Hannah Taylor, F1 correspondent
After a partly restful and half testing related Winter break over the last few months, the FIA Formula One fraternity finally got back to business as the 2012 season opening race took place today. As the lights went out to mark the beginning of the Australian Grand Prix, the action on and off the track that played out, certainly did not disappoint in terms of giving its audience a gripping first Grand Prix.
While the Double World Championship winning Red Bull Racing team finished the 2011 season on a high, their start to the 2012 season ended up with a mixed bag of results across the first racing weekend.
However, it was a different story for their closest rival team in the Constructor’s Championship; as McLaren’s Jenson Button snatched the lead from team mate Lewis Hamilton at the start, and went on to score a hatric at the Albert Park circuit when he took the chequered flag as the winner.
This is a perfect start to my season and I’m already looking forward to Malaysia.
Button explained his feelings following the victory at the first race of the season and how he felt the new car performed.
“Every victory means a lot – but today shows just how important it was to have a strong winter… the guys at the circuit and all the men and women back in Woking have done an amazing job to get us here. Today means a lot to me, and I’m sure it’ll mean a lot to all of them too: it’ll make those extra hours worked in the early hours of the morning all the more worthwhile, because we know we can do great things with this car… there’s a huge amount of positives to take away from this weekend: we’ve got a great car and we can fight for the world championships. This is a perfect start to my season and I’m already looking forward to Malaysia” commented Button.
Sadly, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel did not quite have the same taste of success as Button. The reigning World Champion could only do enough to qualify in sixth place yesterday, and had to settle for second best in the race today.
Meanwhile, polesitter Hamilton was not able to convert his first place qualifying slot into victory, as he took the final spot on the podium and secured third place for himself.
Before the most anticipated moment arrived and the drivers and teams could make their mark on the new season, it was confirmed that one team in the field would not be taking part in the proceedings. Sadly, the Hispania Racing pair of Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan both failed to qualify within the 107% ruling. The decision was then down to the stewards whether the drivers would participate in the race, and unfortunately the announcement did not go in favour of them. Consequently, the duo were not permitted to race and were forced to watch from the side-lines.
Nevertheless, with only 22 drivers on the track who did take part in the festivities, there was certainly a lot of anticipation down the grid, as six World Champions would be among those racing.
Initially, the first battle that formed was an in team one between Hamilton in first place and Button behind him in second position. With the Englishmen not only being team mates and World Champions in their own right, it was certain that there was a lot at stake as they went into the first corner. Polesitter Hamilton experienced the misfortune of having rear wheel spin which enabled Button to slip by and take the lead.
Williams’s driver Bruno Senna also suffered the same fate like Hamilton and spun at the start.
Fortunately, both drivers held it together and raced on despite appearing vulnerable to their rivals at this point in time. The initial run of bad luck in the race which appeared to have a knock on effect with some of the midfield runners then spread to Lotus-Renault’s Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman’s return to the sport this season got off to a shaky start in the race. Following an impressive performance in qualifying yesterday, which led him to secure third place on the grid, he was not able to hold onto this solid grid slot for long when it came to the race. Inevitably, he lost a few places at the start, which then led the way for some front runners to get back up the field and battle with those nearer to the top. Among those who had the advantage at the start of the race, were the Mercedes pair of Nico Rosberg and seven time World Champion Michael Schumacher. Both drivers climbed their way up the field during the first lap and Rosberg managed to leap ahead of Vettel in the process.
In addition to the in team battle for position between Hamilton and Button, drivers from opposing teams also jumped on the band wagon and scrapped for position between themselves early on. The Williams-Renault driver Pastor Maldonado came up against Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso, who was working his way through the field from 12th place where he qualified yesterday.
As a result of the Red Bull duo qualifying a little further down the field yesterday, it seemed that their ups and downs continued as the race got underway. Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber appeared to be having issues in the midfield, when he reported that his car may have been damaged after possibly being knocked by another driver. This indicated that the Australian’s race did not get off to the best start, as he raced on home soil under the watchful eye of his fans.
Meanwhile, Alonso’s Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa was also at the heart of the action, when he found himself scrapping for position with Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi on lap two.
When the yellow flag was waved to note debris or oil on the track, and the likes of Senna and Marussia’s Charles Pic coming into the pits for a tyre change, this provoked suspicion that some of the field must have had a bit of contact with each other. During this uncertain time the action towards the front was getting competitive. Vettel appeared to be back on track with his form as he found a gap to pass Rosberg at Turn 10 for fifth place.
