By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
After a long winter stop and four pre-season testing sessions in Spain, the lights finally turned green in Melbourne, Australia, last weekend for the 2011 Formula One season. Expectations were high after the introduction of the Drag Reduction System (DRS), known as the adjustable rear wing, and the re-introduction of the Kinetic Energy Recovery system (KERS).
Sebastian Vettel started his 2011 season with a victory, leaving his rivals far behind him when he scored his third successive race win. But he also played down Red Bull’s dominance. “I don't really like the word dominant at this stage. We had a very good race today, won a lot of points, and enjoyed ourselves, which is even more important, and now we have to take it step-by-step,” the 23-year old German said.
But the fact remains Vettel had a flying start, immediately took 2.5 seconds on his first lap and could control the race after the first pit stops. “After my first stop it was crucial to get past Jenson Button, which I did. That was important. In the second part of the race I didn’t know what was going on behind Lewis [Hamilton], if he was under pressure or not, but towards the end of the race I could control it more,” said Vettel.
His Red Bull colleague Mark Webber was puzzled as to why he couldn’t find the same pace as Vettel had this weekend, “It was very frustrating. Seb drove a good race, in terms of what the car can do, but it's not normal for me not to go and match the rhythm at the front”. And the Australian added, “I wasn't quick today and it was the same in qualifying yesterday, so we need to understand the reason why. There wasn't much else I could do today. I lost the last position to Fernando Alonso during the pit stops and that was it really.”
Red Bull Racing, no KERS, but very fast
Speculations Red Bull would have a ‘start-only’ version of KERS proved to be wrong, and the team revealed after the race they didn’t use the system at all, because it was disabled after Vettel, who ran the system during the free practice sessions, had encountered technical problems. To be on the safe side Red Bull decided to switch it off altogether during qualifying and the race. Horner had no plans to tell his opponents they wouldn’t use KERS, and when Webber and Vettel were asked about it after qualifying, they declared they didn’t use it because it was not ‘fully charged’, thus keeping the myth of the start-only KERS alive.
We haven't had KERS on at all this weekend
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, “We haven't had KERS on at all this weekend. We didn't want to tell anybody, but looking at the start ... it didn't look like we needed it!” And added, “We were a bit nervous about telling everybody before the race. We ran it on Friday and we weren't happy with the reliability, we felt it was a potential risk, so we took it off both cars and didn't race it at all this weekend.”
Red Bull’s rivals now fear this year will become another season of catching up with the super fast by Adrian Newey designed RB7. And they have a reason to be worried, Red Bull said they would solve the problems they encountered with KERS before the Malaysian Grand Prix. “In Malaysia there is a long run to the first turn and we are keen to get it on the car there,” Horner said.
McLaren’s miraculous recovery
Ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, McLaren drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button had said they feared their McLaren MP4-26 was too slow to run at the front of the field, their warnings were taken seriously and some media even suggested Hamilton should leave McLaren and try his luck at Red Bull or Ferrari if he would be struggling another season with a relatively uncompetitive car.
But McLaren acted quickly and adopted another strategy, they dropped the experimental aerodynamic parts like the forwards pointing exhaust system and made a miraculous recovery. Hamilton, who also had a problem with the floor of the car after it had been damaged, was certainly happy with the progress and the result, “I wouldn't have thought it possible for us to make such a big step by the first race from where we were two weeks ago. I honestly can't tell you how happy I am, and I'm sure we're all relieved within the team to see the performance is there.”
Button was also surprised the new updates worked so well, “Two weeks ago I would have taken sixth place, so we've come a long way, and I am truly shocked at how much we have improved. We were so slow in testing. You could drive the car with one hand and one eye, but now I'm really excited looking ahead to the next race in Malaysia.”
Button versus Massa
Button lost a few places at the start, and immediately got stuck behind Felipe Massa’s Ferrari, and when he tried to overtake him he ran wide and left the track, and ended up ahead of Massa. He did not give his place back to Massa and was given a drive through penalty. “He slowed us both down massively. I was in front before we turned in, but he went really deep into the corner and pushed me wide so that I couldn't take my normal line,” Button explained. And added, “As soon as Ferrari saw that happen, they pitted Massa. And as soon as that happens you get a drive through. I don't know if that was done on purpose or not.”
