There was a very new look to the podium for the first race of the new look Formula 1 for 2014.
There was no big surprise that Nico Rosberg took to the top step with his Mercedes car, clearly the best in the field at the moment. But he was joined by two fresh-faced youngsters.
Daniel Ricciardo is no F1 rookie. But in his first race for Red Bull Racing, he withstood tremendous pressure to take 2nd place in his home race. It was against all the odds — Red Bull could hardly have had a worse preparation for the race. Indeed, it was the first time the team had completed a race distance at all in 2014.
Ricciardo may have been subsequently disqualified for a fuel flow irregularity, an issue beyond his control. But that should take nothing away from his tremendous performance. He kept it cool and came home smiling.
But more impressive than that was McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen. By all accounts, Kevin Magnussen is composed, confident and very, very fast.
Magnussen finished 3rd on the track. With his promotion to 2nd following Ricciardo’s disqualification, he has bettered Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren debut. He has also already comfortably achieved more than his father Jan did in a 25 race long F1 career.
Both Ricciardo and Magnussen cut their teeth in Formula Renault 3.5. For a long time, Formula Renault 3.5 has seemed like a better school for wannabe F1 stars than the Bernie Ecclestone-backed GP2 Series.
On paper, GP2 should have the advantage. They race at the same circuits — on the same weekends — as F1, under the watchful glare of all the team bosses. The cars are designed to give drivers experience in a similar car to an F1 car, and they race with similar Pirelli tyres.
GP2 was virtually invented in order to provide a reliable stream of talent to F1, something its predecessor, Formula 3000, had a patchy record on.
In the early years, the new series appeared to work. Indeed, the Australian Grand Prix winner Nico Rosberg was the very first GP2 champion in 2005. Lewis Hamilton was the 2006 champion. But thereafter, GP2 ceased to be such a reliable predictor of F1 form.
Of the other seven champions GP2 has had in its history, only one — Nico Hülkenberg — could genuinely be said to have championship winning potential. You could also make an argument about the merits of Timo Glock, Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean. But the less said about the most recent two champions — Davide Valsecchi and Fabio Leimer — the better.
If you look at the drivers that have graduated to F1 from GP2 in the past three years, it is almost a who’s who of flops: Charles Pic, Esteban Gutiérrez, Max Chilton and Giedo van der Garde. No-one is holding their breath for the latest, Marcus Ericsson, to impress.
Meanwhile, Formula Renault 3.5 has steadily been building up its reputation, and has been the school for some of the best drivers of recent years. Recent graduates include Jules Bianchi and Jean-Éric Vergne in addition to the Melbourne podium finishers.
Formula Renault 3.5 is where Sebastian Vettel earned his spurs as well. Indeed, all of Red Bull’s junior drivers go through Formula Renault 3.5 rather than GP2, and that has been the case for several years.
As GP2 has become more established, so it seems that GP2 experience, rather than raw talent, has become more important. 2013 GP2 champion Fabio Leimer is not an exciting prospect. But with 97 GP2 races under his belt, it was probably about time he achieved something in the series. 2012 GP2 champion Davide Valsecchi had raced a staggering 129 times before clinching his title.
As talent schools go, GP2 makes slow work of it. The series is packed to the rafters with rich kids with fat wallets, and wishful thinkers whose ambition simply exceeds their talent.
That’s not to say that other racing series don’t have a similar problem. Motorsport is an expensive business, so every series has its fair share of pay drivers and no-hopers.
The problem is that GP2 sometimes feels like it is designed specifically to lure pay drivers, to help pay for its relatively expensive show. Nowadays, talented GP2 drivers are much too few and far between.
Even the GP3 Series, officially one level down from GP2, feels more relevant to F1. Valtteri Bottas, arguably the driver of the race in Melbourne, came back from a gearbox penalty and a mid-race crash to finish a highly impressive 5th. He skipped GP2 entirely, earning himself a contract with Williams after winning the GP3 Series in 2011.
Meanwhile, 2013 GP3 champion Daniil Kvyat proved the doubters wrong by finishing an impressive 9th in his debut F1 race, just a few seconds behind his more experienced team mate. Kvyat has now become the youngest ever driver to score a point.
So if the best young drivers can make the leap straight from GP3, and the others cut their teeth in Formula Renault 3.5, what is the point of GP2? It is in danger of becoming an expensive irrelevance.