F1: Round 1 – Melbourne, Australia – 29 March

Fairy tales during qualifying are one thing – it’s quite another to sustain the fantasy over a full race distance. So despite Brawn GP’s triumph in locking on the front row for their début race, the chances always were that it would all fall apart over the course of a full 58 laps. Real life doesn’t have fairy tale endings, after all – do they?

And despite Jenson Button getting off to a great start and quickly pulling out a comfortable lead, things did indeed quickly go wrong for his team mate Rubens Barrichello when the anti-stall device ironically nearly stalled the car on the grid. He was lucky get underway at all, but he was getting passed by multiple cars going down the start straight.

He tried to hold his line going into the first turn, and this set off a chain reaction as he got squeezed on the outside line by Mark Webber and from behind by Heikki Kovalainen; the three touched and Webber was spun into Kovalainen, and the two sustained heavy damage. Other cars (including Nick Heidfeld and Adrian Sutil) collided and/or spun, but most were able to collect themselves and carry on – only Kovalainen’s car was so badly damaged that it could do no more than limp back to the pits to retire.

Barrichello’s front wing was damaged but not so badly as to require a pit stop, and it even survived a tap on the rear of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari going into turn 3 on lap 11. Still, the aerodynamics weren’t the best and it was a relief when he made it to his first scheduled pit stop and could get the wing replaced at the same time. After that Rubens calmed down and stopped hitting things, and slowly recovered his track position in the process.

Barrichello’s early woes meant that Sebastian Vettel inherited 2nd place – and kept it masterfully, easily stretching a lead out of the third placed Felipe Massa. Massa and his team mate had started on the supersoft tyres, and that advantage – together with the power boost delivered by their KERS power storage system – gave them impressive overtaking ability. But the tyres quickly went off and as early as lap 11 they were struggling, and had to come in for early first pit stops.

Other drivers who had also gambled on the early grip of supersofts included Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica, and they were in early too. It seemed to throw away all the advantage that the tyre choice had given them, and seem to be a failed strategy, but there was one key factor that would only come into play later in the race: they had got the supersoft stint out of the way early, while the other runners would have to risk a final stint on the tyres late in the day. It would prove crucial to the race result.

Button and Vettel had pulled out an impressive 30s lead over Nico Rosburg in 3rd place by the time the first proper round of pit stops began around lap 19. And then – as so often happens – there was a crash that seemed bound to bring out the safety car and wipe out that lead, when Kazuki Nakajima lost the back end of the Williams coming out of Turn 4 and slammed into the wall, leaving a trail of debris that was going to take some serious clearing up. But the safety car was sluggish in being deployed, seemingly as track officials stalled to allow everyone who hadn’t yet pitted (including the leaders) get theis stops in before the safety car caused the pit lane to be closed. After controversies about safety car procedures adversely affecting race results in 2008, this was a nice touch – and very fortunate for Button and Vettel.

At the restart, Renault’s Nelson Piquet suffered a violent reaction from his brakes going into turn 1 and spun into the gravel – fortunately failing to take anyone off with him. After that, during the middle section of the race, Button once again pulled out a comfortable 5s lead over Vettel, and the race settled down into a somewhat dull period of about twenty minutes when everyone seemed to be settling for what they had. But anyone tuning out at this point was going to miss a rip-roaring and dramatic conclusion as many of the front runners had to switch to the supersofts – and suffered as a consequence.

Button’s pit stop was a clumsy, slow one that wiped out his the gap he had previously enjoyed. Suddenly Vettel was threatening; and behind Vettel, suddenly Kubica (who had used his supersofts in that opening stint) was taking huge lumps out of them both and bearing down. There was a serious possibility that the Pole would be able to sweep past them both.

Button’s smooth driving style was coping better with the supersoft tyres than Vettel, who then served as Button’s fire break against the oncoming threat. Vettel was determined to keep second place and Kubica equally determined to take it … And on lap 56 the two ended up colliding. Vettel braked too early going into turn 3 and Kubica came round the outside, but then attempted to squeeze Vettel out onto the grass – and neither of them would yield. Contact was inevitable and body parts went flying.

Initially it looked as though the damage might be superficial or limited to wrecked front wings. But both cars started to collapse more emphatically in the following corners, both of them understeering into painful encounters with the wall. Kubica’s BMW was a wreck, while Vettel kept on going despite the fact that the front left tyre was flapping around on the front of the car connected only by its safety tether. In the end he had to pull over – he would have been black flagged if he hadn’t.

That brought out the second and final safety car period; and with only two laps to go to the end, there was only a symbolic hundred yard restart at the very end before the chequered flag flew. Jenson Button had completed a perfect run, and with both of his closest rivals out of the picture he was a clear and emphatic winner.

