Rencken: 2013 Oz GP wrapped

2013-03-18 08:40

MELBOURNE, Australia - From the three pre-season tests through all three practice sessions and the three qualifying runs, it was clear that, wet or dry, winning the 2013 Formula 1 World championship season-opener in Melbourne depended on unlocking the secrets of Pirelli’s four supplied compounds: Super Soft, Medium, Intermediate and Wet.

In the end, two stops beat three by 12.5sec. Kimi Raikkonen earned two wins in four races for Lotus with a controlled drive that seemed easy from the stands yet demanded absolutely clinical precision as he kept second-placed Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and pole-starter Red Bull Sebastian Vettel at bay.

The team’s strategy was devised by new race engineer Cirean Pilbeam.


Before the opening five laps (of 58) the big fear in the leafy Albert Park paddock had been that we’d see an absolute bluewash - Red Bulls sprinting into the instance and rest floundering in their wake. Sebastian Vettel set the benchmark during both March 18 practice sessions with Webber underscoring Red Bull’s single-lap superiority by finishing second in the afternoon.

Practice three was wet so defending champion Vettel took no risks - interpreted by the opposition as supreme confidence - but pole fell to him with a run in reserve.

However, from the off, it was clear that Webber, driving the second RB9 off the front row, would not be a factor, for the veteran was hampered by a combination of kers issues and telemetry failure; he was down 60kW in the run to Turn 1.

One out of the way...

Although Vettel converted pole to race lead, as expected, it was soon clear he would have to work hard to stay ahead. He led for the first third  of the race, his inability to pass Adrian Sutil’s Medium-shod Force India proved his downfall.

Sutil was well off the pace, causing a train behind him, but he would be able to hold them off to his first stop, one which coincided with Vettel’s second. Alonso sensed this and undercut the two threats ahead, Vettel and Raikkonen – ultimately sealing a place ahead of Vettel who, as it turned out, also ran to a three-stop race.

Thus the question was simply: What would Kimi do?

The Lotus was gentle on rubber yet The Iceman was always up there. Still, this race was staged not on a circuit but in a public park – one hosting cars on but a single Sunday each year. Its surface is among the “greenest” on the trail and rain had also taken it back to square one. When Alonso and Vettel headed pitwards he doggedly stayed out.


Could Kimi make two stick or would tyre degradation cause his tyres to fall off a cliff? The answer came five laps from the end when it was clear Kimi’s times were metronomic, he emphatically demonstrated their condition by setting the race’s fastest lap on his penultimate round despite running a SSU/MN9/MN34 strategy*…

Thus the 2007 title holder, who last led the championship in May 2008 before heading for two seasons in World rallying, ran out 12.5sec up on Alonso (SSU/MN9/MN20/MN39), who not only had to see off Vettel (SSU/MN6/MN21/37) but also won an early scrap with team mate Felipe Massa (SSU/MN8/MN23/MN36), now driving again close to his peak in fourth after a few lacklustre seasons after his serious 2009 accident.

Pitting on lap 20 enabled Alonso to jump Vettel/Massa; in retrospect, though, it was clear this cost him a shot at victory.

To really rub it in post-race, Kimi indicated the victory was among the easiest of his 20.

He said: “Our plan was to do two stops and though it's always difficult in the first races to know when to stop and not go too early, we got it exactly right. We followed the plan and it worked out perfectly. I could save the tyres and go fast if I needed. It was one of the easiest races I've won; I hope we can have many more.”

Hamilton finished fifth in his debut for Mercedes. While he expressed his delight at the place, the fact remains that on raw pace his Silver Arrow was further from the sharp end than its lacklustre predecessor despite W04 having had the longest gestation period of all cars on the current grid.


Team mate Nico Rosberg compounded the team’s painful race by retiring with electrical issues which caused the car to cut out at the one-third point.

Webber completed the top six despite his travails, with Sutil sliding down the order after his MN/MN21/SSN46 run, narrowly beating Force India team mate Paul di Resta to seventh.

Di Resta had out-qualified Sutil (10th to 12th) but lost out by having to start on his qualifying tyre set by virtue of starting in the top ten. Still, towards the end he was again the quicker, as evidenced by the fact that the team issued the “hold position” order three laps from the end.

The real shock of the weekend, though, was McLaren’s (distinct) lack of pace, the silver cars floundering about the mid-field, which cannot help the team’s quest to replace title sponsor Vodafone.

Jenson Button took his MP4/28 to ninth, with new team mate Sergio Perez placing 11th, the duo sandwiching Romain Grosjean’s Lotus.

Grosjean was intent on driving consistently to a single point as he rebuilds his career.

So bad was McLaren’s performance that the team is now seriously considering canning the car and resurrecting its predecessor, which won the final 2012 round. Doable? Apparently all it would take to field MP4/27 is a change of nose wing material after the FIA tightened the rules on flexi materials.


Thus the race ran out as sunset hit the city, leaving crews to pack cars and kit in darkness. In F1 there is no rest, whether for the wicked or winners, and already the long haul to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the 2013 March 24 race has commenced.

So different are the conditions (and Pirelli’s tyre choice) that Melbourne’s lessons will count for nothing in Malaysia.

However, as the euphoria in the black/gold camp settled, Lotus team boss Eric Boullier headed for the airport to fly back to base ahead of turning around Wednesday to lead his team in Malaysia where E21’s advantage is expected to be magnified by the forecast 36-degreC temperature…

Tyre key:
SS -Super Soft
M - Medium
U - Used
N - New
Number denotes pit-stop lap

*Qualifying was postponed to March 17 due to torrential rain in Melbourne