Yesterday was a positive day for Formula One rookies Felipe Nasr, Carlos Sainz and Max Verstappen as the Sauber and Toro Rosso debutants made their presence felt in Melbourne.
Considering their respective weekend’s, it would be unfair to infer that one performed better than the other two.
Whether the uncertainty at Sauber as to who their drivers were to be this weekend; the technical and pitstop ailments that reduced Sainz’s rewards; or the show stopping mechanical failure that halted Verstappen’s run, it is easy to tip one’s hat to the youngsters.
Of the three rookies to actually take the start, Nasr was the least prolific and certainly had much to prove. Following a GP2 Series campaign during which he occasionally appeared lacklustre and distant, Nasr’s announcement with the Sauber squad delivered much money and a multitude of shrugged shoulders. Yet when one considers just how abysmal the Swiss team fared last year, bringing in a reasonably quick driver who perfectly fits a no-frills.
There’s no point denying how difficult the beginning of the weekend was for Sauber. With Giedo van der Garde’s legal team bringing a case against the Ferrari-powered squad, suddenly everything was on hold and it looked for a time that either one of Ericsson or Nasr would not be taking part.
The situation had (temporarily) sorted itself out come Friday afternoon/Saturday morning, leaving both Sauber drivers to catch up, but 11th place in qualifying and a top-five in the race allowed the Brazilian to step from the shadows. “It is such a big relief for the team and myself that we are able to score points, and I am very pleased about this achievement.”
As usual in Australia, some first corner wheel-banging played a part, with Nasr getting hit on the left-rear by Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, which then forced the Sauber into the rear of Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus. “Right after the start it was quite messy in Turn 1, as another driver hit my wheel. I thought the car was damaged a bit, but after a few laps I noticed everything was fine.”
Thereafter, Nasr held his cool and spent much of the event keeping the likes Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) and Raikkonen behind, to eventually take the flag as the last man on the lead lap. “There was pressure from behind during the whole race, which was not easy. That was an emotional race for me and everyone in the team.”
Sauber’s Head of Track Engineering, Giampaolo Dall’Ara added: “With Felipe we stuck to the original strategy we had planned for him. I have to say that he did an excellent job making up places and keeping Daniel Ricciardo behind him. He drove a fantastic race all the way. Reaching P5 in his first Formula One race was an outstanding achievement.”
Over at Toro Rosso, Sainz came into the race with little fanfare – and it was probably for the best. With cameras swirling around the legal mess at Sauber and Sainz’s own youthful teammate Verstappen, the Spaniard was able to simply get on with the job and he did it excellent.
On paper, 9th place may not seem extraordinary; however technical issues during the race conspired against Sainz, depriving him of additional scores, as chief race engineer Phil Charles explains. “We know we could have done much better. What could have been quite a good day has been unfortunately let down by a few problems on the team side which have cost us quite dearly.”
It started to unravel after the restart following an early virtual safety car period, that dropped Sainz from 5th to 7th behind Nasr and Ricciardo. “With Carlos, a software setting issue after the safety car cost him two places,” noted Charles, but there were more ills to come. A stuck wheel during the pitstop cost Sainz approximately thirty seconds, while an additional software issue late on caused the 20-year-old to lose even more time.
“The slow pit-stop was a tough moment for the whole team, as we were in a very good position and lost quite a lot of time. From then onwards the race changed and it was just a matter of bringing it home without problems,” commented the reigning Formula Renault 3.5 champion.
Despite these issues, Sainz was satisfied with his efforts, but realises there is more to come. “I’m very pleased to have scored my first ever Formula One points in my debut race here in Melbourne! Obviously, we know there was much more potential than a P9 today but, all in all, if we take into account everything that happened, we need to stay positive, keep improving and believing in ourselves because we know we can do better.”
Alas the 17-year-old Verstappen – in the other Toro Rosso – did not make it to the chequered flag due to a power unit failure in his Renault-machine not long after the halfway mark. In light of a disappointing finish Verstappen was rather circumspect. “A disappointing way to end my first ever Formula 1 race, but there have also been many positives along the way this weekend.”
Until that point, the Dutch teenager had impressed. Beginning on medium tyres, Verstappen settled on a pace in the early-1’35s, which dropped to the mid-1’34s as tyre wear and lessening fuel became factors. “I had a good first run on the mediums; a lot of people around me were on softs and I was still able to stay quite close to them.” While those who started on softs wore through the Pirelli’s sooner and (mostly) pitted between laps 21-26, Verstappen maintained an impressive consistency and rose as high as 6th before stopped for is own set of softs on lap 32.
Unfortunately within a tour the power unit had breathed its last and Verstappen’s day was done. “As soon as I re-joined the race after my pit-stop I saw smoke, so I reported that to the pit-wall and they asked me to stop the car. It’s a real shame, because I was feeling good, the car was working well and if I had been able to stay on track I think we would’ve finished in the points.”
If nothing else, this trio are on the road to proving their worth in the top level of the sport. They each have long roads ahead of them, but they have started very well indeed.