F1: Vettel untouchable in first GP of 2011 (Updated)

Sebastian Vettel got the perfect start to the race, and consequently the best possible start to the season, with a dominant victory in Australia. But further back there were quite a few eye-catching surprises.

There’s no getting around it, this year’s Formula 1 season has a potential major problem: Sebastian Vettel is driving so well, is so far ahead of the rest of the field and making so few mistakes that this year’s championship could be decided in record time. In some ways that would only be right, since Vettel and Red Bull should have walked it last year if not for some early season technical problems and human errors, but if Vettel and his team are not going to give the rest of the field the same sort of handicap this year then Vettel’s lead of up to a second a lap at times in Melbourne is going to be decimating.

Pictures courtesy CrashNet/CrashPA

Let’s get the race win out of the way: Vettel got away perfectly, led into the first corner and was over 2s ahead of the rest of the field by the end of the first lap. Job done, race won given that the Red Bull displayed bullet-proof reliability for the whole of the race.

In second, Lewis Hamilton had a somewhat more testing time – too much wheel spin off the grid left him battling to retain second position, but he just about managed to do so. Vettel pulled out a substantial lead over the next five laps, but then as the tyres started to wear it was Vettel’s pace that faltered and Hamilton closed up to within 2.5s of the leader before the first round of pit stops. Vettel came in first on lap 15, while Hamilton seemed to be managing his tyres better; but after two laps more, Hamilton came in to the pits and found those extra two laps had proved very costly: Hamilton was now 6.5s behind the leader and his challenge was on the wane.

With the two on more-or-less identical strategies from then on, Hamilton never had another chance to make any impact on Vettel. Then on lap 34 Hamilton had a slow lap and ran off onto the grass; replays showed that even before the run-off, the undertray of the McLaren was damaged and hanging down, ruining the aerodynamic handling of the car. Hamilton was able to continue but was now nursing his car home, but the final 22s gap between first and second was by no means representative of the respective form of the two and Hamilton would have been a lot closer if not for the undertray damage that left the team nervously awaiting news from scrutineering to see whether the car’s technical regulation compliance regarding ride height had been compromised. However, despite this red herring issue, this was a substantial bounceback and return to competitiveness in just three weeks considering the almost suicidal despondency in the McLaren camp after the last pre-season tests which were disastrous for the team

Nor was it a fluke, given that Jenson Button’s form was also very strong. Unfortunately a couple of mistakes by Button himself wrecked his chances for a decent result: the first came off the starting grid, when he was so busy trying to cover Fernando Alonso attacking down the outside line that he allowed first Vitaly Petrov and then Felipe Massa to muscle him aside from the inside line. That left Button staring at the back of the Ferrari, and despite a clearly faster car he was unable to get past for lap after lap of sustained pressure, even using the adjustable rear wing (or more properly, the drag reduction system) down the main straight. The stalemate continued through to lap 12 when Button’s latest attack saw the McLaren have to take to the escape route at turn 12 to avoid a collision, giving Button the pass as a side-effect. Clearly he’d done so by “not respecting the track limits” and should have given the position back, but a critical delay in communication between driver, team and stewards saw Ferrari perform a quiet switch behind them putting Alonso ahead of Massa: if Button had to allow Massa round to pass then Alonso got through as well by default. In the end the Ferraris pitted in the meantime and so the stewards had no alternative but to give a disgruntled Button a drive-thru penalty that cost him several positions. After that, Button was in recovery mode: he showed that he could use the drag reduction system when he used it to blast past Kamui Kobayashi on lap 26, and on lap 48 he got a measure of revenge on Massa by passing him with ease on the start/finish straight, Massa virtually pulling over to one side making Button’s assertive push almost redundant. Massa’s passivity at this late stage might be explained by the fact he was in for his final pit stop shortly thereafter which dropped him down to a very disappointing ninth position.

Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber showed that by contrast, Red Bull’s form is slightly more mixed than McLaren’s than Vettel’s own race-winning performance might suggest. Webber had nearly taken second place from Hamilton off the line, but once he failed to do so he dropped back, suffered from early tyre wear that made him the first front-runner into the pits, and after that he drifted around in an underwhelming and doubtless frustrating fourth. He briefly ran off track on the new, cool tyres after his second pit stop which allowed Alonso to pick up fourth, and Webber was then unable to push Alonso for the position because of some late technical issues that saw him pull over immediately after the chequered flag and park up in the pit lane exit with some signs of smoke coming from the front of the car. “I was pushing as hard as I could but I wasn’t getting much back so I don’t know why,” he admitted afterwards.

With Webber and both Ferraris somewhat muted from expectations going into the weekend, there were openings for some surprise stars of the race – and of all people it was Vitaly Petrov who seized the chance, running to a hugely impressive third place. He managed to hold off pressure from Alonso in the closing laps to become the first Russian driver on a Formula 1 podium. Considering that Petrov has been much criticised for being a “pay driver” only in the seat because of the money he brings to Renault, this was a quantum leap forward from his stumbling, often bumbling 2010 performances. It’s almost as though the enforced absence of the injured Robert Kubica had unbottled Petrov’s own potential and made him think and act like a team leader at last. Heaven knows, Kubica’s direct replacement Nick Heidfeld wasn’t in a position to do so, limping around well down the running order in an unimpressive return to active F1 duty after a collision on the first lap left him with severe damage to the right hand bodywork, sidepod and engine cover that wrecked the car’s aerodynamic handling.

