Walk in the Park - Australian Grand Prix report

By on Sunday, March 27, 2011

It was a different car on a different track but Sebastian Vettel picked up where he left off with a dominant victory in the Australian Grand Prix, his third win on the bounce but more crucially, he takes a very early advantage in the title race. Having usually started a season poorly – he took 12 points from the first two events in 2010 and failed to score in the first two in 2009 – Vettel set himself the target of starting the season on a more positive note. That he achieved his target with such ease will be a worry to the opposition.

Having taken pole position by a dominant margin, Vettel led away at the start with such pace that he had a staggering 2.4s lead after just one lap. Behind him the start was relatively mundane. With Turn 1 at Albert Park usually a hotspot for trouble, all 22 cars that started the race made it through almost unscathed. Timo Glock ran onto the grass whilst the Toro Rosso’s made light contact. Further round at Turn 3 was where disaster struck for some. Jaime Alguersuari hit Michael Schumacher with both needing to pit for damage repairs. Schumacher dropped to the back where he remained until he retired due to safety concerns with the damaged suspension.

At the front, Vitaly Petrov had made a cracking start and was up to 4th place, at the expense of Button and Alonso. The Spaniard was cautious – having been spun by Button in 2010 – and dropped as far as 10th but soon made progress and passed Kobayashi and Rosberg. Massa benefitted from Button’s defending on Alonso and slipped up into 5th. Massa was painfully slow in comparison to Button and before long the McLaren driver was looking for a way to get past the Brazilian. With his DRS having little effect, Button went around the outside at Turn 11 but had to cut the apex of Turn 12 in order to avoid an accident. Button argued that he was ahead at the time, but the replays showed that such an excuse was invalid. As Massa was recovering, Alonso – who had rapidly gained on the battling duo – slipped through.

Surprisingly, the Red Bull drivers were amongst the first drivers to complain about the state of the tyres and Vettel made an early stop on Lap 14, emerging just behind Jenson Button. Hamilton, who had closed the gap to Vettel to 1.5s, aimed to overhaul that disadvantage but by staying out longer he compromised himself rather than it benefitting himself. He stopped two laps later and the gap to Vettel was now 6.5s, with Button unable to keep the reigning champion behind him for more than 3 corners – Vettel with a sublime pass around the outside of the approach to Turn 4.

The gap between the leading duo grew to 12s and it became clear that Hamilton was struggling. His floor had detached itself from the car and was rubbing along the ground, compromising his down force levels although he drove exceptionally well to deal with the problem, but for a trip across the grass at Turn 1. However, the slim chance of a battle for victory was now over, allowing Vettel to cruise to victory.

Behind the leading pair, the battle for the final podium spot was between home favourite Mark Webber, Fernando Alonso and surprise package Vitaly Petrov. Both Red Bull and Ferrari opted for a three stop strategy whilst Renault decided that stopping just twice would be beneficial. At the third set of stops, Alonso jumped Webber, with the Spaniard assisted by Webber running wide on his out lap. On fresher tyres, Alonso closed in on Petrov at a rate of a second a lap, but he ran out of time and Petrov hung on by just over a second. It was a remarkable turnaround for the Russian, who endured a torrid debut season with Renault but was surprisingly retained for another two seasons. His confidence has shot up and he appears to be a different man. He only scored 27 points last season, but he already has 15 in this one. His maiden podium will give him massive confidence for the next races. Team mate Nick Heidfeld endured a torrid weekend. He qualified a miserable 18th and received slight contact at the start, hampering the performance of the car. He trundled home in 12th.

Button received a penalty for his antics on Lap 10 and dropped to 12th, but managed to fight back to 6th. He eventually passed Felipe Massa on Lap 48, with the DRS assisting him in his cause. Massa’s difficult weekend ended with a late race pass on Sebastien Buemi, elevating the Brazilian to 7th. Buemi took four points for eighth whilst Adrian Sutil and debutant Paul di Resta took the final point in 10th.

