F1: Round 2 – Melbourne, Australia – March 28

Australia pushes all the right Buttons

God must be a Formula 1 fan. Or a patriotic Australian.

After two weeks of agonising about changes to rules and technology to save the sport’s “spectacle”, in the end all it took was a simple gift from the Heavens: a brief shower around start time and the sport was transformed in seconds, with Australia ending up one of the most entertaining, erratic and exciting races of recent times.

Even at the best of times, with more stereotypical Aussie sunshine, the start of the Melbourne GP can be an incident-packed moment, which is why it should always be the first race of the season and not the likes of the antiseptic Bahrain event. On this damper occasion, Sebastian Vettel leapt away into an easy lead into the first turn, but behind him both Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber were sluggish allowing them both to be jumped by Felipe Massa. And then things got messy on the damp circuit, with Alonso left in the middle a three-car battle for the apex of turn 1 with Jenson Button on the inside line and Michael Schumacher trying the outside. Contact between the three world champions was inevitable: Alonso was tipped into a spin and left pointing the wrong way, momentarily impeding Button who lost a spot to Nico Rosberg, while Schumacher was collected by the rear end of Alonso’s spinning Ferrari and had to take to the grass with a damaged front wing. The big winners were Robert Kubica – who slipped neatly into fourth – and Lewis Hamilton, who was up four places and narrowly missed overtaking the recovering Button for sixth.

Seconds later, and another multi-car accident was developing at turn 6: Kamui Kobayashi lost his front wing against the back of Buemi’s Toro Rosso, hit the barriers and was then a passenger as the car slid across the track as it turned right. Unfortunately, Buemi and Nico Hulkenberg were already in that precise spot on the tarmac: Buemi’s rear received a second and this time fatal whack, while Hulkenberg was smashed in the side and was a write off.

All three cars were wrecks in the gravel after that, and the clean-up meant that a safety car was inevitable. That was good news for Fernando Alonso who was able to recover and rejoin in 18th, and for Michael Schumacher who needed to put for a new front wing. No one else pitted even though the race was under caution for four laps, as the rain was still falling ever so slightly and the track still too wet for a change from intermediates.

Vettel made another great restart, while behind Mark Webber was caught napping and briefly overtaken by Robert Kubica, enormously impressive in the Renault; Webber managed to take the spot back a few corners later but it was clear that he would have to be on his toes. As indeed would everyone else, because the next lap round Lewis Hamilton made a bold move to overtake Button at turn 3, and the lap after that it was Felipe Massa’s turn to stutter which allowed Webber to sweep past for second spot.

The rain had stopped and the track was drying rapidly, but there was still a certain amount of disbelief when Jenson Button unilaterally decided to pit on lap 7 for dry slicks, at the time seemingly a knee-jerk reaction to a fit of pique at being bested by Lewis. “Too early!” was the unanimous cry, and it was seemingly instantly proven when Button rejoined and promptly slid off the track at turn 3 seconds later. But then a funny thing happened: despite that incident, and despite the tyres not yet being up to racing temperature and pressure, Button immediately went on to start setting fastest sectors.

The flash message went out to the rest of the field and on lap 9, everyone bar the Red Bulls at the front were in for slick tyres. Button’s hot laps in the meantime were improving his relative position with every passing second, and by the time leader Sebastian Vettel finally pitted on lap 11 he was only narrowly able to rejoin in front of the McLaren – if Button hadn’t slid off the track on his outlap, then it would have been a different story entirely.

Mark Webber proved the big loser: with Vettel in on lap 11 and Red Bull unwilling to have their cars queue for the pit box, Webber had to run an additional lap before he could finally take on slicks: the delay put him back on track in sixth spot behind Felipe Massa, with Vettel leading Button, Kubica and Rosberg ahead. Hamilton had lost out and had fallen behind Webber because of pit lane traffic, while Fernando Alonso was recovering dangerously from his turn 1 disaster and was busy overtaking Rubens Barrichello for eighth on lap 14.

