Australian GP - Sunday - Race Report
First blood to Vettel
Sebastian Vettel started 2011 just as he finished 2010 - with a dominant winning performance. The world champion converted his pole position, opened out a 2.5s advantage on lap 1 and was never truly threatened as Lewis Hamilton brought the McLaren MP4-26 home in second place, 22s adrift and 8s clear of an impressive performance from Vitaly Petrov in the Renault.
Although Melbourne is a one-off track, we now at least have a sighting on some of the unanswered questions that dominated pre-season speculation. No, the new Pirellis did not fall apart and require six stops per car. In fact, amazingly, F1 rookie Sergio Perez, a fine seventh until both Saubers were excluded post-race, completed the Australian GP with just one pit stop, driving the last 34 laps on a single set of soft tyres...
As many, including Williams technical director Sam Michael suspected, the DRS (drag reduction system) rear wing was somewhat underwhelming. "The wing helped me get close to Jenson in T1 (after Vettel had pitted) so that I could pass him in Turns 3 / 4 but I don't think this is the track to best judge it," said Vettel.
"I only used it once and it didn't make too much difference," Hamilton offered, while Petrov seemed the most appreciative of the three podium finishers: "I used it a few times lapping backmarkers and I think it helped me pull away from Alonso a little bit."
The fact was, at times we saw Alonso, with KERS and a DRS wing, unable to do much about Webber's Red Bull running without KERS, which does not bode too well for the ultimate effectiveness of the wing as it stands. There appeared to be just three DRS-assisted overtakes during the course of the afternoon - Alonso on Rosberg, although we didn't see it; Button on Massa and Massa on Buemi.
The mystery of Red Bull's non-use of KERS turned out to be straightforward after all. Speculation that the team was using a lightweight 'start only' KERS system, and hence its non-use in qualifying proved false. In fact, the team carried out a back-to-back on Friday, Vettel's car fitted with a working KERS and Webber's switched off. Indications of a potential problem on Vettel's car led to the team switching that off too for the rest of the weekend, Webber never using the system at all. Such was Vettel's margin of superiority that KERS mattered little to Red Bull in Australia.
McLaren left Australia a relieved team after Hamilton's second place and Button's sixth brought a decent haul of points.
"We can take this and be very proud of ourselves," Hamilton said. "The guys did a great job and a week or two ago we weren't expecting to be near the top five. We were catching Sebastian early on and I'm looking forward to the next race. I damaged the plank and part of the floor and was just nursing the car. Our pace was very good and everyone says I have an aggressive style but I think I proved today that's not the case and I did a good job of looking after my tyres.
"It's a great platform for us to push on from. We have upgrades coming and a better understanding of the car. Red Bull clearly has a fantastic car and they have been fastest since the middle of 09. But we will close that gap, make no mistake, and have shown we can compete with them."
Team principal Martin Whitmarsh added: "Lewis did a great job and obviously had a floor problem. Until that point he wasn't quite as quick as Sebastian but it was pretty close. We leave Australia knowing that we had the pace to have two cars on the podium without anyone having a mistake in front of us. It was genuine pace. The drivers have had a hard winter and so has the team and it's fantastic to come out of it and be that strong."
A podium from Petrov was a great outcome for Renault too. Inevitably, people will take 30s from his elapsed race time and conclude that Robert Kubica could have been right in the mix, but Vettel looked like he had plenty in hand and the fact is that nobody would have predicted a podium for the Russian. If anything, Nick Heidfeld has been effective Renault team leader since signing to replace the Pole but had a bad weekend. Slower than Petrov on Friday, Heidfeld's qualifying was ruined by traffic, meaning he started 18th. He was 12th by the first corner but then suffered significant sidepod damage and could only bring the far home 14th.
Petrov, who had a great first lap, jumping Button and Alonso, has shown before that he can cope with pressure, most notably ahead of Alonso in Abu Dhabi last year, and was proud to become the first Russian ever to stand on an F1 podium after a two-stop race.
Ferrari, as they hoped, showed stronger race pace, but Alonso was elbowed down to ninth in the first corner sort-out and had to battle his way back from there. He reported lacking front downforce and had the rear tyres go off more than expected but was at least satisfied to get to the chequered flag ahead of Mark Webber, in fourth place for the third time in four years.
For poor Webber, fifth seems to be his birthright at home. He's finished there for Minardi, for Williams and now for Red Bull. All weekend his RB7 seemed to wear tyres much quicker than Vettel's and a full investigation of the car will be made ahead of Malaysia.
Button and McLaren feel they were robbed by the award of a Drive Through penalty early in the race (see separate story), when Jenson finally passed a defensive Felipe Massa, but the Melbourne winner for the past two seasons was buoyed by a much better showing from his team than anyone anticipated.
Sergio Perez impressed from the very beginning and did an exceptional job to eke 34 laps out a set of option tyres. The team can regard itself very unfortunate to fall foul of the rulebook first time out with the C30 after both Perez and Kamui Kobayashi scored solid points for seventh and eighth.
Technical director James Key was delighted with the showing but realistic enough to know that teams around them, like Mercedes and Williams, had problematic weekends and things will get tougher.
Mercedes had something of a nightmare altogether after arriving in Australia in bullish mood. "We thought we were 0.7-0.8s away from where we should have been," Ross Brawn explained after qualifying, so we should have been closer but we are not strong enough yet. We had some aero and balance issues and if we'd done a perfect job with clean sessions and found the balance I'd be more worried because I'd be wondering where we were going to get the performance from."
Neither Rosberg, who started seventh, nor Schumacher, 11th, completed the race. Michael was hit on the first lap and had to pit with a puncture to the right rear tyre which dropped him to last place. The floor was also damaged, which eventually forced his retirement on lap 19. Nico had made his first pit stop and was running eighth when rudely assaulted by Barrichello's Williams in a cack-handed move at Turn 3 that earned F1's most experienced man a Drive Through penalty. Rosberg, with a loss of water pressure from the impact, retired on lap 22.
In parc ferme, Vettel and his father embraced more like it was his first GP win rather than the first in defence of his world title and his 11th in total. Something tells you we will witness many more this year...