching Rosberg onto the white-walled tires. Ferrari kept both Vettel and Raikkonen on super-softs, giving them a pace advantage, but they would have to pit again.
The race resumed on lap 20 with Vettel leading from Rosberg and Raikkonen. However, the leader was left to fight without the support of his teammate after a fire broke out on Raikkonen’s car four laps after the restart, forcing him to pit and retire from the race.
Down in sixth, Hamilton found himself stuck behind both Toro Rossos as Verstappen and teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. ran fourth and fifth. Once again, Hamilton could not keep up or pass them, but on the medium tire and with no more pit stops to make, the Briton was able to bide his time.
Romain Grosjean may have been the sole Haas driver remaining in the race, but he was the big winner under the red flag as he was able to make a free tire change. Grosjean had worked his way into the top 10 before the stoppage, and ran eighth at half-distance.
Rosberg managed to keep Vettel within his sights at the front, and soon began to cut the gap when the super-soft tires started to fade. Even as Rosberg whittled the lead down to around a second, Ferrari persisted with Vettel on the super-softs in a bid to put him on the quicker soft tires late on instead of the mediums.
On lap 35, Ferrari bailed and brought Vettel in, putting him onto the soft tire. A problem getting the nut off the front-left wheel slowed his stop down, bringing the German back out in fourth place. Rosberg now led on the medium tire ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Hamilton.
Grosjean’s strong race continued as he rose to sixth when the Toro Rossos pitted. A slow stop for Verstappen caused him to drop behind Sainz, with both emerging from the pits behind Jolyon Palmer in ninth. The Renault driver held them back, much to Verstappen’s chagrin as he requested that Toro Rosso tell Sainz to move aside. Sainz eventually made the pass on Palmer himself, with Verstappen following through just one corner later.
Hamilton’s fightback continued at the expense of Ricciardo on lap 41 to take second place, prompting Red Bull to bring the Australian in and switch tires. Rosberg had been managing his tires up front, but duly upped his pace when Hamilton moved into second place, the pair being split by 10 seconds at the front.
Vettel had made his soft tires work perfectly after stopping to catch Hamilton late on, resulting in a late battle to the flag between them. Ultimately, Hamilton was able to hold the Ferrari driver back despite his worn tires, with a late error ending Vettel’s charge.
However, neither could hold a candle to Rosberg up front. After winning the last three races of 2015, Rosberg made it four-in-a-row and kicked off his 2016 season in the best possible fashion by winning the race, finishing comfortably clear of his teammate in second place.
Ricciardo managed to fight his way back to fourth place after his late pit stop, finishing ahead of Williams’ Felipe Massa in fifth.
For the American fans watching, the biggest cheer would have come courtesy of Haas F1 Team. On the day that it became the first American team to race in F1 for 30 years, it fulfilled its target for the season of scoring points in its maiden grand prix as Grosjean crossed the line in sixth place.
Nico Hulkenberg came home seventh for Force India after spending the majority of the race stuck behind Grosjean, while Valtteri Bottas finished eighth. Carlos Sainz Jr. ended the race ninth after holding a frustrated Verstappen back, leaving the Dutchman to settle for P10.
Renault’s return to F1 saw Jolyon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen finish 11th and 12th respectively, while Sergio Perez followed in P13. Jenson Button, Felipe Nasr and Pascal Wehrlein were the last classified finishers in positions 14-16 respectively.
The second round of the 2016 F1 season takes place in Bahrain on April 3.