This set up a fascinating battle between Massa, Webber, Hamilton and Alonso: Massa was clearly struggling, and as they started lap 16 Massa was slow down the start/finish straight and that allowed Webber to take the position, with Hamilton (ever the predator) slipping past the Ferrari as well in the Red Bull’s wake. Webber and Hamilton continued to tangle into turn 3, and Webber was lured into leaving his braking too late – off he went into the gravel, briefly blocking Hamilton which meant that Massa was able to retake the position after all. Webber was lucky to make his way out of the soggy run-off and rejoin the race, but a feud between him and the Brit seemed to be in place that would have later repercussions …

Hamilton continued to be thwarted by Massa for another five laps, but on lap 21 Massa had a huge slide through the slow penultimate corner and Lewis didn’t waste the chance a second time, slipstreaming the Ferrari down the start/finish straight and then pulling out to overtake on the inside line into turn 1. Lewis had left the move late, though, and his front wing touched the rear of the Ferrari: McLaren held their breath, but the wing held firm and no emergency pit stop was required. Hamilton’s pace was still incredibly fast, and he pulled up to the rear of Nico Rosberg just a few laps later, finally pulling off the overtaking move of the afternoon around the outside of the back straight of lap 27 into turn 11. Rosberg tried to fight back but finally had to yield as they ran into a yellow flag zone forbidding overtaking moves.

With all this frenetic activity going on (Formula 1 has no overtaking? Come to Melbourne and try saying that!) it was easy to forget that the lead wasn’t in any doubt at all. All Sebastian Vettel had to do was keep it on track and the race win was his. Which is why the TV coverage cutting to a beached Red Bull on lap 26 was such a shock: what had happened? “We had a braking failure,” said Vettel later. “Earlier on the lap I felt some vibrations. There was nothing I could have done and I lost the car.”

Suddenly Jenson Button was in the lead. And a commanding one. That brainless early tyre change decision was suddenly exposed as being a race winning work of staggering genius. And more significant still, this was not a race that had been gifted to him – an early collision, losing places, and an enormously risky tyre call could all have left him at the back of the field rather than the front, or even out altogether.

“It was [my decision],” Button confirmed. “I think it is a lot easier for the drivers to feel the conditions. Teams can see clouds coming in but we can feel what is coming in. I didn’t have balance at all on inters, so I thought let’s get in and stick slicks on. There was a dry line but a few places were wet. When I went into pits I thought it was a catastrophic decision as it was wet in the pitlane but once I got up to speed it was pretty good. I was able to put in some laps and overtake a few cars.

“It was the right call – I’m very happy to have made it.”

And with Hamilton in third all over the back of an impressively stubborn Robert Kubica it looked like a very good day for McLaren. But the day was not done yet and this was not to be the typical F1 race that died a processional death in the latter stages: the key issue now was tyre wear. With the change to slicks coming so early on, there was a real drop-off in performance into the last third of the day and the issue of “to pit or not to pit” for fresh rubber loomed large.

Rubens Barrichello pitted for tyres from eighth place on lap 32, and Mark Webber the following lap. Nico Rosberg came in on lap 34 and emerged side-by-side with Webber, but the Aussie was in no mood to lose out and put his up-to-temperature rubber to good use to muscle ahead of the German.

Jenson Button’s eternally smooth style wasn’t troubling his Bridgestones too much, but the Ferraris were both struggling as the race (and rubber) wore on – culminating in a dramatic power slide for Massa in the closing laps that was almost impossible to believe he could hold on to, but he did. And Lewis Hamilton was a different story to his team mate, his more aggressive style – and especially his ultimately fruitless attacks on Kubica lap after lap – starting to lead McLaren to fear that he would be vulnerable before the end of the race to those on new tyres, so he was brought in on lap 35 as well, giving up third place in the process.

Hamilton resumed just ahead of Webber, and both drivers were soon trading fastest laps almost 2s ahead of the front runners, but they now had a mountain to climb – Lewis was some 37s behind his team mate. Sure, they were charging up to the backs of the Ferraris in 3rd and 4th, but was there enough time to press home the tyre advantage when they got there?

The answer was an emphatic no. Once in Alonso’s dirty air, Hamilton’s progress came to an abrupt halt. He was stuck in 5th place, having given up a podium position in the process, and he was not happy. After complaining that his tyres had “gone off”, he was also heard on the radio demanding to know who was responsible for the terrible idea to come in in the first place. It would not have endeared him to the team that had scrupulously stood behind him following his Friday night traffic indiscretions.

The Ferraris were definitely holding everyone up, with Hamilton, Webber and Rosberg all on each others tails. Someone was bound to make a move, and on lap 57 Hamilton tried a move around the outside of Alonso which was never really on. He conceded, pulled back – and then got hit up the rear by Mark Webber: “I was looking to get the run coming back out,” said Webber, “but when I got that close, the front wing just basically did not work – I could not get the car stopped. It lifted up … I just locked up, tried to get more on the inside to make it wheel-to-wheel but in the end obviously I hit him with the front wing and the rear tyre. That’s car racing.” He added: “I apologised to Lewis.”

