Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Australia 2012 - McLaren master Melbourne in dramatic season opener // The first race of the new season provides intrigue from start to finish

Published by Christine

Champagne on the Melbourne podium
Champagne on the Melbourne podiumCredit: Pirelli & C. S.p.A.

Albert Park is renowned for delivering a fascinating, if chaotic race. The start of the season, with new drivers and new machinery, makes for some interesting action, and it was down to our twelve intrepid teams to make the best of what they had. Jenson Button made an early bid for the lead and kept it throughout the race, whilst HRT didn't even make it as far as Sunday.

Some surprises were in store, particularly the pace of the Red Bull and the performance of the Mercedes duo, but ultimately, it was a weekend for McLaren to prove that you don't have to have an ugly car to win.

McLaren

McLaren entered the weekend quietly confident, with their drivers feeling more settled, and their car the best looking on the grid. Their decision not to go with the stepped nose approach raised eyebrows throughout the paddock, so that the first race in Australia would be a test for if it was the right choice or not.

It didn’t take long to get our answer. Lewis Hamilton settled a lot of his own demons in qualifying, putting the car on pole position with a strong lap from the Hamilton of old. He was followed by Jenson Button, a strong 1-2 grid lineup for the McLaren outfit.

Off the line, Button overtook Hamilton, relegating his teammate to what would ultimately become third place. Jenson’s pace was faultless, he handled the Safety Car restart exceptionally well and secured an early victory and lead in the championship.

Hamilton was pushed back to second at the start of the race, and followed his teammate - both round the track and into the pitlane. McLaren pulled of a super speedy double pit stop, but poor timing saw the Safety Car come out directly afterwards. Sebastian Vettel managed to jump Hamilton via the pitlane, pushing Lewis down to third place. He was visibly and audibly disappointed and grumpy afterwards, clearly hoping he could have got the season off to a spectacular start, and showed his teammate that he wasn’t going to be beaten as easily in 2012.

10/10

Red Bull

Red Bull have been playing down their potential throughout the off-season, and although it seemed obvious that the competition would have closed the gap to the dominant team from 2011, I’m not sure anyone dared hope that they would find themselves with some serious racing to do.

Qualifying was a big surprise. So used to seeing Vettel dominate proceedings with a last minute storming lap to pole position, it was a bizarre experience to find him not only down in sixth place, but lower on the grid than his teammate. Mark Webber put his qualifying skills to good use to take fifth place, but found the grid to be a different proposition.

The Australian is becoming notorious for his bad starts off the line, and the Australian GP was to be no exception. Vettel immediately moved up, and was battling for podium positions almost instantly. He was lucky when a pit stop under the Safety Car promoted him to second place ahead of Hamilton. Meanwhile, Webber managed to stay in contention, rounding out a McLaren-Red Bull top four.

The pair both admitted to being disappointed with the pace of the car afterwards, despite a podium appearance from Vettel.

8/10

Ferrari

Ferrari were not shy about admitting their disappointment during the pre-season testing. Not a day went by when there wasn’t a Ferrari employee discussing the difficult time they were having on track, but their optimism that as an entity, they could sort things out.

Qualifying didn’t work out so well for them, with Felipe Massa only able to carve out 16th place for himself. Fernando Alonso looked like he might be able to do something more with the car, but unstable as it is, found himself flying off track and getting stuck in the gravel. To start 12th was something of a lucky escape.

During the race, Alonso fought the car as best he could and moved up to fifth place. He was able to overtake where possible and hold off those behind him - in particular Pastor Maldonado - but to make any further progress would have been impossible.

Felipe Massa picked up exactly where he left off in 2011, by crashing into another driver and retiring the car. A difficult chassis to work with, the team later said it was the fault of the machinery and not the driver, but in the heat of the moment, the driver on the receiving end - Bruno Senna - would probably have disagreed.

Ferrari also suffered the ignominy of being unable to park Felipe Massa’s car correctly. Retiring him due to the damage incurred, the mechanics guided Massa’s chassis directly into the garage wall, scraping the paintwork even further.

