Berthold Bouman, F1 correspondent
- Button takes 3rd Australian GP victory
- Ferrari upbeat despite poor form
- The resurrection of the Williams team
During qualifying for the season opener of the 2012 FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) 2012 Formula One World Championship it became already apparent Red Bull Racing was no longer the dominating force in Formula One. During the race on Sunday Jenson Button proved McLaren has caught up with the Austrian team as he had no problems at all to keep current World Champion Sebastian Vettel far behind him.
Button could take it relatively easy and didn’t even have to drive his McLaren MP4-27 to the limit, nor did he have to stretch his Pirelli tyres to the limit, and thus the Briton reeled in his third Australian GP victory in four years time.
"I actually did pinch myself in the race just to make sure I wasn't dreaming,” the 2009 World Champion said. “After qualifying I looked across at Lewis and said 'Did you think we would be that quick?', and he was like 'No'."
And with another victory in the bag he commented, “Every victory means a lot -- but today shows just how important it was to have a strong winter. The starts of the past two seasons have both been tricky for us, so today is really encouraging. 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."
Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh was pleased with the result, "Jenson was utterly immaculate today. We never under-estimate our opposition, and undoubtedly there's a long hard road ahead of us between now and the end of the season. But we've started well, and in a few days' time we'll roll into Sepang, Malaysia, hungry to score a repeat victory!”
Jenson Button: the smooth operator
Although Lewis Hamilton had grabbed pole position on Saturday, at the start Button outsmarted his McLaren team mate and was the first to dive into Turn 1, and only gave away the lead once to Hamilton on lap 16 when he made his pit stop, but took it back one lap later when it was Hamilton’s turn to pit for new tyres.
"At the start, I really wanted to get away fast in the first two laps to avoid the threat of DRS -- it wasn't easy because I had Lewis right on my tail. But the race went smoothly after that,” Button explained later. After his lightning start Button immediately created a 3.5 second gap to Hamilton, who had first Michael Schumacher and later Vettel on his tail before the first round of pit stops.
Until the Safety Car came out, there was nothing to worry about for Button, his smooth driving style was all he needed to keep the advantage. Button never jumps the kerbs, nor does he hit them hard like for instance Felipe Massa does, and that is the secret to his success. Button can like no other nurse his tyres and therefore can stay out longer on a set of Pirellis, while others are struggling to keep their car on track. Button always takes a corner in a near perfect way, lap after lap, without mistakes. Seemingly little things, but it gave him the edge over his team mate Hamilton, and over Vettel, who was visibly struggling to keep his Red Bull on the right path.
The only time Button had to worry was when Vettel could get close to him during the Safety Car intervention. “I had a 10-second advantage, which was pretty healthy, but the Safety Car cut that to nothing,” Button said. “And, since it was 6.00pm, with the sun going down, it was quite difficult to keep temperature in the tyres when we were running slowly behind the Safety Car. That was a big worry for me, but it worked out okay in the end: I got clear of Seb [Vettel] and the DRS zone pretty quickly and was able to pull out an advantage and hold it to the end.”
For Hamilton things didn’t go smooth at all, first disappointment was losing first place to Button during the start. “I'm not sure what happened at the start, but I lost ground and then suffered from tyre degradation at the end of the first stint,” said Hamilton. He nevertheless was still second with Vettel right behind him after the first round of pit stops, but when the Safety Car came out Vettel was just a little bit quicker when he made his pit stop and Hamilton was then stuck behind the German until the chequered flag was waved.
“I wasn't able to close the gap to Seb -- he was very quick on the straights which meant that it was always going to be difficult to pass him -- so I dropped back into some clear air, then Mark [Webber] put me under pressure,” Hamilton explained. "I struggled out there a little - it wasn't my day.” Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh said to Sky Sports, “He wanted to win and not winning and being beaten by your team-mate is never going to make Lewis happy. The day he becomes happy with being third and behind his team-mate, he won't be the Lewis that we know and love. By next weekend he'll be more determined to put it on pole and win that race, which is what we want him to be.”