The two cars were punted into the gravel by the impact, with both drivers doing well to maintain momentum and power their way out of the kitty litter. Both rejoined the race, with only Rosberg having gained position past Hamilton but Webber then having to pit to replace the destroyed front wing from the initial collision, a costly stop that dropped him down to 9th behind a quietly impressive Tonio Liuzzi in the Force India and the reliable Barrichello in the Williams.

Michael Schumacher managed to take the final championship point on offer, having laboured behind the likes of Jamie Alguersuari and Pedro de la Rosa for much of the afternoon after his own pit stop for a new front wing in the opening laps. Given the pedigree of both driver and the Mercedes marque, it was a surprise to see how much he laboured to overtake those middle-ranking teams.

Heikki Kovalainen plugged away to the end of the race, bringing the Lotus home in 13th two laps off the lead as the highest-placed of the new teams; while Karun Chandhok recorded a landmark for HRT by making it a full race distance (well, four laps off the lead in truth) – a huge achievement for the team that’s struggled to turn even a single lap on occasion in the first two Grands Prix this year. By contrast his team mate Bruno Senna only made it five laps into the race before coming to a halt out on track after the safety car period.

Also less fortunate were Virgin, both of whose cars ended up starting from the pit lane after emergency over-night technical fixes which ultimately failed to see them through the race anyway; and Kovalainen’s team mate Jarno Trulli whose car was removed to the garage before the start and which never made it back out again. Vitaly Petrov – who had been on the edge of an acident for much of the weekend – actually made the start at least but then duly spun into the gravel on lap 10, left to rev his wheels to no effect before climbing out of the Renault.

So does anyone still think that Jenson’s decision to leave Brawn/Mercedes and move to McLaren was a mistake? That he would be soundly eclipsed by Lewis Hamilton? Instead, Jenson’s smooth driving style seems ideally suited to the McLaren in a way that the more hot-headed Lewis Hamilton’s style just doesn’t quite. And his experience and relaxed air of calm also seems head and shoulders above his still-learning team mate, whose tempestuous relationship with Australia is still somewhat bruising for all concerned.

All in all, you can’t help but wonder whether McLaren aren’t looking at their matching set of world champions and thinking that the new boy is actually more at home, and more to their liking, after all.

Race result

Pos  Driver        Team                       Time
 1.  Button        McLaren-Mercedes           1h33:36.531
 2.  Kubica        Renault                    +    12.034
 3.  Massa         Ferrari                    +    14.488
 4.  Alonso        Ferrari                    +    16.304
 5.  Rosberg       Mercedes                   +    16.683
 6.  Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes           +    29.898
 7.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes       +    59.847
 8.  Barrichello   Williams-Cosworth          +  1:00.536
 9.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault           +  1:07.319
10.  Schumacher    Mercedes                   +  1:09.391
11.  Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari         +  1:11.301
12.  De la Rosa    Sauber-Ferrari             +  1:14.084
13.  Kovalainen    Lotus-Cosworth             +    2 laps
14.  Chandhok      HRT-Cosworth               +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Mark Webber, 1:28.358 on lap 47

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                         On lap
Glock         Virgin-Cosworth              41
Vettel        Red Bull-Renault             26
Di Grassi     Virgin-Cosworth              25
Sutil         Force India-Mercedes         12
Petrov        Renault                      10
Senna         HRT-Cosworth                 5
Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari           1
Hulkenberg    Williams-Cosworth            1
Kobayashi     Sauber-Ferrari               1
Trulli        Lotus-Cosworth               1

World Championship standings after round 2

Consistency means that the Ferrari duo top the drivers championship, but Jenson Button’s win in Australia puts him right back up there with them both.

Considering how dominant Red Bull – and Vettel in particular – have looked at times in both events, it’s shocking to see how far down both championships they are.

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Alonso        37        1.  Ferrari                    70
 2.  Massa         33        2.  McLaren-Mercedes           54
 3.  Button        31        3.  Mercedes                   29
 4.  Hamilton      23        4.  Red Bull-Renault           18
 5.  Rosberg       20        5.  Renault                    18
 6.  Kubica        18        6.  Force India-Mercedes        8
 7.  Vettel        12        7.  Williams-Cosworth           5
 8.  Schumacher     9       
 9.  Liuzzi         8       
10.  Webber         6       
11.  Barrichello    5 

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