4/10

Sauber

In 2011, Sauber were the team to watch when it came to mixing up the strategies. The team found themselves with less tyre degradation than the other teams, a fact that allowed them to attempt one stop strategies, where others could not dream of it.

The first race of 2012 proved to be a similar story, with Sergio Pérez becoming the last driver to come in for his first pit stop, and being the only classified finisher to stop just once. The strategy worked in his favour, propelling him into 8th place and into the points, which was very lucky considering his starting position. The Sauber car developed gearbox trouble in qualifying, which meant he could not set a lap time in Q2. He qualified 17th but then suffered a five place grid drop after the team were forced to change the errant gearbox. Starting from what was effectively last place, Pérez’s rise to a points finish showed just what the car can do when strategy is on their side.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the garage, Kamui Kobayashi qualified in 13th place - not a particularly strong performance from him but one which was also improved upon during the Grand Prix itself. Kobayashi kept his head down and drove a two-stop strategy to move up to sixth place - helped in part by other retirements.

7/10

Lotus

Making headlines during the pre-season was not enough for Lotus, as they dominated the qualifying presses for both good and bad news. Kimi Räikkönen’s comeback started with a rather short qualifying performance. After wobbling on a fast lap during the first session, Kimi had rather hoped he had time to complete another, but the chequered flag fell before he could cross the line. Pushed out of qualifying, and settling for 18th place, Kimi was the worst of the non-new teams until Pérez’s penalty.

On the other end of the scale, teammate Romain Grosjean was flying high, securing himself an incredible third place on the grid. It didn’t appear to be a fluke, either, as the driver finished highly in most of the qualifying sessions, not just that final one where it really counts. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Lotus do well in Australia only for it all to go wrong later in the season, and for this weekend, the bad luck wasn’t even going to wait for one weekend.

In the opening minutes of the race, Grosjean came together with Pastor Maldonado, and found himself faced with an early exit. Disappointment all round, but he stuck with the team and appeared on the pit wall and within the garage to see how the rest of the Grand Prix unfolded.

Kimi managed to improve on his grid position by some considerable margin, driving a very controlled race with what appears to be a fast car. If he can sort qualifying out, then finishing higher than 7th should be easy.

5/10

Toro Rosso

With a brand new line-up on board, those watching Toro Rosso were curious to see how the squad would fare at this first event. Qualifying was a successful event for them, with Daniel Ricciardo scraping into the top ten shootout. He did not set a lap time in that final session, but this is a tactic we have seen many times before and isn’t a surprise at all. Teammate Jean-Éric Vergne also proved himself worthy of the drive, on his debut qualifying, by finishing 11th. Considered by many to be better than 10th place, the Frenchman had tyre choice on his side as the race began.

Unfortunately, the car didn’t have quite the same impact when it came to Sunday afternoon. With those who qualified poorly (Kimi and Sergio) improving massively, there wasn’t space for everyone to fit in to the points. Daniel Ricciardo improved on his qualifying position by just one, finishing 9th. Jean-Éric Vergne maintained his 11th place, with a steady first race. Both were good performances for drivers facing their first official weekend in a new team, but it’s unknown how well the car could perform. Is it a chassis that will not set the world alight, or is it that the two drivers need more time to find its true potential?

6/10

Force India

Force India’s new driver lining split the fans into two camps - those who expected Paul di Resta to finally prove he can trounce whoever is in the opposite garage, and those who are expecting great things from newcomer Nico Hülkenberg. Qualifying appeared to show who was right, with Di Resta securing 15th position, but Hülkenberg moving into the top ten shootout.

He booked himself ninth place on the grid, just ahead of the Toro Rosso that did not run, but crucially six places ahead of his teammate. With Di Resta’s established credentials at Force India, this must have been a frustrating Saturday for him.

The race proved to be another day of opposites, as Nico was knocked out of the Grand Prix from the word go. Without even completing a single lap, his afternoon was over, and he faced the long walk back to the pit lane. Meanwhile, Paul di Resta did what he does best - put in a solid performance to finish in 10th place. He improved on his qualifying and just managed to eek out a point for his team. We’re only left to wonder how far forward The Hulk would have managed to get.

