Shows What A Winter Does: The Australian Grand Prix, 2012

Melbourne. Is there a better way to start the F1 season than in the land down under? The atmosphere, the fans, the track, everything about the Albert Park Circuit makes Australia the best place to begin the latest tour of the world’s fastest circus. Over the past few years, we’ve been treated to some great races there, and the 2012 race was no different.

The fantastic thing about the season opener is that no-one knows who is going to win it, who has made the biggest gains over the winter, and who was showing off in testing, trying to attract sponsors. The first we learnt was in qualifying, where there was a bit of a shakeup from last year. In 2011, there was only one race in which Red Bull failed to secure Pole position on the grid. In Australia, Webber and Vettel lined up 5th and 6th, the double World Champion 0.7 seconds off the pole time set by McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton. For the boys and girls from Woking, things could not have gone better, with Jenson Button putting his car on the front row, alongside his team-mate. Lotus was delighted with Grosjean’s third place, but it was a mixed afternoon for the team as Kimi Raikkonen failed to make it out of the first part of qualifying. Thinking he had more time than he did, the Iceman backed off his lap to start a final attempt, but the session had ended before he crossed the line and he had to make do with 17th. Another former Champion who struggled was Alonso, in his underperforming Ferrari. Fernando put a wheel on the grass when braking and ended up going into the gravel backwards, putting him out in Q2. It was still better than Massa, who also went out in that session, but without being forced out by gravel traps; he was simply not fast enough. It seems that not everything has changed.

That is how the cars lined up on Sunday, ready for the race. The five lights extinguished, and the 2012 season was well and truly underway. Jenson Button and both Mercedes drivers made excellent starts, whereas Webber still seems to be struggling with his, seemingly getting bogged down leaving the grid once again. That put him right in the pack going into the first corner, and got squeezed between two cars. Luckily, he escaped damage, although Hülkenburg wasn’t quite so lucky, retiring with damage shortly afterwards. Grosjean too struggled to get off the line, hitting the rev limiter in first gear. It looked like it might have been a small gearbox glitch, but that meant he was unable to capitalise on his qualifying performance. It wasn’t long before Maldonado was diving up the inside in his Williams, but contact between the two broke the Lotus’ suspension and put the Frenchman out of the race. Vettel, on the other hand, answered all his critics who said that he couldn’t overtake by making a great move around the outside of Rosberg at Turn 9. Of course, he’d rather have been out in the lead.

One big talking point across the weekend was tyres, and how they would hold up. Pirelli changed the profile and compound of the tyres over the winter, adding to the unknown going into the race. Around lap 10, Massa was starting to struggle in the Ferrari to keep the two Saubers behind him, being hounded by the young drivers all the way round the lap. Two laps later, he pitted for a new set of the softer tyres, surprising most in the pitlane; we were expecting the first stops to be around laps 18-20, not lap 12. It seems that the tyres drop off very quickly, losing grip rapidly, which can cost the teams around 2 seconds a lap almost without warning. They’re going to have to be very alert on the pitwall this season. Alonso confirmed that the Ferrari’s were quite hard on their tyres when he pitted just two laps after his team-mate, but Fernando took on a set of the harder compound tyres at his stop. When he came out, the Ferrari came alive, the Spaniard putting in some storming lap times. He was right behind Vettel when the Champion rejoined after his stop. Things didn’t go so well for Hamilton, as he emerged into unlapped traffic. Lewis came out behind Perez who was running a long first stint, much like last year, and found it difficult to pass the Sauber. Sebastian was able to close in on the McLaren because of this, whilst the cushion Jenson had to second continued to grow. Eventually the pass was made, but Vettel also struggled to overtake Perez, even with the DRS activated. But he wasn’t stuck behind him for long.

Vettel was soon catching Hamilton, with Alonso pulling away from Rosberg and closing in on the McLaren and Red Bull. It was an exciting prospect for the mid-race stage, especially as we’ve seen some races fizzle out at this point. Hamilton managed to keep them behind, but he was complaining that his tyres were starting to go. McLaren needed a few more laps from him to make the strategy work. Rosberg needed to make a stop, but this was not necessarily for tyres. With Webber all over him, Nico was having to defend quite strongly. Going into the fast chicane at the back of the circuit, Mark had a cheeky look to the inside, but had to back out. Nico’s line was compromised, and he cut the second part of the chicane. Arguably, this could have been a penalty as he maintained the position by cutting the circuit, and would have had to give Mark the position. By pitting, he made that argument null and void, and gained a bit of time on his inlap. Perez was showing that the Sauber has got a bit of pace after his stop as he was in front of Rosberg and matching the pace of Button out front. McLaren brought in race leader Button on lap 36 as well as team-mate Hamilton, who was just ten seconds behind. It was a great double-shuffle pitstop, with the mechanics having just about enough time to reach behind for Lewis’ tyres before he was in the ‘box ready to be serviced. You will be hard pressed to find a better pitstop than that, and it put the team in a great position tactically.

