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Controversy outshines promising start to F1 season

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Formula One should be celebrating a promising start to its era of new engines and the welcome injection of some fresh faces on the podium at the Australian Grand Prix.

Instead, the series is mired in problems just one week into the season.

Moments after a champagne-soaked Daniel Ricciardo became the first Australian to finish in the top three at his home race, his Red Bull car was put under investigation for allegedly breaching new fuel-limit rules. Shortly before midnight local time came the news that he had been disqualified.

Most Australian fans had gone to sleep believing he had finished second only to wake up to discover he had been stripped of his points. Having the results of races altered behind closed doors, with on-track fans and television viewers having no guarantee that what they see is what they get, is a significant problem the series has long grappled with.

What makes it particularly galling for disappointed local fans is that the rule Ricciardo breached is highly technical and didn’t exist before this season.

As part of the switch to V6 turbo engines, and the major expansion in the use of stored energy and general push toward engine efficiency, the new rules state that no car can use more than 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of fuel in the race, and that the flow of fuel at any given point cannot be more than 100 kilograms per hour. That is measured by standard sensors approved by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, and fitted to each car.

Several teams complained before the race that the sensors were delivering unreliable readings, including Red Bull. The FIA said it told Red Bull to change its sensor, but the team elected not to. During the race, FIA technical staff saw Ricciardo’s car was “exceeding consistently” the allowable fuel flow and told the team to reduce it.

Race director Charlie Whiting had said there would be “zero tolerance” of teams breaking the new fuel rules, and he was right.

Red Bull immediately appealed, with the date and venue of that hearing yet to be determined. It is most likely to be heard in Malaysia, which holds the next round of the F1 season on March 30 in Sepang.

Ricciardo’s disqualification, and the early retirement of defending champion Sebastian Vettel from the Melbourne race due to an engine problem. meant that Red Bull finished a race with zero points for the first time since Italy in 2012.

That puts the team at a disadvantage to Mercedes, which won in Melbourne after Nico Rosberg led from the first corner onward, and a revived McLaren, which was promoted into second and third places after Ricciardo’s disqualification.

Mercedes lived up to the expectation of preseason testing in which it had proved to be the best car in the field, and it is unlikely rivals will be able to close that gap in the two weeks before the Malaysian race. The team is not without its own issues, as pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was forced to retire after just four laps due to a misfiring engine.

McLaren had its worst season since 1980 in 2013, not earning a single podium finish, but now already has two. Kevin Magnussen put in a mature performance that belied his 21 years to take second in his debut race, while his veteran teammate Jenson Button ultimately took third.

Ferrari’s cars looked reliable but off the pace in Melbourne. Fernando Alonso took the first round of his season-long fight against fellow world champion Kimi Raikkonen in their keenly observed rivalry, with the Spaniard finishing fourth and the Finn in seventh.

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