Australian GP - Sunday - Race Report
Kimi's walk in the park
It would have been hard to find anyone in the Formula 1 paddock on Sunday morning who truly believed anyone other than Kimi Raikkonen would win the Australian Grand Prix. There are always the odd contrary souls who prefer a little whimsy rather than the harsh reality of what is a very scientific business. It was also hard to find people who really understood all of the new rules that were rushed through the other day. This is not because they were complicated but rather because the sport somehow managed to forget to explain everything to the outside world.
Did everyone understand that the days of using the same tyres in qualifying and the race had quietly gone away and that teams could start the race on whatever tyres they wanted? The late decisions also meant that everyone was frantically busy as the grid lined up trying to work out which tyres featured a white spot and which did not. This was a mess and one which needs to be sorted out. If Champ Car can somehow manage to have tyres that make it obvious, Formula 1 should be able to do the same. Mind you, one can say the same thing about the TV coverage. You would think that by now F1 directors would know that following the same cars around for laps and laps on end was not a good idea - particularly if they were not at the front.
At Melbourne it was clear that the TV people were Honda-centric. One can only assume that the recent outbreak of tree-hugging in F1 was to blame for this because Honda's performance did not really deserve the amount of coverage that the earth-moving cars of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello received in the early part of the race.
Up at the front they must have felt a little lonely.
Kimi Raikkonen never looked like being beaten. He went off to the first corner and as no-one did anything silly and hit him from behind he was able to drive away twiddling with the knobs in his cockpit, trying to find a radio station that worked. The only problem he had, he explained later, was that Radio Ferrari was not broadcasting properly.
He may have looked in his mirrors and smiled when he saw that the man behind him was in a BMW. Nick Heidfeld, the bearded schoolboy. Kimi probably had time enough to see that in third place was a man in a yellow helmet.
Lewis Hamilton's start was straight out of Hollywood. He edged away off the line and was aware that Robert Kubica, a career-long rival of Lewis's who looks like one of those Nordic villains that Bruce Willis would have shot in the 94th minute of the movie, was alongside him. Worse still (cut to slow motion) Kubica was getting ahead and switching across in front of our hero. Lewis did what Sylvester Stallone would have done and jinked the wheel to the left and swooped around the outside in an elegant arc, passing not only the evil Polish villain (who actually seems like a very nice chap) but also the double World Champion Fernando Alonso to grab third place. (Cue stirring music).
After that we watched a lot of Honda action.
Raikkonen pulled away and proved conclusively that the Ferrari was stronger in the race than it was in qualifying - as he had said on Saturday. He would win the race by seven seconds, but that did not tell the story at all. Kimi wasn't exactly cruising (although he did doze off at one point and had a small off) but he could have won this race by a minute if he had really pushed. His fastest lap of the race was a full second faster than Fernando Alonso's best lap.
Heidfeld was only ever a temporary fixture in second place but he was useful for McLaren which was able to deflect some of the blame for not being fast enough on to the BMW for adopting a strategy which made no sense at all unless you were looking for TV coverage (in which case, disguising the car as a Honda might have been a better ploy). Heidi was running with a low fuel load and soft tyres (we found out later) and so stayed second only until he pitted on lap 14. The serious players went at least five laps more and even the Toyotas (famous for their grandstanding in previous years) went to laps 24 and 25, winning new respect for the beleaguered team.
By doing this Nick condemned himself to fourth place and he would have been fifth by the end if Kubica's BMW had not broken down.
Anyway this gave McLaren the opportunity to claim that the BMW held them up and thus meant the attack on Raikkonen was blunted. It did not look like that at all, if the truth be told. It looked like the silver cars were just too slow.
But this did not matter because we were watching the birth of a new star as Lewis Hamilton kept Fernando Alonso at bay in the finest traditions of comic books heroes of yesteryear. The double World Champion was being held back by the plucky young chap on his Grand Prix debut. People in newspapers offices across the world with no interest in F1 were perking up. This was a news story. Lewis was on his way to the front cover of Sports Illustrated, following the path cut recently through the media jungle by Danica Patrick.
It was the most impressive debut in Formula 1 for more than 10 years. Hell, that's rubbish! This was much more impressive than what Jacques Villeneuve did back in 1996 because he had much more experience with big powerful cars when he took the Williams to second place in Melbourne. The statisticians were soon combing the records looking for the best British F1 debut ever and soon came up with the news that Mike Parkes did it by finishing second in a Ferrari in France in 1966 and that Peter Arundell was third on his debut in a Lotus at Monaco in 1964. While they were doing this Lewis ran second, led the race for a number of laps, emerged ahead of Alonso after the first stops and only made a couple of dust-kicking mistakes. Then as the second pit stop approached he was stuck for a few corners behind the Super Aguri of Takuma Sato and that was enough to lose him the place to Alonso at the second stops.
After the race Lewis was happy but he did not seem as happy as one would have expected. He's a very professional guy but you got the impression that he was disappointed not to have been second. The fact that he lost the second place was not really down to Sato. The Japanese driver cost him two seconds but the reality was that Hamilton lost the race because Alonso's strategy was better. He stopped one lap earlier. Normally in such a situation the engineers of the man stopping second would add a dash more fuel to ensure that he stayed ahead at the second stops. This did not happen. Alonso stopped two laps later than Lewis at the end of the second stint and it was those two laps that won him the place.
Fernando duly took the maximum points available to him. The 10 for a victory was never going to be his so the team settled for eight. Hamilton was third so the team scored the same as would have been the case had the positions been reversed. There was a message in that. This is really all about winning World Championships and while McLaren obviously has a spectacular asset in Lewis Hamilton, the reality is that Fernando Alonso is the World Championship challenger. Hamilton will get his time at the front but for the moment he is still the new kid on the block.
F1 will get a lot more coverage as a result of Hamilton's performance and the key point is that the sport needs to do a good enough job to keep those people coming back in the years ahead. Watching endless Hondas and having murky tyre rules is not the way to do it. The sport needs to be sure that the TV show it puts on is good enough to keep the new viewers. It was slightly worrying that the Ferrari of Felipe Massa had the same kind of advantage as Raikkonen and yet could not get through the midfield. If you need an advantage of more than a second a lap on the car ahead to pass, we are going to see a lot of processional races this year. That would not be good.
The most interesting document after the race was the list of fastest laps which showed very clearly that Ferrari has a big advantage. It is true that this will change from track to track but an advantage like that is going to take some catching up from the rest. McLaren is solidly second, about three-tenths clear of BMW. Interestingly Nico Rosberg's Williams set the fifth fastest lap of the race, splitting the two BMWs. That was a good effort and an indication that we did not see the best from Williams in qualifying, which is what we suspected. The Renaults, Red Bulls, Toyotas and Hondas were all in a mish-mash in the midfield which should keep us amused, not least because we have people like David Coulthard doing daft things like trying to overtake Alexander Wurz using the aerial route.
All things considered we should be in for a great season.
But can anyone beat Raikkonen?
That will take a Hollywood kind of script.