Fernando Alonso took Renault's third consecutive victory of the season in an exciting and chaotic Australian Grand Prix, where the drama and incidents lasted from start to finish, literally. McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen kept out of trouble to come...
Fernando Alonso took Renault's third consecutive victory of the season in an exciting and chaotic Australian Grand Prix, where the drama and incidents lasted from start to finish, literally. McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen kept out of trouble to come home second and Ralf Schumacher took Toyota's first podium of the season in third.
Pole-sitter Jenson Button lost out to Alonso after the first of no less than four safety car periods and his Honda engine eventually came to a fiery end just yards from the chequered flag. In a race that only 13 cars finished, Scott Speed scored Toro Rosso's first ever championship point in eighth -- but that wasn't the end of it...
Bear with me; this is going to be a long race report because there's a lot to get through! The conditions were clear and dry, although the track temperature was only in the mid to high twenties which gave some drivers problems with tyres through the afternoon. The madness started before the lights even went green at the start.
Juan Pablo Montoya spun his McLaren on the formation lap, just as he was heading back onto the grid. He was stuck for a few minutes but managed to get going again and meanwhile, Giancarlo Fisichella's Renault had stalled on the front row. Race control amusingly called an "assorted start".
This meant another formation lap and Fisichella had to start from the pit lane, while Montoya got back to his fifth slot. There were a few frowns about that but the stewards did not take action so presumably Montoya was okay to do that. Finally the race got under way and Button immediately came under attack from Alonso.
He managed to hold off the Spaniard and behind them there were a couple of incidents. Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Red Bull's Christian Klien had contact and Massa got stuck between Klien and the Williams of Nico Rosberg. Massa ditched into the wall and that was his race over before it had hardly begun.
"At the first turn, I had Klien on my left and Speed on my right," Massa said. "Christian touched me, which spun me around and to the right, then I hit Rosberg and ended up in the barrier. There was nothing I could do as I was basically a passenger in my car. I am very unhappy because I am sure I could have had a good race."
That bought out the safety car for the first time. David Coulthard's Red Bull and Jarno Trulli's Toyota also had contact and Coulthard escaped but Trulli retired shortly afterwards with a broken suspension due to the incident. Fisichella had a random spin for no apparent reason but continued.
The McLarens had a big fight in the opening lap, side by side and scrapping like mad but the safety car put paid to their shenanigans. Rosberg retired to the pits after the opening incident. "It was really unlucky," he said. "The blame is towards Massa and Klien, one of them did something wrong."
After the confusion it was Button leading from Alonso and Raikkonen, Ralf up to fourth, Mark Webber's Williams fifth and Montoya sixth. At the restart Button made a bit of a hash of it and Alonso shot past into the lead. Webber was all over Ralf's rear wing and got past round the outside and Montoya quickly followed suit.
The BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld had a look as well but Ralf held him off. Raikkonen was harassing Button and Alonso was already stretching his lead away from them. Further down the field the Toro Rossos of Tonio Liuzzi and Speed were up to ninth and 10th, then came Jacques Villeneuve's BMW Sauber, up from 19th, and the Super Aguri of Takuma Sato.
Montoya whipped past Webber and made it look easy then Klien's Red Bull went nose-first into the wall through turn nine, slid down it a while then impacted with the next one. A big shunt for Klien but he was unharmed. Out came the safety car again as there was quite a lot of debris on the track.
"In the (first) safety car period it was very difficult to keep the tyres warm," Klien said. "I was on a heavy fuel load and when I went on the brakes the inside (front wheel) locked and that was it."
Whatever next? The order was then Alonso, Button, Raikkonen, Montoya, Webber, Ralf, Heidfeld and Michael Schumacher's Ferrari up into eighth. Behind them came Liuzzi and Speed, then Villeneuve, Sato, the Honda of Rubens Barrichello, Coulthard, Fisichella and the MF1s of Christijan Albers and Tiago Monterio with Super Aguri's Yuji Ide in between.
Raikkonen lined up Button as the safety car went back in again and got past at turn one despite a big lock up along the way. Button fought back and they went side by side through the next couple of corners but Raikkonen held on to second. Button then came under pressure from Montoya but managed to hold the Colombian off.