A bull without horns
It wasn’t Red Bull’s day either, Webber had qualified in fifth place, while Vettel -- who had been the King of Qualifying for the past two years -- had to settle for sixth place, his worst qualifying position in years. Both Red Bulls were 0.7secs slower than the McLarens, but luckily for Red Bull their race pace was much better than their qualifying pace.
Vettel did not have a good start and Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes found his way past the 2011 Champion, but he took that place back one lap later. Said Vettel, “I had a good start initially and was surprised by Nico, who had a very good start and got past. I passed him again, which was a great maneuver and on the edge.”
Vettel was visibly struggling and instead of starting the race from pole position and running away like he usually does, now had to fight his way through the field, and didn’t get any presents either. In an attempt to get closer to Michael Schumacher in the second Mercedes ahead of him on lap six, he missed his breaking point at Turn 1 and rally-crossed through the grass.
On lap 10 Schumacher had a gearbox problem, ran wide and now Vettel was finally able to get past the Mercedes. He then started to catch up with Hamilton, but the Safety Car changed the game again. Button had just pitted when the Safety Car came out after Vitaly Petrov had parked his Caterham on the main straight. The rest of the field stormed into the pit lane for what would be their final pit stop. Vettel came back on track very close behind Button, while Hamilton was very close to Vettel, and Webber took fourth position behind Hamilton.
Button didn’t make any mistakes when the Safety Car disappeared again on lap 42 and easily kept Vettel at bay. Initially Vettel was able to keep up with Button, but could not get closer, at the same time Hamilton was challenging him and for the remainder of the race the German was in a McLaren sandwich. When he crossed the finish line in second place, he was just two seconds behind Button, while Hamilton finished third less than two seconds behind Vettel.
“I think he drove a fantastic race and was unbeatable today,” Vettel said about Button. “I'm very happy to come away with second place, it's a lot of points and I think people would not have expected it after yesterday. I think we had a better car in the race and it seems to have a lot of potential, now it's up to us to get to it,” said Vettel.
Webber again had one of his famous miserable starts, as a result, at Turn 1 he got caught up in the usual first corner melee, which resulted in the loss of four places. “The car felt quite tricky on the options in the first stint and I wondered if I had some damage from the first corner, but then when I got the primes the race came alive for me. We had a bit of luck with the Safety Car and I was quicker than Lewis at the end, but it's a difficult track to overtake here -- in Malaysia it would have been a different story,” Webber declared.
Although they could not lead or dominate the race, Red Bull are now on their way to Malaysia with 30 points in the bag. Team Principal Christian Horner, “After a difficult day yesterday, we saw strong recovery races today from both Sebastian and Mark.” About Webber’s attempts to overtake Hamilton he commented, “The right call under the safety car put him out right behind Hamilton and you could see how desperate he was in the remaining ten laps. He tried everything to pass Lewis to be on the podium here in Australia. Unfortunately, he didn't quite make it, but a great recovery to get a double finish in second and fourth."
Ferrari upbeat despite poor form
Although it was predicted, Ferrari stunned the Formula One world with a disastrous qualifying on Saturday, Fernando Alonso crashed and had to start from 12th position on the grid, while Massa on the softs couldn’t even get further than 16th place during Q2.
The same was expected for the race, but at least Alonso was able to limit the damage for the Reds, he made another of his dream starts and flew from 12 to eighth position on the first lap, one lap later he was already in sixth place. But Ferrari cannot keep counting on Alonso’s magic flying starts, during the closing stages of the race his fifth place was under attack, by the Williams of Pastor Maldonado, who was obviously quicker than the Ferrari.
“I got a great start and managed a few passing moves in the early stages and later, after the Safety Car, there was a tough fight with Maldonado: when I saw he'd gone off the track I breathed a sigh, because he had been really close to me for quite a few laps up until then,” Alonso stated after the race. The only positive points of the race according to Alonso were ‘the start, the pit stops and the strategy’.
Massa started from 16th place but was promoted to tenth place after the first corner incidents, after his first pit stop he carved his way through the field to eighth spot. After his second stop he fell back to 13th place with the Marussia of Timo Glock just two seconds behind him. Massa blamed the tyres for his poor race pace, “The car was sliding and the degradation was much greater than for the others. I would not say I was driving aggressively and I was actually trying not to be hard on the tyres, but there was nothing I could do.”