I don't know if that was done on purpose or not
Massa of course had a different view, “I was holding my position and he was not able to pass me. He tried many times and I was able to stay there many times. Then, when he passed me, he passed me in a not allowed situation. He had to give me back the position or they penalized him, which was the case.”
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh reported the incident to the FIA stewards and asked them what to do. “We were told by race control that they'd get back to us but they didn't,” said Whitmarsh. Not much later Massa made his pit stop and Button could therefore not give his place back to Massa anymore. At least that is McLaren’s vision, they could have given that place back to Massa immediately, but for one reason or another, they didn’t.
The FIA has tightened the regulations regarding cutting corners and chicanes, and the regulations now clearly state that a car must stay with four wheels within the white lines on both sides of the track, and they also clearly state that curbs and run off areas are not part of the circuit. Although Button technically speaking did not cut a corner or chicane, not all four wheels of his car were on the track as defined by the FIA when the incident occurred, and therefore he was penalized.
Ferrari to investigate drop in performance
Ferrari also had great expectations ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, as they had performed well during pre-season testing. Instead the team from Maranello went home with a fourth place for Alonso, and after the disqualification of the Sauber team, Massa was promoted from ninth to seventh place. “There is no point in denying that we leave Australia with a sense of disappointment,” team principal Stefano Domenicali said after the race. “Now we will have to study everything carefully to work out what prevented us from being as competitive as we had expected this weekend. Then we will have to react immediately, starting with the next race in Malaysia,” he added.
Alonso had already warned this year would be all about the tyres and strategy, but denied his fourth place was disappointing. “If you just look at the classification, this is not such a bad result; yes we have lost ground to Vettel and Hamilton, although we have done better than Webber and Button,” said Alonso. About Red Bull and Vettel Alonso said: “Vettel seemed to be on another planet, while the others were a bit closer, not to the extent they were on Friday, but at least not as far off as in qualifying yesterday.”
Mercedes GP and Williams leave Melbourne empty handed
Not a good weekend for Mercedes, the German Silver Arrows team also had high expectations after the last pre-season test in Barcelona, but left Melbourne empty handed. Both Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg were forced to retire from the race after incidents with other drivers. Schumacher was hit in the rear which resulted in a punctured tyre which ultimately damaged the floor of the car, and had to park his car in the Mercedes garage after just 19 laps.
“I had quite a good start but was then hit in turn three which punctured the right rear tyre and resulted in damage to the floor. As the damage was quite substantial, we decided to stop the car for safety reasons,” the seven-times world champion said. The weekend didn’t end any better for Rosberg, who was eliminated by an over ambitious Rubens Barrichello who tried to overtake him, but ran out of asphalt and hit the Mercedes hard.
I immediately thought that was it and I had to pull over to stop the car
Almost immediately smoke poured out of the back of his car, and Rosberg was forced to park it along the track. “I saw Rubens in my mirror and he was quite far away so I was surprised that he hit me. I immediately thought that was it and I had to pull over to stop the car,” the young German said. Team Principal Ross Braw was understandingly a disappointed man, “This has obviously been a very frustrating weekend for our team. Michael’s race was spoilt almost immediately with a collision which eventually caused sufficient damage to force us to retire the car.” And the Briton added, “It’s a disappointing end to a disappointing first weekend of the season.”
It was also a disappointing weekend for Williams, rookie Pastor Maldonado had to retire after just nine laps due to a mechanical failure. “I was getting settled into the race, everything was feeling ok in the car, I felt good and then it went. We don’t know exactly what happened with the car; we will have to look into the problem with our engineers. There was no warning, we just stopped and that was it for us,” the Venezuelan said.
Barrichello, the most experienced driver on the grid, made a rookie mistake and slammed into Rosberg’s Mercedes and had to retire on lap 48. But the Brazilian doesn’t think he did anything wrong, “I wasn’t planning on overtaking him at that point, I was defending from Kobayashi. I think we have one tyre with grip and one with less and so we have different braking points.” And blamed Rosberg for the incident, “Rosberg braked earlier, and was already in the middle of the corner before I could stop the car.”
Petrov’s first podium
Vitaly Petrov is the first Russian ever to participate in Formula One, and wrote history when he also became the first Russian driver to score a podium finish. Last year the 26-year old Russian’s performance was under par, especially compared to the results of his now injured team colleague Robert Kubica. Petrov had a difficult season last year, made unnecessary mistakes and even came close to being ousted from the Renault team. Many believe he was hired by Lotus Renault this year because of his sponsor portfolio, and not because of his talent.
