Formula 1's Latest Rumours and Talk: Paddock News from the 2014 Australian GP

Oliver Harden@@OllieHardenFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2014

Formula 1's Latest Rumours and Talk: Paddock News from the 2014 Australian GP

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    The 2014 Formula One season has officially begun after the first two free practice sessions took place on the Friday prior to the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

    Things got a little more serious as the green light signalled the beginning of the season, with some teams focusing on reinforcing their superiority and others merely hoping that the gremlins they encountered in pre-season had vanished.

    Mercedes, the favourites for this season’s crown, ended the day on top—but only after Lewis Hamilton had proved that the pace-setting team remain vulnerable to unreliability. Caterham, meanwhile, proved to be the kings of unreliability after a disastrous day, while Red Bull—who sat somewhere between promising pace and dreadful reliability over the course of pre-season—have shown well-timed signs of getting back on track.

    In the paddock, Lotus’ restructuring for 2014 has continued with the appointment of a new deputy team principal, while there has been talk of a surprise test coming up.

    Here’s our special Australian Grand Prix roundup.

Lewis Hamilton Hopes Mercedes Hiccup Is a One-off

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    Title favourite Lewis Hamilton believes the technical issue that disrupted his free practice running will not reoccur.

    The Mercedes driver reached only as far as Turn 9 in the morning session when his car slowed to a halt on his out-lap, with the team later confirming the problem on Twitter as an oil pressure alarm leading to a precautionary engine shutdown.

    Hamilton recovered to record 37 laps in the second session, setting the fastest time of the day in the process—a tenth faster than teammate Nico Rosberg and half a second quicker than the next non-Mercedes car, third-placed Fernando Alonso.

    Speaking to ESPN F1 after the day’s action, Hamilton said:

    I think it was a one-off (problem).We were one of the only ones to stop, but I think over this season you will see various hiccups like that, but hopefully that issue will not be an issue for us (again).

    We got a nice foundation in FP2 and I hope I can build on that in FP3 and see where we end up in qualifying. We got good data, a good understanding of what's going on on-track with the car and fuel and all that kind of stuff.

    It feels positive and I'm just glad I got through it. Tomorrow we will get a much better understanding of what fuel loads people are on and where everyone stands.

    Hamilton encountered another problem when a security guard almost prevented his return to the paddock after his on-track stoppage, with the jobsworth presumably mistaking the 2008 world champion for an enthusiastic fan in fancy dress. See the video of the incident, via Sky Sports, here

Caterham's Concerns Grow After Practice Disaster

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    After showing an encouraging upturn in reliability toward the end of pre-season testing, Caterham endured the most difficult Friday of any team.

    Drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson failed to set a time over the course of the two 90-minute sessions, with a host of technical problems leaving their cars stuck in the garage.

    It was left to Cedrik Staudohar, Renault Sport’s F1 track support leader, to explain the problems, telling the team’s official website:

    After a positive test session in Bahrain and productive preparations for Melbourne, today was not the start to the weekend we wanted.

    Kamui's car developed a fuel system issue on his very first lap in FP1. To rectify the problem we had to take the Power Unit off the car, which is not a short job and we were therefore unable to run in FP2.

    On Marcus' car we experienced an electrical issue and had to come back to the pits after the installation lap in FP1. We changed the battery and the MGU-K and he was able to run one lap in FP2, however the car developed a hydraulic leak.

    It's obviously not ideal preparation, but we'll look at the small details tonight to improve the bigger picture for tomorrow.

    The team, who are unlikely to take any part in the third practice session on Saturday morning to focus their efforts on qualifying, can take solace from the fact that they will—unlike rival teams—probably not be forced into sacrificing one of their six curfew “jokers” for the 2014 season given their extended time to fix their issues during the day.

Red Bull's Resurgence Begins in the Nick of Time

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    After a disastrous pre-season, Red Bull’s return to the front of the grid began in practice with Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo both ending the day in the top six.

    Reigning champion Vettel, who completed 45 laps across the day, recorded a fastest time of one minute, 30.381 seconds, which was good enough for fourth. Ricciardo, who completed 73 laps on the Friday of his home grand prix, was within four tenths of his teammate.

    Vettel, although far from jumping for joy, spoke of his content with the day’s progress when he told the team’s official website:

    In a way it's a relief today, the fact that we were running, we didn't have any problems, the balance was good and the performance looked alright.

    In the end Friday times are not worth a lot, but it's better to be close to the top rather than somewhere towards the back, so I'm very happy with that.

    We will do what we can to prepare for tomorrow and Sunday, but let's see where we are then – the most important thing is that we finish.

    Ricciardo added that his amount of running exceeded expectations, adding:

    I knew the guys were doing everything they could since testing but still, we didn't expect to do that many laps today, so I'm really happy and pleased for them.

    I think we have to be pretty positive with where we ended up today. We expected Mercedes to be quickest, but we were within a second of them today so that's a lot better than we thought.

    Let's see if it's the same story after qualifying tomorrow, but for today we're pleased.

Lotus Appoint New Deputy Team Principal as Reliability Woes Continue

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    After the losses of technical director James Allison, lead driver Kimi Raikkonen and team principal Eric Boullier all within the last 12 months, Lotus have had much restructuring to do over the winter.

    The latest step came on the morning of the first official session of the year at Albert Park, with the appointment of Federico Gastaldi, Lotus' director of business development, as the team’s deputy team principal.

    On the appointment, team owner and current team principal Gerard Lopez told Jonathan Noble of AUTOSPORT:

    As a figurehead, no one better embodies the Lotus F1 team spirit. His understanding of the sport as a whole is impressive.

    Federico will work closely with myself and the rest of the Genii and Enstone family and we're confident of a very positive future for all.

    Gastaldi stressed his desire to turn the team’s fortunes around, adding:

    We need to ensure rapid progress with our car for this season.

    It's no secret that pre-season preparations have not been as smooth as we'd like but we have confidence that we can turn this situation around very quickly.

    We need to work as closely as possible with Renault to fulfil our potential.

    We know it is a big challenge, especially because there is so much technology that is new to everyone, but we know the team can deliver good cars and we will do this in 2014 with Renault.

    Lotus endured a difficult day of practice, with Pastor Maldonado failing to set a time all day after smoke emerged from the Venezuelan’s cockpit shortly after he took to the track, while Romain Grosjean didn’t appear until the second session after suffering technical problems. The Frenchman's running ended in the gravel trap after a dramatic spin late on.

    Grosjean's afternoon running ended prematurely after a wild spin left him stuck in a gravel trap.

Malaysia Test Speculation Dismissed by Team Bosses

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    F1’s in-season testing restrictions have been relaxed for 2014, with four two-day tests set to take place in the days following the Bahrain, Spanish, British and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix.

    During the FIA’s official team principal press conference, Will Buxton of NBC Sports claimed that the teams could be planning to hold a test at the Sepang circuit next week ahead of the Malaysian Grand Prix at the end of the month as they try to get on top of the new regulations.

    However, the suggestion was met with puzzled reactions from Red Bull’s Christian Horner, Williams’ Claire Williams, Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali, Mercedes’ Toto Wolff, McLaren’s Eric Boullier and Rob White of Renault.

    According to the official F1 website, Horner responded:

    Well, it’s certainly a surprise. It’s the first I’ve heard of it and if it is happening, we (Red Bull) won’t be there. I think it’s fairly unlikely.

    Boullier agreed with Horner, before the matter was swiftly forgotten and the team principals returned to their default setting of sitting at a desk and looking bored.