Fast cars, quick changes in Oz
Formula 1 cars are quick – mighty quick. Yet one of the most compelling reasons for watching F1 is not the speed of the cars but the rate and pace at which fortunes change: in this sport hero goes to zero - or vice-versa - in a split second.
Take Sunday’s Australian GP: the previous day, after qualifying, doomersayers forecast the most boring race in the 17-year history of Melbourne’s GP; possibly since the inception of the World championship 62 years ago. By Sunday dusk the same folk were hailing it one of the most thrilling grands prix of recent times, one which delivered a twist per lap, sometimes three.
“Lewis Hamilton will prove untouchable.” “The Red Bulls are in deep trouble.” “McLaren will walk it.” “Ferrari will be lucky to score a point.” “For a change, Sebastian Vettel has no chance.” “Mercedes will win.” “Michael Schumacher will bag a podium, maybe victory.” “Nico Rosberg can win.” - just some of the more insistent refrains heard in Melbourne’s Albert Park after qualifying.
As it turned out, none as on the money.
58 LAPS - TOUGH TRACK
Yes, Hamilton was on pole with team mate Jenson Button beside him and the Red Bulls back on the third row; yes, both Ferraris missed Q3 cut and Schumacher posted his best grid spot since returning, in the process (unusually) out-qualifying team mate Rosberg, but the forecasters overlooked one minor detail: the field faced 58 laps of arguably the most punishing circuit on the trail, one characterised by unforgiving kitty-litter run-offs and closely lined by high fences on account of it being a (bumpy and pocked) road course running around a lake.
Plus, none in the field had by then completed a full race distance on Pirelli’s new compounds or gained much experience of the soft and medium compounds specified for Australia, for the three practice sessions were blighted by variable weather. “Will the tyres grain; will they last 10 laps?” were two oft-repeated questions; others expressed concern about speed differentials on a circuit where one ambitious overtaking move can be heavily punished.
However, any one of these factors taken in isolation had the potential to change the face of the race; squeeze them into a two-hour window and chaos would surely result; have rookie Romain Grosjean line up third and plonk returning champion Kimi Räikkönen 17th on the grid, and it could surely not get much better or more unpredictable.
FAR FROM OVER
So it proved: Button snatched the lead on the run to Turn 1, convincingly relegating Hamilton, whose usual cutting-and-thrusting was strangely absent, to second, while Schumacher fast-forwarded to third and Vettel even faster to fourth. Meanwhile, Grosjean, local Mark Webber and Nico Hulkenberg went nowhere quickly in Lotus, Red Bill and Force India respectively as Fernando Alonso forced his recalcitrant Ferrari through the slimmest of gaps.
Still it was far from over: Vettel’s Red Bull went off the track at Turn 1 in his pursuit of Schumacher for third, emerging from the grass undaunted. A few laps later Schumacher’s spirited defence eventually proved too much for the Mercedes transmission, resulting in the seven-times champion spearing off-track before heading for retirement.
Thus, shortly before the midpoint, the order was: Button and Hamilton, their silver cars heading Vettel as a tirade developed behind the reigning double champion as Sergio Perez and Räikkönen ran long first stints, enabling them to mix it with the likes of Webber, Alonso, Rosberg and the impressive Pastor Maldonado (Williams) – who nudged Grosjean into retirement on Lap 2.
Then, on lap 36, Russian Vitaly Petrov changed the face of the race by parking his seized Caterham on the track. Out came the pace car, followed by a massive MAN recovery tender, but not before Vettel rapidly ducked in for a tyre change, emulating Button and Hamilton who had pitted 10 seconds apart on the previous lap. The pace car sparked off a plethora of stops and in the confusion Vettel exited between the two Big Macs, and with that pole starter Hamilton was out of the fight for the lead and in third.
Ten laps from the end we had the Battle for Brazil as Felipe Massa, the Ferrari driver for the third season battling to come to come grips with F1’s tyres, and Bruno Senna (Williams) muscled each other about in their haste to take Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso. The duo visited the stewards afterwards, who deemed their behaviour “a racing incident”.
Webber lay fourth as Alonso, Maldonado, Räikkönen, Rosberg, and Sauber duo Kamui Kobayashi and Perez scrapped behind them, but still Australia had surprises in store: on the final lap Maldonado, poised to deliver a fine sixth for the resurgent Williams team, slid wide and slammed into the wall nose-first.. Then Perez and Rosberg fell over each other, dropping the son of 1982 champion Keke to 12th and out of the points.
All this elevated Ricciardo and Paul di Resta, the latter overshadowed in practice and qualifying by his Force India team mate and F1 returnee Hulkenberg, into the points, with local boy Ricciardo’s form being particularly noteworthy after the rookie dropped to the back at the start after losing a tussle in Turn 1.
The day, though, belonged to Button, whose lopsided smile lit up the podium and the media conferences. His 2011 superiority over Hamilton had been put down to the latter’s troubled season but Lewis arrived in Australia vowing he’d sorted out his personal life and was rarin’ to go. Yet he still got beaten hands down by his elder in the same car and is unlikely to take it lying down.
Equally significantly McLaren, with its tradition of slow starts before sorting its car as a season wears on, hit the ground with wheels turning to lock out the front row for the first time since 2009 – and for the first time since Button and Hamilton became an item.
“It was very special,” Button beamed. “Starting the year with a win is important. To come away with Lewis's pole yesterday and victory today, I think it puts us in a great position for the next few races, so a big ‘thank you’ to everyone in the team.
“I am very excited heading to Malaysia but not thinking about that now - I will enjoy this now with friends and family, and tomorrow turn my attention to Malaysia.”