However, Force India only scored because of the disqualification of both Sauber drivers. In post race scrutineering, it was discovered that there was a technical infringement with the uppermost rear wing element. It was a bitterly disappointing end to a great day for the team. Rookie Sergio Perez remarkably made just the one stop and drove as if he had been racing in Formula One for years. Kobayashi was quieter but nonetheless impressive. 7th and 8th was a good result, if only for a few hours.

Jarno Trulli took the best result of the newer teams with 13th place with Belgian Jerome d’Ambrosio the last of the classified runners in 14th. With the 2010 constructor’s championship battle between the three newer teams being decided by the best race result, early season races might play a part if they all score zero points again.

Out of the twenty-two starters, there were six on track retirements. Rubens Barrichello had run wide on the opening lap and was fighting back through the field until he hit Nico Rosberg just before half distance. The move was never going to work and it ended Rosberg’s race with the W02 coming to a smoky halt on the back straight. Barrichello received a drive through penalty for his actions and pulled into the pits close to home. The FW33 has pace, but not reliability as Pastor Maldonado stopped on track, becoming the first retirement of the season. Heikki Kovalainen was scrapping at the tail end of the midfield until he developed a water leak, whilst Timo Glock’s car slowed down dramatically, but the team got him out again but he was unclassified, 9 laps down.

In terms of car performance, it’s still rather difficult to make a proper conclusion over the running order. The Red Bull RB7 is clearly fast, particularly in qualifying trim. However, Mark Webber’s disappointing 5th place suggests that it is not the dominant machine it was expected to be. Although Webber does traditionally struggle in Melbourne. Nonetheless, there were anomalies through the field: Alonso was 4th whilst Massa struggled to 9th, which later became 7th. On the basis of Round 1, Red Bull leads the way with McLaren not too far behind. Ferrari is in a battle for 3rd with Renault, although you’d bet money on Alonso dragging every last tenth out of the car and joining the lead battle. Mercedes are struggling slightly, but comfortably 5th. Sauber leads the midfield group, with a very neat (albeit illegal in the race) car that is kind on its tyres. This trait could get Sauber a podium at some point. Williams are nippy but unreliable, whilst Toro Rosso is ahead of Force India on pure pace. At the back, Lotus has made gains but failed to show it in Australia, but Virgin seems to have stalled. They were struggling to make the 107% boundary and that was not their target. Still, at least they made the race. HRT shook the car down on Friday and were moving chicanes during Q1. However, their pace was not embarrassingly slow and considering the time they had, it was almost more humiliating for Virgin than HRT due to the relatively small gap between the outfits.

So it’s a new season, with a new set of rules and a new set of cars. Same old Seb though.

Australian Grand Prix | Round 1 of 19
Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia;
58 laps; 307.574km;
Weather: Sunny.

Classified:

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
1.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault           1h29:30.259
2.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +    22.297
3.  Petrov        Renault                    +    30.560
4.  Alonso        Ferrari                    +    31.772
5.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +    38.171
6.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           +    54.300
7.  Massa         Ferrari                    +  1:25.100
8.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +     1 lap
9.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes       +     1 lap
10.  Di Resta      Force India-Mercedes       +     1 lap
11.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +     1 lap
12.  Heidfeld      Renault                    +     1 lap
13.  Trulli        Lotus-Renault              +    2 laps
14.  D'Ambrosio    Virgin-Cosworth            +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Massa, 1:28.947

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap/reason
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              50 – Running, 9 laps down
Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth            49 - Mechanical
Rosberg       Mercedes                     22 – Attacked by Barrichello
Kovalainen    Lotus-Renault                19 – Water leak
Schumacher    Mercedes                     19 – Accident damage
Maldonado     Williams-Cosworth            10 - Mechanical
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               58 – Disqualified
Perez         Sauber-Ferrari               58 - Disqualified
Liuzzi        HRT-Cosworth                 0 – Did not qualify
Karthikeyan   HRT-Cosworth                 0 – Did not qualify

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