Sebastian Vettel has kicked off his championship defence with a comfortable win at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, a race which provided plenty of intrigue, but proved short of the level of on-track action many had hoped for with the return of Pirelli and KERS, and the introduction of the Drag Reduction System (DRS).
Finishing over 20 seconds behind Vettel was Lewis Hamilton, who capped off a remarkable turnaround for the Woking squad after a difficult and uncompetitive pre-season, while Vitaly Petrov took his first podium finish with an outstanding drive in his Renault.
The top three finishers complete the race on just two pit stops, with Vettel and Hamilton building up enough of a cushion over a three-stopping Webber to stay in front and never be challenged. Petrov, however, who ran in fifth in the early stages of the race, elected to run a two-stop race to gain track position over Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, placing him third by the chequered flag.
Despite suggestions of a start-specific KERS unit being fitted to both Red Bull cars, neither Vettel nor Webber used the power-boosting device off the line or (for that matter) during the race, and yet both were able to maintain their starting positions heading into the first corner.
It would later emerge that the team had in fact removed the devices from the respective RB7 chassis’ after Friday practice, fearing the power-boosting units were too unreliable. Given the margin of performance the team enjoyed over its rivals without KERIS this weekend, it seemed like a smart decision…
At the end of the opening lap, Vettel had pushed out to a 2.6-second lead over Hamilton, who was followed by Webber, a fast-starting Petrov, Massa and Button. Alonso was poorly positioned at Turn 1 and dropped to ninth when he was forced wide.
Alonso quickly made up ground with passes over Kamui Kobayashi and Nico Rosberg before he latched onto the back of the Massa-Button battle. With Button’s DRS making next-to-no difference (more on that later), the Briton was getting more desperate to get by Massa, who clearly didn’t enjoy the pace and was dropping behind Petrov at a rate of knots.
On lap 10, Button finally drew level and tried to pass Massa around the outside of Turn 11 at the end of the back straight, but he was forced wide and had to use the Turn 12 escape road – located inside the corner’s apex – to get by.
Button would have no choice but to give the position back, but with Alonso looming so close behind, he faced the difficult prospect of ceding it to Massa without getting passed by Alonso.
In a case of exquisite timing, Alonso nipped by Massa at the following corner, effectively rendering Button’s dilemma academic: he would have to drop behind both drivers or face a penalty. And while McLaren dithered and waited for an official word from race control as to what to do, Ferrari brought both drivers in for a pit stop before Button was given the chance of handing the place back.
The end result was a drive-through penalty for Button, which ruled him out of contention as far as Ferrari was concerned. It was a masterstroke of tactics – or perhaps luck? – but it did the job, and got Fernando up the order and closer to Mark Webber, who was his next target.
Meanwhile, Vettel had pitted and emerged behind Button, who attempted to hold up the German while Hamilton set about trying to post some hot laps before he pitted, perhaps in the hope that his McLaren team-mate could emerge in front of Vettel. Needless to say, it didn’t work, with Vettel overtaking Button almost instantly – and without contact, we will add! – to keep the margin to Hamilton intact.
Hamilton had actually trimmed the gap to Vettel – who was, surprisingly, struggling with high tyre wear – before the German pitted, and stayed out a further two laps longer before he too pitted, emerging 6.5 seconds behind.
The gap between the two built to over 12 seconds by their second and final pit stops, where both switched to the ‘prime’ (harder) compound Pirelli tyres. By now, Hamilton was slowing with his front splitter having worked itself loose, causing sparks to shoot from the back of the car as it touched the tarmac. Ultimately, this was the nail in the coffin for Hamilton’s hopes of challenging Vettel for the win, but he drove a hugely impressive race given the circumstances to cap off an incredible turnaround for the team. As Hamilton admitted after the race, this was the longest his MP4-26 had lasted without breaking down!
Further down the order, Mark Webber couldn’t hang on to the leading pair and steadily dropped back, running just ahead of Petrov and Alonso. Despite having been quickest in the opening practice session, the Australian hadn’t been able to hold a candle to Vettel for the rest of the weekend, and his misery was compounded further when he slipped to fifth, losing positions to Petrov and Alonso in his later pit stops.
