MELBOURNE: World champion Lewis Hamilton will start as strong favorite in Formula One’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Sunday after dominating proceedings so far, including the controversial new-look qualifying format.
The Mercedes driver, who won 10 races last year to be crowned F1 champion for the third time, has led every practice and qualifying session this week in Melbourne as F1’s record, 21-stop season gets underway.
Hamilton shot to pole position 0.36 seconds ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg in qualifying on Saturday, in a blistering display that convinced his remaining rivals to stay in the garage and save their tyres in the final minutes.
However, it made for an embarrassing early finish to qualifying and the new system, which whittles down the field at 90-second intervals, was roundly slated by teams and fans.
“It was pretty crap. But this is what we’ve got, until we can change it,” said Formula One commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel said: “For the people in the grandstand I don’t feel it’s the right way to go.
“There’s no cars to watch and in the end they want to see Lewis, Nico, Kimi (Raikkonen), whoever, pushing it to the limit at the end of the session when the track is supposed to be best. “I don’t think we need the criticism now, we’ve had the criticism already but surely it is the wrong way to go.”
The new qualifying format is one of a number of innovations intended to put the fizz back in F1, including the introduction of twin exhausts to raise the noise levels emanating from the cars’ purring, hybrid engines.
On Sunday, radio communications between teams and drivers will also be restricted, in a move designed to return more decision-making powers to the men behind the wheel.
Race officials will closely monitor radio transmissions — and will also be on the lookout for possible coded messages intended to give drivers an edge.
“The teams will do their very best to try and get as much information to the drivers as they can, but I hope they continue to do it in a legal way,” said race director Charlie Whiting.
Not everyone is in favour of the radio clampdown, with two-time world champion Fernando Alonso saying that with less information available, drivers will be reluctant to switch up their strategy mid-race.
“I don’t think it will give to the driver any more power to influence the race itself. Because of those (communication) limitations, the strategy for the race will be much more strict,” Alonso said. “We will follow, more or less, the (team) approach to that race — how we prepared in meetings — much more than before.”
New, ultra-soft tires have also been introduced this year — along with complicated rules governing tire use, which have left many people scratching their heads.
Indonesia’s F1 rookie Rio Haryanto will have a tough start from the back of the grid, after he was penalized three grid places for a crash in practice. AFP