Australian GP - Sunday - Race Report
Dream start for Button in Melbourne
BY TONY DODGINS
Jenson Button evidently gets along with Melbourne. A victory McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh labeled "utterly immaculate" was his third Australian GP win in four years.
They have all been significant. In 2009 it was the fairytale first win for Brawn GP, and a success that put Jenson on the road to becoming world champion. In 2010 he cemented his new relationship with McLaren in a finely-judged mixed conditions race. This time, he saw off team mate Lewis Hamilton and confirmed the effectiveness of McLaren's winter work. They head on to Malaysia the team to beat.
It was Hamilton who took the Melbourne pole, 0.15s clear of Button, but at the start Jenson got the better launch and was through the first corner in front. Surprisingly perhaps, Button was able to carve out a 3s margin and control the race from the front.
The knock-on effects of losing the start gave Hamilton problems. Standard policy dictates that whoever has track position gets priority at pit stop time and so it was Button who came in first, 3.5s to the good after 16 laps. Sebastian Vettel, running third, 10s adrift after spending the first 10 laps behind Michael Schumacher's Mercedes, stopped on the same lap and Lewis had to stay out one lap more.
Button is typically easier on his tyres and by this time Hamilton was in trouble with degradation. While the lost time on tired rubber did not directly wipe out his gap to Vettel, it had a knock on effect in that he pitted out behind Sergio Perez's Sauber.
The Mexican had started from the back after a penalty for a changed gearbox, on a new set of medium Pirellis with the intent of going as long as possible before switching to the option tyre and repeating the single stop strategy that worked so well for him in 2011.
As Hamilton was bottled up behind him, Vettel closed in and was able to take advantage of a lap 37 Safety Car when Vitaly Petrov pulled off on the main straight, to leapfrog the McLaren.
The official car wiped out Button's comfortable 10s lead but any plans Vettel had of challenging for the lead had to be rethought.
"I thought I could but after two corners Jenson was just gone," Sebastian explained. "He was simply too quick today and thoroughly deserved to win."
Although Button was frustrated to see his afternoon's work annulled by the Safety Car, the McLaren has always switched its tyres on well and evidently that characteristic is still there. From first to last, Button was untroubled.
At first it looked as if the Mercedes pair would continue the promising form shown in practice/qualifying as Schumacher and Rosberg made impressive starts to cross the line third and fourth at the end of the opening lap. Vettel pulled a tremendously brave move to displace Rosberg on lap two but could do little about Schumacher until the seven times champion retired with gearbox problems 10 laps in.
"Despite excellent starts, both Michael and Nico had difficulties from the start of the race with their tyres," Ross Brawn explained. "With the development of the circuit and the track temperatures, we fell out of the working window, and struggled with degradation."
Tyre usage was a bugbear of last year's car but on the evidence of winter testing, admittedly in cooler conditions, the team thought it had solved its problem. But it looks as if there is still work to be done.
Home hero Mark Webber managed to net the best result in his home grand prix, improving by one slot on the fifth place he managed on his debut with Minardi a decade ago.
Webber got a poor start as the clutch overbit and cost him revs, a three-car sort out with Nico Hulkenberg's Force India and countryman Jean-Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso leaving Hulkenberg on the retirement list.
So too, sadly, was qualifying star Romain Grosjean, whose Lotus made a slow start from third on the grid, completed the first lap down in sixth under pressure from Pastor Maldonado's Williams. The Venezuelan charged up the inside of Turn 13, wherepon they made contact, with fatal consequences for Grosjean's right track rod.
Up four places from his lowly 12th starting slot was Fernando Alonso, driving with typical verve in a Ferrari that appeared somewhat less recalcitrant than it had on Friday and Saturday.
It was only an optical illusion though, and asked about it afterwards the Spaniard confirmed that it had indeed been the same car. A look at the list of fastest race laps confirmed what he said: he was 1s away in Q2 and his best race lap was a similar amount behind Jenson Button.
A top five finish was described as best case scenario before the race and he did a strong job to deliver it, the first non McLaren/Red Bull to take the chequer. For the final 20 post Safety Car laps, however, he was hounded mercilessly by Maldonado's Williams.
It was great to see Williams, in the doldrums for so long, with a car capable of challenging for a top five finish and although Alonso was able to defend quite comfortably using KERS, Maldonado was in sight of sixth when he got out of shape over a kerb on the very last lap and put the car heavily into the wall.
Was there been any radio communication afterwards?
"No," Maldonado said. "I was too angry! I don't really know what happened. Maybe I got too close to Fernando and lost some downforce but I wasn't challenging him, I had accepted sixth and was happy."
It was a crying shame but the signs for the team at least, are positive.
As a result of the Maldonado shunt, a close battle for the final points positions became even more dramatic on the last lap.
Perez, whose one-stop strategy had elevated him to a fine sixth once again, had Rosberg, Kobayashi, Raikkonen, Vergne and Ricciardo lined up behind as he coped with soft Pirellis that were now 33 laps old. Confronted by debris from the Maldonado shunt and a yellow, he lifted off, and had less momentum when they past the ensuing green.
Rosberg attempted to drive around him, they made contact and a punctured tyre meant that Nico would be classified 12th. Kobayashi and Raikkonen too advantage to charge past Perez.
Ricciardo also benefited, passing impressive team mate Jean-Eric Vergne at Turn 13 to score two points in his first home grand prix.
"I saw blue flags and a lot of cars in front and I was sure I could make up at least one place because it was chaos," Ricciardo said. "Then I had a chance to attack Jean-Eric. He defended into Turn 13 and I thought I could make the switch back and I did, which put me in P9."
It was a good recovery from Ricciardo, aided by the Safety Car, after first lap contact with Bruno Senna's Williams dictated a pit stop for a new nose. Then Paul Di Resta pinched the final point for Force India when Vergne ran wide at the final corner.
A superb opening race suggests a mouthwatering season ahead, with McLaren and Red Bull closely-matched and the midfield tightly packed. It wouldn't be F1 without some rule/political controversy and the Mercedes 'F-duct' (see analysis) will be the subject of much discussion before qualifying gets underway in Malaysia next Friday.
First blood to Jenson and McLaren then, but let's see if they can maintain the advantage at Sepang.