Fisichella got past Coulthard and Liuzzi past Michael. A Toro Rosso overtaking a Ferrari -- there's something you don't see every day. Michael was struggling to keep the heat in the Bridgestone tyres, the harder compound no easier than the softer Michelins. Great for Liuzzi though, but his luck didn't hold.
At the back Monteiro had got past Ide but Barrichello and Coulthard were still stuck behind Sato, who was going reasonably well. Montoya was the first of the front runners to pit but quite a few were on a similar strategy. Button, Ralf and Fisichella all peeled in as well and Button got out in front of Montoya when the Colombian came back round.
Montoya wasn't having that and whipped past the Honda round the outside of turn two. Alonso went in for his first stop on the next lap, leaving Raikkonen in the lead but then the McLaren went it as well and the crowds got an Australian leading their home race as Webber took up the front position.
Ralf got a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pits and Webber's glory didn't last very long as the Williams promptly cruised to a halt onto the grass with a suspected transmission problem. "The guys did a good job with the pace of the car but we need to make it to the chequered flag," the Aussie said wryly.
Sato took his first stop which freed Barrichello and Coulthard and Michael and Heidfeld were next to visit the pits. The order was then Alonso, Raikkonen, Montoya, Heidfeld sneaking out into fourth ahead of Button, then Michael, Villeneuve, who had yet to pit, and Ralf in eighth. Button was lagging a bit and Michael was closing in.
Alonso was 20 seconds ahead of Raikkonen and Fisichella got a rather public hurry up over the radio from Renault as he was lapping two seconds off his teammate's pace. Montoya was closing on Raikkonen then Michael, who had been taking a bit of dust and grass here and there on his way round, went into the wall off the last corner.
It was another fairly big impact, although Michael was unhurt. Out of the last corner the Ferrari went onto the grass and bounced over a bump, which threw the car into the wall. "I was behind Jenson, who was having some trouble, and I closed in to get the slipstream out of the last corner and ran wide," Michael explained.
There was debris everywhere and out came the safety car for the third time. Alonso, Raikkonen and Montoya all dived in the pits but it went a bit pear-shaped for McLaren. Raikkonen had a front wing change for some reason, which left Montoya sitting twiddling his thumbs behind him in the pit lane, waiting for his turn.
Back on track it was still Alonso leading, with Heidfeld now second, then Raikkonen, Button, Ralf, Montoya, Fisichella and Villeneuve. However, due to the safety car and the pit stops, the actual running order was mixed up with the backmarkers. The safety car went back in and there was confusion as everyone scrapped for position.
The two MF1s were in the mix as Raikkonen attacked Heidfeld, while Button got hampered by (possibly) a Super Aguri and Montoya went past, earning himself a bump from Button as he did so. Almost as soon as the safety car had gone in, it was back out again when Liuzzi was the next to crash out in a shower of debris.
The Toro Rosso impacted with the barrier somewhere through turns two and three, spun across the track and went into the opposite wall. Another big shunt but Liuzzi was fine. This Grand Prix seemed to spend almost as much time under the safety car as it did actual racing.
"What happened was a real shame as we were competitive and had a really good pace," said Liuzzi. "I am not very happy as I think Jacques (Villeneuve) might have put me in the wall."
At the fourth, and last, restart the MF1s were back in the thick of the front runners. In quick succession Raikkonen, Ralf and Montoya barged past Heidfeld, who's BMW didn't have the grunt to hold them off, and the German was down to fifth. After him it was Button, Fisichella, Villeneuve, Barrichello, Speed, Coulthard, Albers, Sato and Ide.
Monteiro wandered off onto the grass then retired with a mechanical problem and Fisichella was harassing Button. Montoya was closing on Ralf but took a chunk of grass at the same place Michael did. The McLaren bounced much the same as the Ferrari had but Montoya wrestled it back onto the track. However, the jolt activated the engine's safety system and it shut down.
The Colombian had nothing to do but leave it by the side of the pit straight. "It just shut itself off," a rather manic-looking Montoya said. "I got on the kerb and when I tried to bring it back it bounced and just shut off. I was quite close to Ralf and I thought I had him."