After his second stop Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso had already passed him, which was the signal for Senna in the second Williams to pass his compatriot as well. But it ended in tears as neither Massa not Senna would give an inch when they exited Turn 4 and the pair tangled, still both were literally keeping their foot down. Both Brazilians had to retire with damage. “Bruno had better traction on the inside, so we went into Turn 4 side by side: that’s where we tangled and it ended as you saw it did, I think we can consider it a racing incident” Massa said.
And he added, “For me it was something that can happen in a race. From my side, there was nothing wrong because I was on the inside. From his side, it was the end of the race and he was trying to fight for the position, so you cannot say he did something completely wrong.” Wrong or not wrong, in Maranello they are only interested in the result, and the result in this case was that Alonso scored 10 points, while Massa was caught up in another incident and had to retire, and one can only wonder how long it will take before the boss in Maranello loses his patience.
Ferrari has a lot of work ahead, they are not only slower than McLaren and Red Bull, but also Mercedes and Lotus are faster than the famous Scuderia, not to mention the fact Maldonado almost took Alonso’s fifth place during the last lap as his Williams was one tenth of a second quicker. Plenty food for thought in Maranello…
Mercedes had hoped for more
Another team that will leave Australia disappointed is Mercedes. They were tipped to be the surprise of the season as all believed they would have a great advantage due to their revolutionary, and much bespoke, passive front and rear F-Duct. Team Principal Ross Brawn had already played down the benefits of the system, but the Mercedes was still very fast on the straight, too fast to pass.
Seven-times World Champion Schumacher had a good start without hitting anyone, but had Vettel breathing down his neck, fortunately for Schumacher Vettel made a small mistake and ran wide and Schumacher stayed third for another eight laps -- but on lap 10 he ran out of luck as he lost drive. “It was an unfortunate end to my race when I lost drive going into Turn 1. I was trying different gears and occasionally the drive came back, but in the end, I had to go onto the grass to avoid the risk of the car being forced into a spin,” Schumacher commented.
Despite his misfortune Schumacher remained upbeat and confident the new Mercedes is a big step forward. “I believe I could have had a good race this afternoon, and I can still take some positives out of the weekend as we have seen our car was confirming our feelings, and is definitely a clear step forward. We can now build on that and start improving further,” he said.
Rosberg was another of those drivers who had a rocket start at the Albert Park circuit, he leapt from seventh to fourth but one lap later lost fourth position to a charging Vettel. After the first pit stop he made his way back to fifth position again, this time at the tail of Alonso. After his second stop on lap 31 he got locked into an exciting battle with Perez in the Sauber ahead of him, and Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus behind him.
Unfortunately for Rosberg, he collided with Perez on the very last lap which cost him four points, and he declared after the race, “The end was particularly unfortunate with Perez when we touched on the straight, causing a puncture which took away a points scoring finish.” Team Principal Ross Braw admitted both drivers also struggled with the tyre degradation, something they had not anticipated. Brawn said, “We remain positive as both here and over the winter tests, we have demonstrated that we have a fundamentally quick car and we have a lot to build on. So we need to look at what happened today, unravel the problem and work out where we need to improve.”
Kimi Raikkonen’s comeback
The comeback of the 2007 World Champion Raikkonen wasn’t as smooth as hoped, although he only made one mistake this weekend, unfortunately he made that one mistake at exactly the wrong moment, as he encountered the red lights when he wanted to start his flying lap during the first qualifying session, he had to abort his lap and finished on 18th spot. However, due to Perez’ grid penalty handed to him for changing his gearbox, the Finn could start the race from 17th place on the grid.
Perhaps it get s boring now, but Raikkonen also had a rocket start and leapt from 17th to 12th and at the same time avoided to get caught up in the collision between Daniel Ricciardo and Bruno Senna, but then got stuck behind the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi, who fiercely defended his position. Because he was one of the last to pit, Raikkonen had advanced to second place in the race, but he lost quite a lot of time during his first stop and rejoined the race in ninth place, just behind the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi and just ahead the Force India of Paul di Resta.