Suddenly, the attention then turned from the very front of the pack towards the midfield runners. Williams’s driver Pastor Maldonado and Grosjean appeared to get a bit too close for comfort which resulted in Grosjean being the casualty. He rapidly left the track and took the scenic route, and had damage to his right front tyre which led to a broken steering arm. Subsequently, Grosjean was forced to retire from the race before it had barely begun.
The string of events on the track which led to some drivers coming off it continued at this point. The second Australian driver in the pack, Daniel Ricciardo then found himself in the picture when he had contact with Senna. Following the close encounter between Senna and the Toro Rosso driver, which led to essential pitstop visits, both midfield runners returned to the race but dropped to the back of the grid in any case.
Where the front runners were concerned and with the DRS enabled on lap three this led the way for the Championship rivals to go head to head for position. However, Button was the man on a mission and in the best place leading from the front. The 2009 World Champion proved that he deserved to be running in that position as he set the fastest lap of the race. He went on to top the timesheets with a lap time of 1:33.131secs on lap six. Nevertheless, Button was not completely out of the woods despite his solid pace. Button’s team mate, Hamilton was not too far down the road in second place, followed by Schumacher, Vettel, Rosberg, Alonso, Webber, Massa, Maldonado, Sauber’s Sergio Perez, Kobayashi, Lotus-Renault’s Kimi Raikkonen and Force India’s Paul Di Resta.
As Di Resta was running well in the midfield, his new team mate, Nico Hulkenberg made an early exit from the race after having an unlucky start. The German returns to a racing seat this season after previously driving for Williams in 2010. Sadly, Hulkenberg’s race at the circuit two years ago ended before he had completed the first lap and today’s seemed to be much the same. It was reported that he had been hit on lap one which caused a tyre puncture and damage to the suspension. Consequently, he was not able to continue in the race and retired from today’s proceedings.
As if there had not already been a fair share of scraps and incidents early on in the Grand Prix, these continued to unfold as the laps went on and even Vettel was involved in the melee. Despite the experience he holds as a double and reigning World Champion, even Vettel can sometimes have ups and downs. On lap six the German was running in fourth place and suddenly appeared to brake too late. As a result of this, he then lost the handling of his car and proceeded to take the country route off the track momentarily. When Vettel got back into the zone soon after the minor blip, he found himself scrapping for position with Rosberg. The pair were battling over fourth position which Vettel was holding onto at the time. The fellow countrymen then had the threat of Alonso and Webber hunting them down. At this point in time the top 10 drivers were covered by 20 seconds which indicated how the level of competitiveness could soon increase further.
While the battle between fourth and seventh place was going on, it was Rosberg who appeared to be the first to come under threat. He suddenly came under pressure from the prancing horse of Alonso who appeared to be on a charge. Just behind this battle was Maldonado who had the other Ferrari catching him in the form of Massa. The pair were running in eighth and ninth place at this stage.
On lap 11 the performance of the tyres appeared to come into question. Alonso was the first to report via his team radio that his rear tyres were going off. Before the race it was thought that the tyres would last until around lap 20, but with this early indication from Alonso it was looking that the pit stop window would arrive sooner rather than later.
As the race progressed the scraps for position continued and Schumacher and Vettel had some healthy competition between them. Vettel had the upperhand to overtake his fellow countryman and World Champion, which was also a time when Schumacher’s team mate Rosberg came under fire. Rosberg was running well in fourth place but Alonso was gradually closing the gap and edging nearer to him. However, Rosberg’s team mate Schumacher then appeared to experience problems as a result of his battle with Vettel. During their scrap for position Schumacher ended up going into the run off area and was seen coasting once back on track. There were reports that his car had possible transmission issues and Schumacher retreated to the garage on lap 11. Unfortunately, as Schumacher appeared to be going nowhere fast this was soon confirmed to be the case and he retired from the Grand Prix. Consequently, this meant that Rosberg was left flying the flag for the Mercedes team and he made his pit stop for a tyre change around this time to re-join in 12th place.
With the pit stop window appearing at this stage in the race, lots of the drivers followed suit and decided to make their pit stops for a tyre change. This included the likes of Massa who re-joined in 15th place and Webber who went back out in 10th place. As the majority of the field decided to make their pit stop, this led to a shuffle in positions.