And second was … Rubens Barrichello. Yes, after all that early mayhem, the boy from Brazil had plugged away, worked his way up through the field, and shown hugely impressive speed in the final laps to reclaim the second spot that he has started from the grid on. The one-two that had been a fantasy comic book ending too far was suddenly there, live, in front of your eyes. The cameras picked up Ross Brawn’s face as his cars crossed the line: even the man who can see every tactic and strategy possible in a race looked completely stunned by this particular outcome. Of course, it wouldn’t have happened if Vettel and Kubica had been ‘sensible’ and given each other enough space not to take each other out. And Ferrari should also have been up there as well.

Ahh yes – what happened to Massa and Raikkonen? Ferrari haven’t exactly been on top form here, but they’re not far off. And having got the supersofts out of the way early on, they should have been in prime position to make a late surge for the front and claim two podium positions. So where were they?

Massa’s campaign came to a stuttering end on lap 47 when his car slowed appreciably, barely managing to make its way around the lap before crawling into the garage to retire. And on the very same lap, Kimi Raikkonen lost the rear end of his car coming out of turn 13. It spun and he managed to clout the wall pretty heavily, and although the car remained intact it was very compromised and he also finished the race in the garage, retiring three laps from the end.

That meant that 3rd, 4th and 5th spots were all taken by the three drivers who had started from the very back of the grid: Jarno Trulli in 3rd with his team mate Timo Glock in 5th after some impressively tough late overtaking; and in fourth place, none other than Lewis Hamilton

Hamilton had started the race looking as though a single point would be too much for ask for. He didn’t do anything dramatic today, but given how far off the pace the McLaren has been looking he clearly did an excellent job to split the two Toyotas with their rear diffuser-assisted pace. It was interesting to watch how cautious he was going into the first turn of the race – a far cry of the banzai approach Lewis has displayed in previous seasons, and a good decision here considering how much of a mess the Barrichello/Kovalainen collision created on that first corner. (There’s even the possibility that Hamilton might be elevated to 3rd place: on the safety car lap, Jarno Trulli went off onto the grass and Hamilton had to go past him. Since no overtaking is allowed under the safety car, Trulli was allowed to maintain the position – but in fact, Trulli should probably have lost the spot because the excursion was his fault. A stewards’ ruling was expected.)

Nico Rosburg faded fast in the closing laps with problems on the supersoft tyres, allowing Fernando Alonso to easily take 6th place for Renault. And the final point of the day went to F1 rookie Sebastien Buemi, the driver many felt was a bit of a placeholder and a non-entity but who actually drove a very mature, error-free afternoon that saw him finish one spot ahead of his more famous ex-Champ Car champion team mate Sebastien Bourdais.

But all attention was on the podium and the stunning triumph of Brawn GP. As analysts said after the race – it almost can’t be any better than this weekend of the team, it will never reach these heights again. Well – not unless they really do pull off a genuine challenge for the world championship itself, which Ross Brawn asserts is the team’s intention – and which we’ll have to take very seriously after this display.

“It feels stunning,” Brawn said after the race. “With everything that all our staff have been through it is just sensational. I can’t really put it into to words. It wasn’t that easy and there were times where we were having to look after things and of course reliability was an issue because we haven’t had all that much testing over the winter. Two cars to the finish, Rubens had a problem at the start which meant he picked up some damage and the car wasn’t in great shape… Just unbelievable. It doesn’t get much better than that today.”

“Absolute fairytale,” CEO Nick Fry said. “I just can’t believe that we actually managed to do it. We were getting quite worried at the end there with (Robert) Kubica going quickly on the prime tyre, so we were getting a bit sweaty under the collar. But we got there in the end and it was a fantastic effort from everyone. Everyone at Brackley, everyone at Mercedes-Benz, just a great, great job.”

[UPDATE: Lewis Hamilton has been promoted to third place at the Australian GP after Jarno Trulli was penalised for illegally regaining his position overtaking Hamilton during the final safety car period, having run off the track behind the safety car.  Trulli was given a 25-second penalty which moves him outside of the points finish; Toyota has confirmed its intention to appeal the decision.]

Race classification

Pos  Driver        Team                      Time
 1.  Button        Brawn GP              (B)  1h34:15.784
 2.  Barrichello   Brawn GP              (B)  +     0.807
 3.  Trulli        Toyota                (B)  +     1.604
 4.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes      (B)  +     2.914
 5.  Glock         Toyota                (B)  +     4.435
 6.  Alonso        Renault               (B)  +     4.879
 7.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota       (B)  +     5.722
 8.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +     6.004
 9.  Bourdais      Toro Rosso-Ferrari    (B)  +     6.298
10.  Sutil         Force India-Ferrari   (B)  +     6.335
11.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber            (B)  +     7.085
12.  Fisichella    Force India-Ferrari   (B)  +     7.374
13.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +     1 lap
14.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault      (B)  +    2 laps
15.  Kubica        BMW Sauber            (B)  +    3 laps
16.  Raikkonen     Ferrari               (B)  +    3 laps