It was certainly a more disciplined drive from Webber this weekend – who drove a seriously ill-disciplined race here last year – but he cast a frustrated figure as he pulled over onto the pit lane exit immediately after receiving the chequered flag and climbed out of his car. The team has (at the time of writing) not admitted to any technical issues with Webber’s car, and several trackside fans reported that his actions amounted to a serious dummy-spit after the thrashing he had received on his home turf at the hands of his team-mate.
Petrov’s third place came by dint of an outstanding start to vault to fourth, and a decisive two-stop strategy that gave him track position ahead of the three-stopping Alonso and Webber. Despite them catching him in the closing stages, the Russian held on to take his first podium finish, sparking a wave of emotion in the Renault camp who have had a trying pre-season with Robert Kubica’s life-threatening accident in February.
By contrast, team-mate Nick Heidfeld was as disappointing as Petrov was outstanding. Starting a lowly 18th, the German was unable to move his way up the order and finished a lap adrift. The veteran driver would later blame first-lap contact that damaged his right-hand-side bodywork as the culprit, but no doubt the team will be looking for a more inspired performance come Sepang.
Ferrari had a similar race of two sides for Alonso and team-mate Felipe Massa. While the former World Champion was able to tiger his way back to fourth after a poor start, Massa (who made the better start from eighth on the grid) simply didn’t have the pace of the balance to be able to stay in the top-six, and he dropped to tenth after his final pit stop. A late-race pass on Sébastien Buemi (one of just two using the DRS we noticed in the race) gave him tenth, but it was hardly inspiring stuff from the Brazilian.
Sauber walked away from Albert Park with a ten-point haul courtesy of a double-points’ finish from rookie driver Sergio Pérez and team-mate Kamui Kobayashi, who finished seventh and eighth respectively.
Pérez was particularly impressive, managing to complete his race on just a single pit stop – there go any drivers’ complaints about tyre wear, we say! – and finishing ahead of his more experienced team-mate Kobayashi.
By contrast, the Japanese driver wasn’t his usual self today, having a subdued race by his usual standards where he was largely the victim of others’ overtaking moves as opposed to being the aggressor.
In any respect, the result became academic for the Swiss team when both its cars were disqualified after they failed post-race scrutineering. Specifically, the cars were found to have breached Articles 3.10.1 and 3.10.2 of the Technical Regulations, which relate specifically to the curvature and radius of the three rear-wing elements. The team has admitted to the oversight, but rules are rules.
Toro Rosso thought it had completed the final points’ position, with Buemi taking tenth to mirror his grid position, but Sauber’s double-disqualification brought him to eighth place. The Swiss driver had a scare on the opening lap when he seemed to get tagged by team-mate Jaime Alguersuari at the first corner, while the Spaniard would cause more serious damage to his race hopes when he hit Michael Schumacher at Turn 3. Alguersuari pitted for a new front wing and finished thirteenth.
Splitting the Toro Rossos were the Force India drivers, who originally finished just outside the points, which was perhaps a deserved result given the new VJM04 has hardly looked top-shelf all weekend. Rookie driver Paul di Resta drove a steady race and in close company to team-mate Adrian Sutil all race. Sauber’s disqualification instead netted the team three useful points.
Meanwhile, it was a bad day at the office for the works Mercedes GP squad, which suffered its first-ever double-DNF, with both Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg retiring due to the misadventures of other drivers.
After making a good start from eleventh on the grid, Schumacher was hit on the right-rear corner at Turn 3 on the opening lap, shredding his tyre and sending him to the pits for repairs. After rejoining almost a lap adrift, the seven-time World Champion tried to keep going, but he was running considerably off-the-pace and found himself lapped in no time at all. Eventually the team made the decision to preserve his engine and gearbox, and called him into the pits to retire.
Rosberg was enjoying a more promising race and looked to be a contender for a points’ finish on the fringes of the top six when he was hit by Rubens Barrichello on lap 23, when the Brazilian (who was showing some quite decent pace) attempted a ridiculously optimistic move on the German under braking for Turn 3. Rosberg retired a few corners later with fluid pouring from the right side of his car, while Rubens continued for another twenty-odd laps before retiring with transmission trouble. Barrichello’s team-mate Pastor Maldonado retired early in the race with similar mechanical issues.