GP2 graduate Sergio Perez dazzled the brightest in his first F1 outing. Sauber is not exactly known for being one of the strongest cars on the grid and no one had particularly singled them out for much success, but Perez ran in the top ten for much of the race. Most impressively of all he did it on a one-stop strategy, in a race where concerns about the durability of new manufacturer Pirelli’s product was leading many teams to feel that even two stops was a big ask. Quite frankly there’s no way that Perez should have been able to manage the tyres to pull off a one-stop strategy – especially as it was revealed this was an ad hoc decision decided during the race and thus not even something Perez had planned or prepared for. Sadly Perez’ achievement was overshadowed by the Sauber team’s subsequent disqualification from the Grand Prix because of a technical infringement relating to the uppermost rear wing element – the stewards effectively saying that it was too flat, allowing more air through the moveable rear wing gap, hence reducing drag and making the car run faster unfairly.

Another F1 rookie, Paul Di Resta, also made a very good start to his Grand Prix career. He benefited from Perez and Kobayashi’s disqualification by being bumped up to tenth place in the final results, meaning that he scored an F1 point in his first outing for Force India by finishing just behind his much-fancied and much more experienced team leader Adrian Sutil, in a race that saw him twice voluntarily cede track position to Sutil during the race as the two were on different strategies.

In retirements, Pastor Maldonado pulled over on lap 10 with gearbox failure; Heikki Kovalainen exited on lap 19 after a water leak led to an overheating radiator on his Lotus; and Timo Glock ground to a halt on lap 50. Michael Schumacher was also an early retiree: he was hit from behind by a fast-starting Jamie Alguersuari on the first lap which saw both cars into the pits, Schumacher for new tyres after suffering a rear right puncture, and Alguersuari for a new front wing. However the damage to Schumacher’s Mercedes proved too serious and the team opted to call him in on lap 19 on safety grounds.

Rubens Barrichello had flown off the track into the gravel trap on lap 1, but able to rejoin and start making up some of those lost positions as the race settled down. He had just pulled off an impressively daring overtaking move on Kobayashi (not known as being an easy target!) on lap 22 when, emboldened, he then tried a vastly over-ambitious lunge down the side of Nico Rosberg into turn 3 which ended badly for Rosberg, the side of the Mercedes seriously damaged and ultimately not even allowing Rosberg to make it back to the pits before quitting on him. Unsurprisingly, Barrichello was given a drive-thru penalty for causing the accident but in the end he found himself pulling into his garage to retire as well, suffering from the same gearbox problems that forced his new team mate Maldonado out earlier in the afternoon.

So at the end of the first day of F1 in 2011, what have we learned?

Well, the adjustable rear wing/drag reduction system had a muted and mixed introduction. It failed to give Button the boost he needed to overtake Massa in the early stages, but a few drivers found it more helpful later on and it arguably gave the race more overtaking than usual, although primarily it seems that what it really does is give a clearly faster car a chance to overtake instead of getting bottled up behind a slower one, rather than levelling any playing fields.

KERS played a part in that as well; but Red Bull revealed afterwards that neither of their cars had even been fitted with the system following much pre-race speculation that they might be bending the rules by having a start line-only, pre-charged KERS-type power boost system instead. Given Vettel’s clear domination of the ensuing race without the burden of the carrying the weight of the KERS system, other teams may also be wondering if whether it’s really worth it or not.

The tyres fared much better than expected too, after excessive wear in pre-season testing made teams wonder whether a full race distance was even viable. But even so, and even allowing for the team’s subsequent disqualification, Perez’ astonishing achievement on a one-stop strategy defied belief: “can he walk on water, too?” quipped the BBC’s commentator Martin Brundle.

As for the teams: Vettel as expected is operating in a different level from everyone else, even his team mate; McLaren’s bounceback from pre-season testing depression is astounding; Ferrari, after seeming strong in testing, were rather mediocre; and Petrov’s podium is a huge breakthrough for Renault but Heidfeld’s performance shows just how much they’re missing Kubica.

So it was an interesting and entertaining Grand Prix with much to watch and assess. Whether it augurs a season as good as 2010’s proved to be depends rather heavily on whether anyone can do anything about the reigning champion, or whether Sebastian Vettel is set to sweep the year’s championship in record time.

Race results

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1h29:30.259
 2. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    22.297
 3. Petrov       Renault              +    30.560
 4. Alonso       Ferrari              +    31.772
 5. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +    38.171
 6. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    54.300
 7. Massa        Ferrari              +  1:25.100
 8. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1 lap
 9. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +  1 lap
10. Di Resta     Force India-Mercedes +  1 lap
11. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1 lap
12. Heidfeld     Renault              +  1 lap
13. Trulli       Lotus-Renault        +  2 laps
14. D'Ambrosio   Virgin-Cosworth      +  3 laps

Fastest lap: Massa, 1:28.947

Not classified/retirements:

Driver       Team              On lap
Glock        Virgin-Cosworth   50
Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth 49
Rosberg      Mercedes          22
Kovalainen   Lotus-Renault     19
Schumacher   Mercedes          19
Maldonado    Williams-Cosworth 10

Perez        Sauber-Ferrari    Disqualified
Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari    Disqualified
Liuzzi       HRT-Cosworth      Did not qualify
Karthikeyan  HRT-Cosworth      Did not qualify

World Championship standings after round 1

Drivers:              Constructors:
 1.  Vettel    25     1.  Red Bull-Renault   35
 2.  Hamilton  18     2.  McLaren-Mercedes   26
 3.  Petrov    15     3.  Renault            18
 4.  Alonso    12     4.  Ferrari            15
 5.  Webber    10     5.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari  4
 6.  Button     8     6.  Force India         3
 7.  Massa      6
 8.  Buemi      4
 9.  Sutil      2
10.  Di Resta   1
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