The Saubers seemed to be his main rivals as he was battling with Kobayashi at one stage, and fighting for position with Perez at another stage of the race. But he got lucky when Maldonado crashed heavily on the penultimate lap of the race, and courtesy to the confusion he caused, Raikkonen climbed up to seventh place, scoring his first World Championship points since 2009.
“It feels like I've never been away,” Raikkonen said, adding, “Yesterday we made some mistakes which cost us quite badly so it could easily have been better in the race.” And the Finn added, “We could have finished in a much better position. We had the Safety Car which I think actually hurt us a bit as well. Overall the weekend was far from ideal, but the car feels good and to come back to 7th means we at least come away with some points."
Also far from ideal was Romain Grosjean’s race. After his impressive third place on the grid he unfortunately tumbled from third to sixth during the start, but it was Petrov in the Caterham who made an end to the Frenchman’s ambitions, the Russian tried to overtake him in Turn 13, didn’t leave enough room and hit the right front wheel of the Lotus, the steering rod broke and that was the end of the race for Grosjean.
”I think we could have achieved a great result today,” the GP2 Champion said. “From what I saw he braked far too late and hit my right front wheel which broke the steering and that was it; my race was over. The team deserved better because they have been working very hard, but by tomorrow morning it will all be a memory.”
The resurrection of the Williams team
Friend and foe have the same opinion, Williams has a car that is one of the fastest they have produced in years. And about time as well, as Sir Frank William’s team has been struggling not only finding the right pace, but they were also running out of sponsor monies, and without enough money you can’t build a fast car in Formula One. A tricky situation that has temporarily been solved by keeping Venezuelan Maldonado under contract, and his Venezuelan sponsors seem to be the financial backbone of the team.
But Maldonado showed he was in excellent shape this weekend and it looked like his new Williams FW34 had given him wings, he qualified in eighth position while Senna had to be satisfied with 14th place on the grid. The race in Melbourne was an excellent opportunity for Maldonado to shed his reputation as a ‘pay-driver’, and that is what he did, although the second and the last lap probably weren’t part of the plan.
Maldonado had a good start, stayed out of trouble, but was a bit over-enthusiastic overtaking Grosjean and collided with the Frenchman. The end of the race for the latter, Maldonado could carry on but had to keep both Saubers behind him. He was in fourth place when he made his first stop, and emerged on new tyres from the pit lane in 10th position.
By lap 24 he was chasing Webber and Rosberg for fifth and sixth position, and when it was time for his second and last stop he was still chasing Webber, but now for fourth position, and Sir Frank must have pinched himself a few times to check he wasn’t dreaming. Thanks to his pit crew Maldonado made a very quick stop and rejoined the race in sixth position, only losing one place.
But now he was behind the Ferrari of Alonso and much to his own surprise he was able to gain on the Spaniard. But on the penultimate lap he put his left rear wheel in the grass, lost control and slammed into the barrier on the other side, race over and eight World Championship points down the drain. With these six points he would have scored more points than Williams scored in 2011.
There wasn’t much to explain for the Venezuelan, “I just lost the back of the car while pushing Alonso and I had nowhere to go.” And he further commented, “We've been pushing so hard to get this car more competitive. I think everybody is surprised by our pace, even more in the race than in qualifying.”
Senna’s race was very disappointing, he got caught up in the first corner incident, had to limp back to the pits for new tyres and later on in the race tangled with Massa, and had to limp back to the pits once more, and that is not how you score points in Formula One, let alone win a race.
A strong Sauber team
Peter Sauber was proud of his team after the race in Melbourne, the first race with a new car was successful, and contrary to last year, this time no mistakes and no disqualification either, but 12 points and a third place in the Constructors’ Championship, ahead of Ferrari and Lotus.
Kobayashi finished in sixth place with a damaged rear wing, and Perez in eighth place but both could have finished higher. Perez hit Kobayashi after Senna spun in front of him on the first lap, Kobayashi’s rear wing was damaged and Perez’ front wing was damaged. Both struggled the whole race but never gave up, and that paid off. But on the penultimate lap when Maldonado spun, everything almost went wrong.