His retirement promoted Barrichello, who was wrestling with his brakes, into the last of the points positions. At the front Alonso was about 10 seconds ahead of Raikkonen and Ralf was third. Coulthard was being told on the radio to get past Speed and Renault was urging Fisichella to get a move on. With four laps to go the Italian was right on Button's rear wing.
Raikkonen was catching Alonso rapidly but the Spaniard was obviously just cruising to the flag. Fisichella had a couple of looks at Button and just when it seemed that he was going to have to settle for sixth, Button's Honda engine let go in a cloud of smoke and flames right on the final few corners.
Fisichella went past and Button's car cruised to a fiery halt just yards from the finish line. "It's disappointing to end the weekend as we did today after starting the race in pole position," he remarked. "I could feel that something was wrong with the engine in turn 13 and it was a difficult way to end the race after such a long hard battle."
However, Honda chief executive Nick Fry reportedly said that the team had told Button to pull over rather than cross the line -- if he had, he would incur the engine change grid demotion penalty for the next race at Imola. A dodgy call to make when it meant sacrificing points.
It was a fine victory for Alonso, who avoided all the madness and was pretty much undisturbed at the front. "This was a very different race to the other two so far this season," he said. "In Bahrain, I was fighting with Michael all the way; in Malaysia, it was Jenson I was battling for second place. But today, it was quite comfortable. There were no fights, and I was very relaxed for a lot of the race."
"I had a good lead after the first pit-stops, but I lost it during the second safety car. However, I managed to get a good gap on each re-start, and that made life quite easy for me. I was very happy with the balance all the way through the race, so I just needed to make sure I didn't take any unnecessary risks and I am pleased we were able to save the engine performance for the next race."
Raikkonen wanted the win but it wasn't going to happen once Alonso got away and the Finn had problems of his own to deal with. "I enjoyed a good battle with Juan Pablo at the start, but when I overtook Jenson I flatspotted my right front tyre which caused some vibration," he explained.
"However I was still able to go flat out and keep up with Fernando, but then all of a sudden the footplate on the right hand side of my front wing fractured probably due to the vibration. As a result I started to have severe understeer and lost a lot of time to Fernando."
Ralf did a good job for Toyota in third. "We are all very happy with what we achieved today," he commented. "The drive through penalty was my fault because I accidentally hit the button twice but I was lucky and due to the safety car periods we achieved a lot more than we ever thought before this weekend."
"Grip was hard to come by so I really had to fight the whole race to keep the car there, but it worked out in the end and we achieved a great result. We are still a way from the top teams so we have to work, but I have no doubt that our crew is able to do that."
Heidfeld did an equally good job for BMW in fourth. Both Toyota and BMW have improved but Trulli seems dogged by bad luck. Heidfeld's teammate Villeneuve made a great recovery from the back of the grid to come home sixth, BMW's first double-points finish. After his early woes Fisichella picked up well enough from his pit lane start to take the flag in fifth.
Barrichello took his first points for Honda in seventh and Button was officially classed 10th, which allowed Speed to pick up that one point in eighth. Toro Rosso may face yet more questions about the restricted V10 engine after Liuzzi's move on Michael, although the former champion himself said he did not think the Faenza squad had an advantage.
However, in a post-race stewards' meeting it was deemed that Speed had overtaken Coulthard under yellow flags after Liuzzi's crash and the American was given a 25 second penalty. He dropped to 11th and Coulthard, who finished ninth, was promoted to eighth. Speed was also fined for swearing during the hearing.
Albers was the sole MF1 to reach the line in 11th and Super Aguri enjoyed getting both its cars to the end, Sato 12th and Ide 13th, although Sato actually finished in the pit lane with a problem on his front wheels. It was an entertaining and exciting race, where you never really knew what was going to happen next, which is pretty much how it should be.
Alonso has stretched his championship lead to 14 points over teammate Fisichella and rival Raikkonen, while Renault is now 19 points ahead of McLaren in the constructors' standings. Ferrari looked good in the first race but Melbourne was dismal for the reds and questions have to be asked about the team's competitiveness.
Things may change when F1 returns to Europe, the San Marino GP being the next round on April 23rd, but for the moment Renault and Alonso are off to a strong start to defend their world titles. Final top eight classification: Alonso, Raikkonen, R. Schumacher, Heidfeld, Fisichella, Villeneuve, Barrichello, Speed.