Following Button’s manoeuvre on Hamilton which enabled him to take the lead, the positions changed back when Button needed to make his pit stop. Around lap 16 Hamilton took over first place for the time being, as Button was in the pits and Red Bull decided to respond and Vettel made his stop as well. While Webber’s team mate was out of the picture for a short while, he appeared to find some good pace and set the fastest time on lap 17. He topped the timesheets with a lap of 1:32.262secs. Meanwhile, Hamilton did not have long running in first place as his time arrived to pit and Button regained the top spot once more. After the pit stop window was over some of the midfield runners resumed their scraps for position. On lap 18 the battle was over fifth place concerning Vettel, Toro Rosso’s second new recruit Jean-Eric Vergne, Alonso, Rosberg and Webber. The first man to make a manoeuvre was Alonso who caught Vergne at Turn two on lap 19. With Webber and Rosberg also on the scene it was inevitable that someone would lose the battle. Sadly, rookie Formula One driver this season, Vergne was the one defeated and he dropped two places at this point. The Frenchman rapidly fell down the field to ninth position, as a result of the others muscling in on the action.
While the grid experienced a bit of a shake up with Schumacher retiring from the race and the pit stops taking place, this meant that on lap 20 Perez had climbed up to second place. However, there was a slight concern that he had a damaged front wing but he was doing well as he had not been in for a tyre change either. With the likes of Hamilton and Vettel just behind him though it was only a matter of time before they pounced to pinch his second place. Inevitably, the time soon came for one of the two World Champions to attack and Hamilton succeeded in taking second position.
Surprisingly though Perez failed to give in to Vettel’s pressure initially, and the Mexican driver was holding Vettel back for a short while. Sadly, Perez could not sustain the pressure from Vettel who soon took his chance to get into third place at Turn 11 on lap 21. Perez’s situation did not improve when he then became a target for Alonso who was edging ever closer to him. A little while later and Perez lost his fourth place and quickly dropped to sixth place when Raikkonen snatched fifth position from him.
When everything appeared to be going smoothly at the front of the field, Button soon set alarm bells ringing when he reported of vibration on his car. The tables turned to favour Hamilton for a while as he proved to be setting good pace. Despite running in second place at the time Hamilton set the fastest time on lap 25 with a 1:31.740secs. The 2008 World Champion went on to better this time a couple of laps later as he was chasing his team mate ahead.
In the meantime, the midfield scraps for position appeared to be in full swing once again. Massa was leading the trio of drivers battling over eighth place on lap 25. However, he was under pressure from ninth placeman Raikkonen and Kobayashi in 10th place. Just a couple of laps later and Raikkonen found his window of opportunity to pass by Massa. The Finnish driver was soon promoted to eighth place, which led Massa to drop down to ninth position. Massa’s fortune went from bad to worse at this point as he then lost ninth place to Kobayashi and ended up in 10th position on lap 27.
At the time of Massa having his fair share of problems, Button appeared to regain momentum at the front and started to make tracks away from Hamilton again.
On lap 29 Perez was still the sole driver to have not yet pitted as Massa made a visit to the pits at this stage in the race. Where the battle just off the top spots was concerned, Webber was running well at this time in the Grand Prix and gradually catching Rosberg. Unfortunately, the local hero racing on home turf did not have enough pace to take on Rosberg at Turn 11. The order in the midfield scrap had Rosberg in fifth place, Webber in sixth position and Maldonado in seventh place. Suddenly on lap 31 Webber and Rosberg’s battle came alive and they were side by side scrapping for position. Rosberg ended up using the escape road which provoked reports that he may come to the attention of the stewards if he had been seen to gain an advantage over Webber. However, during their scrap when this occurred it appeared that the battle remained even and Rosberg did give the place back again to Webber. With their scrap for position coming to an end Rosberg took the decision to pit in any case.
Meanwhile, Webber went on to record the fastest time on lap 33 from fifth place. As Webber was running well, Hamilton reported about a lack of rear tyre grip via his team radio. Therefore, not everything was running smoothly towards the front of the field for some drivers.
Around this time in the race proceedings another pit stop window arrived. Alonso was one of the first main front runners to stop for a tyre change. Although the Spaniard was running in fourth place at the time, Webber made sure to keep this position safe when he took it over for a while. Button was then next to blink and made his pit stop, which led Hamilton to take over the lead once again. Button then re-joined the race in second place until he resumed his spot at the front later on in the race.