Perez had to lift to avoid hitting the debris from the Williams, Rosberg overtook him but in the process hit the Sauber and Perez fell back to eighth place. Kobayashi who was in ninth place, managed to swerve around Maldonado, Perez and Rosberg and crossed the finish line in sixth position. Perez said about the incident with Rosberg, “Our cars touched and I had to finish the race with tyres that were completely gone. Of course I'm not happy to have lost my position on the final lap, but I am very happy for the team because finishing sixth and eight is a good start to the season.”
A rejuvenated Scuderia Toro Rosso
Toro Rosso should be the breeding ground for young promising drivers, Team Consultant Helmut Marko and Team Principal Franz Tost figured, and thus Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi were replaced by Ricciardo and Vergne. Whether is was the new car or indeed the fresh young blood still remains to be seen, but Ricciardo scored his first World Championship points during his home Grand Prix, just like Webber once scored his first points during his first home Grand Prix in 2002 for Minardi.
Vergne crossed the line in 11th place, but both drivers had been involved in the first corner incident, Vergne hit Webber and went off at Turn 1 and lost a lot of places, Ricciardo hit Senna and he had to pit for a new nose cone. Later in the race Vergne went off into the gravel after he braked too late when he tried to overtake the Force India of di Resta, but Ricciardo did benefit of the crash of Maldonado.
Vergne was leading Ricciardo when he saw the melee ahead of him, the Frenchman had to slow down but Ricciardo used the opportunity to pass his team mate, and di Resta also slipped past Vergne. Of course Ricciardo was happy to score his first points, “I'm extremely happy and it's great to score my first F1 points here at home in Australia, where the crowd has been just fantastic all weekend long!”
Not a good weekend
Not a good weekend for Caterham, Petrov and Heikki Kovalainen had qualified in 19th and 20th position, less than they had hoped for. During testing the Caterham CT01 proved to be a fast car, faster than the 2011 car. But the race pace was disappointing and both drivers fulfilled their usual role at the back of the field, albeit ahead of the Marussias of Timo Glock and Charles Pic, until they had to retire that is. Kovalainen had to retire due to a problem with the front track rod what caused the Caterham car to pull to the left under breaking, while Petrov had to retire due to problems with the power steering.
Not a good weekend for Nico Hulkenberg who made his debut for Force India. He was out before he had even finished his first lap. “I don't seem to have much luck at Albert Park. My first race here in 2010 was less than a lap and today was a repeat of that. I'm still not really sure what happened, but I got hit when I turned into the first corner on lap one.
It's such a shame because I had made a great start, moved up a couple of positions and then I just felt somebody tap me from behind. There was a puncture and the suspension was damaged so my race was over and I had to park up.”
And certainly not a good weekend for HRT, they did not qualify for the race as Narain Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa were almost one and a half second slower than the Q1 107 per cent time, the FIA marshals did not budge after HRT had asked for permission to race, and on Saturday evening the Spanish outfit could already start packing for Malaysia.
Next stop: Sepang International Circuit, Malaysia
No time to rest, no time to regroup and more important, no or very little time for car updates, which means for instance for Ferrari they will race their F2012 in almost the same configuration in Malaysia, and although Team Principal Stefano Domenicali and Technical Director Pat Fry have said they understand the problems they now have, there is really not much hope for improvement.
One thing is certain, Sepang is an altogether different circuit, and the conditions will certainly be hotter than in Melbourne. And that could be a problem for HRT, who failed to qualify for the Australian Grand Prix, Karthikeyan reported his team had cooling problems which contributed to their non-qualifying and it could very well be they once more will not be able to qualify.
Sepang has several long straights which might suit Mercedes’ F-Duct better than the one straight in Melbourne, it has been reported McLaren also has a similar passive F-Duct so they could benefit as well. Long straights and top speed are certainly not the strongest point of Red Bull, and both Vettel and Webber could have problems keeping McLaren and Mercedes behind them on the long straights.
And last but not least, Lotus and Red Bull could lodge a protest concerning the legality of the Mercedes rear wing F-Duct, and in that case it could indeed become a long hot weekend in Malaysia.