Fastest lap: Rosberg, 1:27.706

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                      On lap
Massa         Ferrari               (B)    46
Piquet        Renault               (B)    25
Nakajima      Williams-Toyota       (B)    18
Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes      (B)    1

World Championship standings, round 1

Drivers:                    Constructors:
 1.  Button        10        1.  Brawn GP               18
 2.  Barrichello    8        2.  Toyota                 10
 3.  Trulli         6        3.  McLaren-Mercedes        5
 4.  Hamilton       5        4.  Renault                 3
 5.  Glock          4        5.  Williams-Toyota         2
 6.  Alonso         3        6.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      1
 7.  Rosberg        2
 8.  Buemi          1

Form analysis

So what does the Australian GP tell us about the how the teams are looking for 2009?

Well you have to say, Brawn GP comes out of this looking like a genuine title contender. In previous seasons, the Honda team (as was) looked terrific during pre-season testing and then died a death the minute they went out for a race: Australia shows that this year the team is the real deal, and that the pre-season hype out their form was spot on. Moreover, they have incredible reliability as well – the pounding that Rubens Barrichello put his car through without retiring is impressive. So we have a fast car with bullet-proof reliability: y’know, that sounds awfully like the cars Ferrari used to be able to boast … back when Ross Brawn was technical director. Funny, that.

Toyota also showed that the rear diffuser that they share with Brawn GP is a huge factor in performance. Let’s just hope that the FIA don’t rule it illegal and void the wonderful Australian GP result. But if it is ruled legal then it will be no time at all before the other teams produce their own versions, and Toyota’s advantage might be short-lived.

Williams also share the diffuser but the race must be classed a disappointment. After dominating all the practice sessions, a solitary 7th place for Nico Rosburg is a poor showing. The car simply seemed to fall apart on supersofts where the Brawn GP car in particular was able to carry on ticking with only marginal drop-off in performance. There’s no denying Rosburg’s talent, but they need to do something about this supersoft tyre performance. And also, can someone please break it to Kazuki Nakajima that he’s not an F1-level driver please?

Renault seem no further forward than last year, still relying on Fernando Alonso’s huge talents to give them anything. Force India remain there simply to fill out the numbers on the grid, while Toro Rosso still look capable of taking an opportunistic point here and there when others fall to one side, but without their 2008 star Sebastien Vettel they look unlikely to be much of a player this year.

Red Bull’s Vettel was the star of the day in many ways, running second for all but two laps and only undone by his hot headed clash with Robert Kubica. The car certainly has the pace to equal anything out there on the track, and it’s hard to see how Vettel could fail to feature in the title race in the second half of the season. It’s hard to know whether team mate Mark Webber will have the same level of success given that the first turn damage to his car pretty much wrote off the day.

BMW’s a tough one to call. Kubica was mighty toward the end until his clash with Vettel, but the performance of the team was uneven, with Kubica unable to match the leaders early on and only coming on strong on the final ten laps on supersoft, and his team mate Nick Heidfeld undone by first turn accident damage. I’m not convinced they have the car at this stage to be full title contenders, but if they can fix the relatively minor problems quickly then they could end up being the team to beat.

As a damage limiation exercise, this was an impressive save in Australia for McLaren. But their fourth place really is overly flattering to the team, which clearly has some horrible problems with raw pace and performance. They’ll be lucky to repeat this fluke next week and get any more points to be honest and it looks to be a tough couple of months for the team as they struggle to get back on competitive footing.

And that leaves Ferrari. Despite the disastrous final result for the team this was actually a pretty good showing for the team until lap 47. Remember that last year they had a similarly dreadful opening race too, and yet by the end were the constructors champions and only a point off making Felipe Massa world champion as well. I wouldn’t put it past them to do the same again this year: however, Kimi Raikkonen’s 2008 malaise looks as though it’s seeping into the new season as well, and that could be a big problem for Maranello.

Overall it looks to me as though Massa, Vettel and Kubica will be the prime movers for the season as a whole. Hamilton may feature later on; and Brawn GP may have more early success, but then may fade away as the diffuser row gets sorted out one way of the other and as the vastly reduced development budget the team have starts to see them lose ground to the likes of Ferrari, BMW and McLaren.

Massa has to be the safer best for the world title, but it’s looking like it could be very close with a lot of unexpected race winners along the way. It could genuinely be one of the most fluid, flexible and unpredictable seasons for many a year, and how things will be looking as dawn beaks on 1 November for the final race of 2009 really is anyone’s guess.

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    […] the Australian GP, I opined that “Massa has to be the safer best for the world title”. Whoops – can I take that […]




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