But in Melbourne Petrov made no bones about it, he outpaced his very experienced colleague Nick Heidfeld during free practice and qualifying. Heidfeld was baffled and could not offer any explanation why Petrov was over two seconds faster during qualifying, and his chances on a good result evaporated after the right-hand sidepod of his Lotus Renault was destroyed, he finished in 12th place while Petrov was on the podium celebrating.
Petrov had a strong start and jumped from sixth to fourth place, ahead of Alonso and Button. The Russian was on a two stop strategy, soft, soft, hard, and stopped on lap16 and 36. After his last stop Petrov was under pressure from Alonso, and although the red Ferrari came closer during the final laps of the race, Petrov kept his cool and made no mistakes.
“I was able to run in some clean air and push hard, as well as looking after my tyres. Our two-stop strategy was clearly the right decision and we made it work,” he said. “To be honest I'm very happy to be here. We came here with some new parts and through free practice our car looked pretty strong, and also qualifying wasn't too bad. Then we just focussed on our race and I think today the team did everything perfectly. We must be proud of our placing today.”
Too early to judge new rules
Pirelli had predicted three or four pit stops, but the tyres lasted much longer than expected, also because of the cool weather. In Melbourne most teams were on a two stop strategy and had no problems at all with the new tyres and the lap times were consistent. Only Webber, Massa, Alonso and Jaime Alguersuari made three tyre stops. Rookie Sergio Perez, who made a dream debut at Melbourne, managed to finish the race on just two sets of tyres, the last set, the soft compound, lasted for 35 laps.
Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery was very happy with the result, “Australia had everything: the quickest lap of Melbourne ever seen in qualifying, plenty of on-track battles, close competition, and some thrilling overtaking manoeuvres. At the end of it we have three drivers from different teams standing on the podium, all of whom performed outstandingly.”
And Hamilton’s judgment on the Pirellis? “I think coming here it feels almost like they have changed the tyres completely because they just behaved fantastically well. Very very similar, if not better to what I have experienced in the past. Very, very consistent and the graining was nowhere near as heavy as it was in Barcelona.”
That was exactly why Team Lotus driver Jarno Trulli was not happy with the Pirellis. “They've left us all shocked. I don't mean they were better or worse than expected, I’m saying that they were completely different: it's as if they have been changed since the last tests in Barcelona,” the Italian wrote in his weekly column for the Italian Repubblica newspaper.
Ferrari also had problems with the tyres, they struggled to get them up to the right working temperature. Massa about the problem, “At the other tracks -- Barcelona, Jerez and Valencia -- we didn't see a big problem in warming up the tyres, and here it's the opposite. There's something around these temperatures and the asphalt that doesn't help our car so much, and that will be different at the next race.”
As for the DRS system the result is still inconclusive, Button repeatedly used it to overtake Massa, but Massa simply fended off his attacks using his KERS and by defending his racing line just before entering the fist chicane. Vettel told he had used it to overtake back markers, but it also helped him to get closer to Button. “The rear wing is still very fresh. This is a special circuit. Turn One I don’t think is the best place for overtaking in the whole year, so we need to see,” the 2010 champions said. And added, “So far, it worked as expected. Obviously, you can only judge what happened with me.”
Alonso is not convinced DRS will improve overtaking and commented: “KERS worked well as did the moveable rear wing, although it did not make the overtaking moves that easy.” His team colleague Massa was more optimistic, “New elements such as the rear wing worked as they should: we definitely saw more overtaking than last year.”
Whether the new regulations, KERS and DRS have brought improvements when it comes to overtaking, is still debatable, not everyone is convinced DRS is the answer to the overtaking problem, and some argue there is no overtaking problem in Formula One to start with.
FIA race director Charlie Whiting admitted the system wasn’t very effective in Melbourne. “It is true that the effectiveness of this system in Melbourne was not ideal. The straight is too short and the corner before it too fast,” he told a Swiss newspaper. It is also the first time the system has been used during race conditions, and therefore the FIA will make an analysis of the effectives of the adjustable rear wing after the race in China.
But before that Formula One will visit the Sepang circuit in Malaysia, famous for its hot climate and unpredictable weather, which will without a doubt be a true test for the new Pirelli tyres, and as the circuit has several long straights, the effectiveness of KERS and DRS will also be tested under quite different circumstances.