There was then an unexpected turn of events which caused a positive result for some and negative for others. Sadly, the newly branded Caterham team (formerly Team Lotus last season) suffered their first retirements for this season and under their new name. Vitaly Petrov came to a standstill in his car on the main straight, which then led to a safety car situation for a while. The safety car was deployed on lap 37 to ensure the safe removal of Petrov’s car, and as this was going on some of the field decided to make their next pit stops. This included Vettel, Maldonado and Ricciardo who took advantage of the safety car period to pit. However, following just one pit stop earlier in the race, Perez remained the only man with that achievement under his belt so far in the proceedings.
As part of the rules and regulation changes in Formula One this season, there is a rule that during safety car periods the lapped cars have to overtake which then allows the main pack to get racing for position again. Those concerned in the race and had to adhere to this rule included the sole Caterham left in the race, Heikki Kovalainen, Marussia’s Timo Glock and his French team mate, Pic. Unfortunately, the Caterham’s race rapidly went from bad to worse when the second car retired from the race during the safety car period. At first when Kovalainen went back to the pits and parked his car in the garage, the cause leading to his retirement was unknown. It was later reported that there was a suspected front left suspension problem, which meant there was an imbalance on the car.
When the race finally got underway again at the end of lap 41, Button went off quickly and into the distance in first place. This meant Vettel had lost his opportunity to catch the leader and potentially launch an attack on Button’s first place.
Meanwhile, Kobayashi was scrapping for position with Raikkonen who lost his ninth place as a result of their battle. Kobayashi soon reported after getting the upperhand on Raikkonen that there were pieces of rear wing falling off his Sauber. Nevertheless, the Japanese driver who is famous for being fearless continued to race on.
Towards the front of the field again and Button was demonstrating why he deserved to be running in first place. He topped the timesheets on lap 44 with a time of 1:30.567secs. On the following lap the DRS was back in action again after being disabled during the safety car period. Button then went on to better the previous fastest lap with a 1:30.220secs. On the other hand, Button’s team mate Hamilton looked to possibly hot on his heels as he beat this fastest time. Hamilton topped the timesheets from third place with a time of 1:29.865secs.
While there was excitement at the front of the field with Button and Hamilton pipping each other with lap times, the midfield action at this point in the race did not disappoint either. Massa and Senna both went off into the gravel as the pair came together. Two separate incidents occurred at this point as it was reported, that the contact between Senna and Massa led to Senna’s puncture. Ricciardo and Massa also came together which was thought to have caused Massa’s puncture. As a result of the double whammy of contact, Massa ended up in 16th place at the time and Senna was just one place in front of him.
As Senna visited the pits for a tyre change to repair the damage from the puncture, Massa could no longer take part in the race which left Alonso flying the flag the Italian team. Inevitably, the incident at Turn four between Massa and Senna caught the attention of the stewards, and it was reported on lap 49 that it would be looked into at the end of the race.
When the closing stages of the race approached and there were only eight laps remaining, the margin between the top four drivers in particular got smaller and smaller. The gap was reduced to just 5.6secs on lap 50. This indicated that the racing action was far from over and it was still the case in the midfield as well. Di Resta was one driver who came to the forefront of the action late on, when it looked like he was struggling for pace. The Scotsman, who is now into his second Formula One season, was passed by one of this year’s rookie racers, Vergne on lap 51. Di Resta’s track position did not improve as he dropped to 13th place in quick succession, as Ricciardo also found an opportunity to pass by.
With just six laps of the Grand Prix remaining on lap 56, Button was the leading man still but Vettel was cutting down the gap between the pair. He topped the timesheets with a lap time of 1:29.690secs from second place on lap 52. While a few places down the field and Perez who had managed on just one pit stop throughout, was running well in seventh position and it was where he finished last year. However, he and team mate Kobayashi were disqualified after the 2011 race due to a technical infringement. In terms of the present race he was close to finishing, Perez was on course to secure a top 10 point scoring position.
As the 58 lap marathon was getting ever closer to finishing, Vettel was still trying to chase Button and muscle in on his expected first place finish. Vettel went on to top the timesheets again on lap 55 with a time of 1:29.587secs.
Sadly, before the chequered flag waved to mark the end of the first race of the 2012 season, there was another retirement to add to the list. Senna visited the pits again on lap 55 and appeared to be out of the race with his car parked up in the garage.
