Red Bull finally surrenders to bad luck; Understanding Alonso’s costly penalty


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Welcome back to Prime Tire, where we’re wondering if Logan Sargeant signing a big picture of his face after losing his seat to his teammate qualifies as having a strange weekend.

We’re into the quiet off–week in Formula One after a hectic Australian Grand Prix. I’m Patrick, and Madeline Coleman will be along shortly. Let’s get to it.


Red Bull surrenders to Lady Luck for once

When The Athletic offered its 2024 season predictions, we wondered how many wins Red Bull would claim. I made what felt like a bold choice. “Nineteen,” I said. “Call it wishful thinking (it is), but the law of bad luck comes back around for everyone — even Red Bull. Surely. Right?”

Wrong, probably? Verstappen didn’t just win the first two races of the season – he so thoroughly dominated in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia that a season sweep of all 24 races seemed almost fait accompli. And then, suddenly, I was right: Verstappen held the lead in the Australian GP on Sunday briefly until Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari overtook him down the back straight – and it became clear something was wrong with the reigning champ’s Red Bull. His right rear brake had gotten stuck at the race start and eventually overheated. Verstappen returned to the garage in a small cloud of smoke and flames, his reliability streak ended, the path cleared for Sainz’s heroic victory.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

From surgery to F1 victory in 16 days: Carlos Sainz’s Australia win proves his mettle

I waited all season for bad luck to strike Red Bull and Verstappen last season. Not because I rooted against them (or for anyone), but because this is motorsports. Fast cars are fragile machines. They hit things at high speed, components wear down, engines and brakes fail because the sport’s nature is engineering at its limits. The longer a season goes, the closer the law of averages creeps up on a team. And the longer a team or driver goes without a failure or mistake – well, the weirder that feels!

Think about it: the fact that Verstappen had finished 43 races in a row coming into the Australian GP is an astonishing stat. That’s an incredible feat of bad luck defiance.

We head to Japan next week, where Verstappen ferociously stamped Red Bull’s claim to the 2023 Constructors’ Championship last season. There’s every reason to believe Red Bull will make its own luck and run away with the win again. Business back to usual. But it was nice for one weekend to be reminded that, yes, even Red Bull must bow to the will of motorsports luck every once in a while.


The “brutally painful” start to Mercedes’s season

I drove by two Mercedes yesterday. Both were on the side of the road. Thought that was apt after the F1 team’s start to the 2024 season. The team’s highest finish so far this season is George Russell’s P5 in Bahrain and endured a litany of “Yikes, Mercedes” moments in Australia: Hamilton’s failure to make it out of Q2 in qualifying, Hamilton’s engine dying on Lap 17 of the grand prix and Russell crashing out of the race late.

This is the worst start to a season I have ever had,” Hamilton said after the race in Melbourne. “It’s even worse than 2009, I think?” The problem, as Luke writes, is a fundamental mismatch between what the team expects from the car and what it receives:

Lots of the worst elements of the previous two cars have been eradicated on the W15. Question marks over the suspension, gearbox and steering rack have all been answered. But the greatest issue remains the lack of correlation between the wind tunnel and what Mercedes sees in reality. It cannot understand why the car behaves like it does when it gets onto the race track.

Hamilton isn’t wrong, by the way. His 2009 season with McLaren is considered his career low point, and so far, through three races, his 2024 averages look ominously similar to his 2009 form:

Hamilton’s Worst Start Ever?

Year Avg. Finish Avg. Grid Start

2009 (17 races)

7.64

9.18

2024 (3 races)

8

9.33

There’s a long, long way to go (21 races). But Mercedes seems adrift.


Fans may have been surprised to see Fernando Alonso and George Russell summoned to the stewards after the Australian GP for an alleged incident with each other at Turns 6–7. The Mercedes driver crashed at the exit of Turn 6 on the final lap, his car tipping onto its side in the middle of the track. A few hours later, Alonso was handed a drive–through penalty, which was converted to a 20–second time penalty, along with three penalty points.

What happened? According to the decision document, Russell was around 0.5 seconds behind Alonso as the two drivers approached Turn 6. The Aston Martin driver appeared to lift earlier and with less speed into the corner to get a better exit. Russell said the maneuver surprised him, labeling it “erratic.” The Mercedes driver closed the distance at an unusually fast speed, and “with the resulting lower downforce at the apex of the corner, he lost control and crashed at the exit of the corner.”

To be clear: There never was any contact between Alonso and Russell. However, based on the evidence the stewards saw, Alonso “downshifted at a point he never usually downshifted” and proceeded to upshift before accelerating to the turn and then lifting. He explained to the stewards that he had planned to slow earlier but had gotten it wrong.

The stewards’ decision to penalize Alonso cited Article 33.4, which states, “At no time may a car be driven unnecessarily slowly, erratically or in a manner which could be deemed potentially dangerous to other drivers or any other person.” The stewards explained the details in a question–and–answer format.

“Should Alonso have the right to try a different approach to the corner? – Yes. Should Alonso be responsible for dirty air, that ultimately caused the incident? – No. However, did he choose to do something … that was extraordinary, i.e. lifting, braking, downshifting … over 100m earlier than previously and much greater than was needed to simply slow earlier for the corner? – Yes … he drove in a manner that was at very least ‘potentially dangerous’ given the very high–speed nature of that point of the track.”

Alonso did send out an X post (a Tweet, if you like) detailing his surprise, saying in part that, “We never drive at 100% every race lap and every corner, we save fuel, tires, brakes, so being responsible for not making every lap the same is a bit surprising.”

Aston Martin can appeal the verdict. Team principal Mike Krack said in the team’s race recap, “It was surprising to see him drop to P8 with the post–race penalty, but we have to accept the decision.”


Outside the Points

Good stuff from Luke on the brewing angst surrounding the RB team—namely, whether Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull seat hopes are being hurt by his slow start to 2024. So far, he has been outraced by teammate Yuki Tsunoda in most starts since joining the team. “It’s just I feel like a lot of the time I’m not able to carry the speed maybe that I see Yuki able to,” Ricciardo admitted in Melbourne.

Madeline and I shared our takeaways from the Australian GP. One thing I didn’t mention from the race: Valtteri Bottas dropped another hilarious Uber ad that’s even better than the first.

Okay, that’s not about the race. But I did forget to mention it.

Finally, Williams team boss James Vowles explained the reasoning behind giving Logan Sargeant’s car to Alex Albon for the race after Albon’s practice crash meant the team only had Sargeant’s car available. “You, therefore, put your money on the driver who this year has been slightly ahead of the other one, which is Alex,” Vowles said. Albon repaid that faith with a strong P11 drive against both Haas drivers.

Lead image of Max Verstappen, Fernando Alonso and George Russell: SCOTT BARBOUR/POOL/AFP, Paul Crock / AFP via Getty Images





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