Melbourne as a circuit has a high percentage of Safety Car deployments, and the odds are it will make at least one appearance in a race. How it works out for you is, in all likelihood, down to sheer luck. The first we saw of Petrov all race on the TV was when he pulled over to the side of the main straight to retire. Race Control deemed the car to be in a dangerous position, from which it would be difficult to recover the stricken vehicle, and so put out the Safety Car. When this happens, the drivers get a time on their lap delta on the steering wheel which is their earliest arrival time to the start/finish line or the pits, in order to stop them from speeding round to get an advantage. The Safety Car was called out just after the McLarens had made their stops, and so they had to cruise around the circuit, adhering to the delta time. Vettel, on the other hand, was in the final sector of the course, so only had been pushing hard around most of the lap and had the delta only for the end. As a result, he emerged from the pits in second, splitting the two McLarens.

At the restart, Button made a great getaway and was safe from attack. The rest of the field was close up behind each other, none more so than Maldonado and Alonso. Williams really do seem to have made an improvement this year, and Pastor was hungry for more points. Massa and Senna were close too in the sister cars; a little too close perhaps, coming to blows around Turn 4. The stewards decided that there would be no action taken by the incident, but it was clumsy from both of them. Massa retired in the pitlane, whilst Senna was sent back out to get some more valuable track time, before eventually retiring himself. The final few laps were packed with some great racing, especially from the Toro Rossos and Di Resta over the last 10 laps or so. Over the final few corners, the Saubers and Kimi’s Lotus got involved in this battle for the last few points, right up to the line. It was an excellent end to the race. The same can not be said, unfortunately, for Maldonado, who crashed out on the final lap. Right up behind Alonso, he caught the curb in an unusual way and lost the rear, putting him in the wall and out of the race. He was probably the only person in Melbourne who was pleased Patrick Head was not out there, given his strong line on drivers, especially when they crash. Instead, he got a nice cuddle from the management, who recognised the good drive he had up to that point. Indeed, it isn’t even certain that the crash was his fault. This didn’t really bother Button, who won the race in commanding fashion, and even took the time to say hello to his mum on Mother’s Day before going onto the podium. Vettel was pleased with second, and Webber had his best result in 4th. McLaren were happy with Hamilton’s third, even if the man himself seemed rather despondent about it all. At the end of the day, it’s useful points in the Englishman’s pocket, and could prove very useful at the season’s end. But what a great race to start the season; if the rest are anything like this one, we are in for a fantastic season of Formula One.

Drive of the Day: There are quite a few contenders for this one. Vettel drove well to come in second, and Alonso really outperformed his car. You have to wonder what he could do if Ferrari actually gave him a half decent car to race. Maldonado had a great race right up to the last lap, and will have gone some way to silencing his critics from last year, including yours truly. It was a respectable return from the Iceman in the actual race, although Kimi will be hoping to have a better qualifying next time out. But the Drive of the Day has to go to Jenson Button. He made a great start, pulled off into the lead, and never looked like being caught. The restart after the Safety Car was done to perfection, when he could so easily have been challenged. He couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the season.

Disappointment of the Day: There are three teams worth mentioning here: Ferrari, Caterham, and HRT. Mercedes didn’t have the weekend they wanted, with both cars retiring from the race, but they qualified well and showed a lot of promise, which is why I haven’t included them in the list above. Ferrari really needs to pull their socks up and sort out their car. They have a world class driver in Alonso, and he requires a car good enough to really show his talents. Massa was as disappointing as he was all last season, and needs to massively up his game and to at least match his team-mate. Rumours are already beginning to circulate that he could be replaced with Jarno Trulli before the season is out. Caterham didn’t show the kind of pace that was expected from them, and got hardly any airtime as a result. We were expecting them to be much closer to the midfield teams in Australia, but they were, if anything, further away from them than last year. But the Disappointment of the Day goes to HRT. Having failed to do any testing pre-season once again, they turned up to Albert Park and fell short of the 107% time for the second year running, and were once again not allowed to start the race. Frankly, it’s not good enough, and they will have to sort themselves out if they are going to stay in this sport much longer. It’s bad for them, and it’s bad for the sport. For Malaysia, target number one should be to successfully qualify for the race.

Formula One never rests for a moment, and McLaren will have to get straight on with trying to win in Malaysia. For us fans, we have the privilege of being able to enjoy the races for a while afterwards. It may have been a long winter, but with a great race to kick off what looks like a great season, it was well worth the wait.

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