5/10

Mercedes

A controversial rear wing puts Mercedes right in the box seats for drawing attention to themselves early on in 2012. They’ve shown increased pace over their previous form, and many would say it was about time too. Michael Schumacher impressed by qualifying in fourth place, ahead of both Red Bull cars, and teammate Nico Rosberg. Nico was down in 7th place, although crucially the pair were only split by about three tenths of a second.

In the race, their performance went quite rapidly downhill. Schumacher was another early casualty, retiring before being able to make any kind of mark on the racing afternoon. He remained in the garage, watching the race on the pitwall, and seemed in good spirits about the early retirement.

Meanwhile, Nico Rosberg struggled with high tyre degradation and the team were baffled by the performance of the rubber. From such highs on the Saturday, Nico could only bring home 12th place for the team, finishing outside of the points. Even though their rear wing has been declared legal by the FIA several times over, there is still some work to be done by Mercedes if they want to pick up the points and podiums they so desire.

4/10

Williams

Williams needed some good news at this race. 2011 was about as dire as a season can get for a former championship-winning squad, but they made the changes to try and turn things around. Retaining Pastor Maldonado for a second year raised eyebrows in the paddock, but his qualifying performance in Australia assuaged some of the doubt. Eighth place for the Venezuelan, whilst new teammate Bruno Senna could only manage 14th in his debut for the team.

Senna bookended his race with crashes - after a collision with Ricciardo saw him with an unscheduled pit stop at the start, and a coming together with Massa rounded out his afternoon. Senna finished the race last, six laps down, with four pit stops - a worse performance than the brand new Charles Pic in the Marussia. It was not an afternoon to take hope from, but one that needs brushing under the carpet, with fresh attention at what is still to come.

Pastor Maldonado struggled to keep his nose clean after such a good qualifying performance. He collided with Romain Grosjean, knocking the Lotus driver out of the race, but then found himself with some good pace. Things were looking up for Williams and there was a good points haul on the cars when Pastor found himself up in sixth place. Unfortunately, on the very last lap, he hit the kerb and bounced into the wall, hitting it hard. Thankfully, he was unhurt, but the same can’t be sad about the Williams team. In one incident, more points were thrown away than they managed to achieve in the whole of 2011. Can this one be brushed under the carpet so easily?

2/10

Marussia

When it comes to qualifying performance, all that can really be said about Marussia is that they managed to get into the race, which is more than can be said for HRT. Glock finished ahead of Pic, which is to be expected, but Pic was more than half a second slower than his teammate, which is something of a concern. Still, for a first attempt, it’s important not to judge the Frenchman too harshly.

When it comes to race performance, the same kind of principle applies, which is that Marussia managed to finish the race, which is more than can be said for a lot of other people. Pic really seemed to be taking his time to find his feet, circling at the back of the field all by himself. He was lapped at least once by his teammate, which is something that shouldn’t really be happening at all. It will be interesting to see how the Marussia pair stack up to the HRT duo, if they do manage to make it into a Grand Prix soon.

1/10

Caterham

The team had been talking up their chances of improving this year, and although they had a steep mountain to climb, I was almost convinced. Qualifying appeared to be a carbon copy of previous races, however, with the Caterham pair side by side on the grid, ahead of Marussia and HRT. They have moved themselves away from the following pack, and gained a little on those in front - but not enough to make any difference to the results as yet.

If that wasn’t enough, Caterham suffered a double DNF during the Grand Prix. Vitaly Petrov was the first to go, with a power assisted steering failure that saw his car grind to a halt on the main straight. It was an inconsiderate place to stop, and caused the Safety Car that changed the order right at the very top of the field, but that was the least of Caterham’s worries. Just a few laps later, their second driver was retired with similar steering issues.

We know that Jarno Trulli spent all of 2011 complaining bitterly about his power steering, and I had thought that with his departure we would see an end to hearing about it. It seems the steering issue has yet to be resolved and will haunt us, and Caterham, for a little while yet.

1/10

HRT

DNS.

0/10

All content in the series Australia 2012