The racing certainly continued though as the penultimate lap began. Maldonado and Alonso scrapped for position and so did Rosberg and Perez, who appeared to be struggling for grip after only making the one pit stop in the race. At this point in the proceedings, Perez was running in seventh place ahead of Rosberg, Kobayashi and Raikkonen.
With the scrap in the midfield still very much alive, Button topped the timesheets and recorded a time of 1:29.187secs in first place. At this time of Button very much in control at the front, and completing the final corners of his race to take the win, the midfield action was still unfolding behind him. Maldonado suddenly ended up with a wheel hanging off his car after crashing into a wall. It appeared that he went onto the astroturf, which led him to hit the kerb and bouncing off there to then end up in the wall. Raikkonen was also battling with Perez and was ahead of him, with Di Resta and Vergne following behind them. Suddenly, there was the Mercedes of Rosberg spotted at the side of the track, and he ended up with a damaged front wing and broken steering arm. It was reported that Rosberg had contact with Perez, then Ricciardo overtook his team mate Vergne, then Raikkonen to his chance to pass all of them in the final moments.
Nevertheless, Button was crowned the winner which gives him three Australian GP victories in a row and his 13th career win to date. Vettel took second place, which with all his wins last season, will seem like new territory in that position on the podium. Hamilton picked up the final spot on the podium to secure third place overall. Webber had a solid result to his home race as he finished higher than he has before to take fourth place. Alonso managed to land fifth place for the Ferrari team, following Massa’s unfortunate retirement during the race. It was a good result all round for the Sauber duo as Kobayashi got sixth place, and team mate Perez came across the line in 8th position overall. After making his return to Formula One this season, former World Champion, Raikkonen finished the race in a Sauber sandwich to take seventh position. While, as a former back marker of the grid last season and racing on home soil like Webber, Ricciardo had a rewarding end to his first race with his new team and took ninth place. As a result of the last minute scrap for positions at the end of the Grand Prix, Di Resta did well to pick up the final top 10 point scoring position. Sadly, as one of the rookies this season in Formula One, Vergne narrowly missed out on the points and pipping team mate Ricciardo results wise. Nevertheless, he delivered a good performance for his first race and secured 11th place overall. Despite the problems Rosberg experienced on the final lap of the race, he ended up in 12th place in the final standings. The first of the Williams drivers lines up next in the form of Maldonado, who landed 13th place for himself. The Marussia pair came next with Glock in 14th place ahead of his rookie team mate, Pic.
In addition to De la Rosa and Karthikeyan who failed to make the grade and did not get to race, there were several drivers who did take part but various problems occurred that led to their unexpected retirements. The six drivers that make up this list include; Massa, Kovalainen, Petrov, Schumacher, Grosjean, Hulkenberg and Senna.
With the first race now under the drivers and team’s belts, some have been fortunate enough to score some points already. Button is inevitably in first place in the Drivers’ Standings with 25 points to his name. Vettel comes next in second place with 18 points to start his season off. Hamilton is in third position with 15 points. Webber managed to pick up some points at his home race to take fourth place with 12 points at present. Alonso lines up next in fifth position and being the final driver to pick up double figured points as he has 10 to his name. The next five drivers are currently in the midfield line up in the standings, with Kobayashi in sixth place with eight points, Raikkonen next with six points to his name, Perez follows in eighth place with four points from today’s result. While Ricciardo has two points and starts off in ninth place and Di Resta rounds of those point scorers in 10th position with one point.
Where the Constructor’s Standings is concerned, McLaren have picked up 40 points to take an early lead, ahead of second place Red Bull who have 30 points. Currently in third place is the Sauber team with 12 points and they are in front of Ferrari who have 10 points. Lotus-Renault come next with six points and Toro Rosso are in sixth place with two points. The final team, who also picked up points in the first race, was Force India who is in seventh place with one point.
Following the action that took place to mark the beginning of the 2012 season at the Australian Grand Prix, which included many exciting overtaking manoeuvres, some controversial collisions and a safety car period, the opening race has certainly set a precedent for the 19 other races to come this year. It seems that with the implementation of new rules and regulations, and technical developments that have been made to the new cars, the first race has definitely delivered some gripping action with varying levels of success for some teams and drivers. It was also an opportunity for those new to the sport to experience their first race, and those who are World Champions like Vettel, to face their rivals as they go head to head for another season. The Formula One fraternity now have just one week to recover from today’s race and the jet lag that follows, before they head to Sepang next weekend for the Malaysian Grand Prix.