At the back of the field, Team Lotus brought one car home with Jarno Trulli finishing in 13th (originally 15th), 2 laps adrift, while team-mate Heikki Kovalainen retired with a water leap on the twentieth lap.
Virgin Racing managed to get both cars to the finish, with Jérôme d’Ambrosio finishing last of the classified runners, and it was little surprise to see him some way behind the rest of the field. However, the Belgian did acquit himself well, running close to team-mate Timo Glock’s pace in the early stages before the German lost a handful of laps in the pits while an issue with one of his wheel’s drive pegs was investigated. He finished nine laps down and was not classified as a finisher.
To a couple of talking points, with the first being the DRS system. With the intention of the adjustable rear wing being to create more overtaking opportunities, the jury is certainly out after the first race. To our recollection, we remember just three DRS- assisted passes all race (Button on Kobayashi, Button on Massa, Massa on Buemi), and in all three it could be argued that superior tyre grip was actually the greater factor.
Certainly it is a complex system that will take some finessing and getting used to over the next few races, but there were more overtaking moves under braking into Turn 3 than what was seen at Turn 1 – perhaps officials might have been wiser to move the DRS-permitted area to this stretch of the circuit, which has historically featured more passing moves in previous Grands Prix.
And lastly, hats off to the new BBC F1 commentary pairing of Martin Brundle and David Coulthard (who also turned 40 today), who made their race debuts ‘on air’ today for the Australian broadcast. The pair seemed to gel well and we’d certainly argue that a better chemistry was evident than perhaps had been the case with last year’s Brundle-Legard line-up.
2011 Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix – Final Classification (58 laps):
|1.||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing – Renault RB7||58||1:29:30.259|
|2.||Lewis Hamilton||Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-26||58||+ 22.297|
|3.||Vitaly Petrov||Lotus Renault GP R31||58||+ 30.560|
|4.||Fernando Alonso||Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro F150° Italia||58||+ 31.772|
|5.||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing – Renault RB7||58||+ 38.171|
|6.||Jenson Button||Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-26||58||+ 54.304|
|DQ.||Sergio Pérez*||Sauber F1 Team – Ferrari C30||58||+ 1:05.845|
|DQ.||Kamui Kobayashi*||Sauber F1 Team – Ferrari C30||58||+ 1:16.872|
|7.||Felipe Massa||Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro F150° Italia||58||+ 1:25.186|
|8.||Sébastien Buemi||Scuderia Toro Rosso – Ferrari STR6||57||1 lap behind|
|9.||Adrian Sutil||Force India F1 Team – Mercedes VJM04||57||1 lap behind|
|10.||Paul di Resta||Force India F1 Team – Mercedes VJM04||57||1 lap behind|
|11.||Jaime Alguersuari||Scuderia Toro Rosso – Ferrari STR6||57||1 lap behind|
|12.||Nick Heidfeld||Lotus Renault GP R31||57||1 lap behind|
|13.||Jarno Trulli||Team Lotus – Renault T128||56||2 laps behind|
|14.||Jérôme d’Ambrosio||Marussia Virgin Racing – Cosworth||54||4 laps behind|
|NC||Timo Glock||Marussia Virgin Racing – Cosworth||49||9 laps behind|
|DNF||Rubens Barrichello||AT&T Williams – Cosworth FW33||48||Transmission|
|DNF||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team W02||22||Collision|
|DNF||Heikki Kovalainen||Team Lotus – Renault T128||19||Water Leak|
|DNF||Michael Schumacher||Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team W02||19||Suspension|
|DNF||Pastor Maldonado||AT&T Williams – Cosworth FW33||9||Transmission|
|DID NOT QUALIFY|
|Vitantonio Liuzzi||HRT F1 Team – Cosworth F111|
|Narain Karthikeyan||HRT F1 Team – Cosworth F111|
|Felipe Massa||Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro F150° Italia||55||1:28.947|
* Sergio Pérez and Kamui Kobayashi were both disqualified when their Saubers failed post-race scrutineering.
Click here to view the current Drivers’ and Constructors’ championship standings.