What a fantastic race! The many regular readers of this column will have been following the saga of the former Honda F1 throughout much of the closed season. In Australia the drama concluded with the team dominating proceedings, scoring a stunning 1-2, Jenson Button winning from pole. I am no Button fan, but I have to say his was a consummate performance. He hardly put a wheel wrong, after maintaining his motivation and fitness throughout a winter when it looked like his F1 career could well be over.
Team mate Rubens Barrichello didn't know he would still have a job either until the very last minute. Nevertheless he finished second after qualifying in that position, but his journey was much more difficult. His anti-stall kicked in at the start, causing the car to bog down. He lost several places and then side-swiped Webber in the first corner. The chronically accident-prone Aussie cannoned into Heidfeld and got into the path of Kovalainen, who could not avoid him, but only the McLaren driver was forced to retire. Rubens suffered a damaged front wing, but under the new regulations he was able to crank the flap up and stay in contention until his first scheduled stop when the nose was changed.
Rubens worked his way up into fourth when an incident right at end of the race gave him second place. Vettel was struggling on overheated soft tyres, and Kubica behind him was quicker on the harder "prime" tyre. The two tangled when Kubica tried to pass up the inside of a corner. Both were eliminated, Kubica crashing out spectacularly shortly after, but Vettel continued dragging a shorn off front wheel along until it all finally fell to bits. The incident denied us a thrilling conclusion to the race and spoiled a great performance by Vettel.
These incidents seem to be a characteristic of modern cars, where drivers' peripheral vision is limited by high cockpit surrounds and mirrors whose function is to condition airflow rather than provide rearwards visibility. Either that or drivers don't seem to be able be g.php that two or three cars cannot occupy the same corner apex at the same time. They either turn in when there's a bloke already on the inside with nowhere to go, or stuff it up the inside of a bloke committed to heading there. Vettel will be punished with a ten place grid demotion in Sepang, which I think is unfair. It looked like both drivers were equally culpable to me. Red Bull Racing was also fined $50,000 for instructing him to continue with a damaged car, contrary to the regulations.
These penalties were just two in a round of protests, appeals and penalties in Australia. It all started on the Thursday before the race when Ferrari, Renault and Red Bull Racing protested the rear diffusers of Brawn, Williams and Toyota; you will remember that the last three have cleverly used other bodywork to augment their diffusers and generate more downforce.
The Stewards ruled that the diffusers were legal, the protestors appealed and the Appeal will be held by the FIA on the 19th April, in the week before the Chinese GP. My guess is that there will be a rules "clarification" and that the augmented diffusers will go, but that the results up to then will stand. Next, Williams protested the bodywork of the Ferrari F60 and Red Bull RB5, which they later withdrew "in the interests of the sport".
Meanwhile, Toyota's qualifying times were disallowed as their rear wings were found to be flexible. The Toyotas started from the pitlane and but for this Lewis Hamilton would have started dead last. He was penalized five grid places for a gearbox change. Readers will have worked out that this means the World Champion qualified 15th, confirming the Grey Empire's current lack of pace.
The Toyotas and Hamilton did a great job of racing through the field,
Trulli coming home third from Hamilton and Glock. Trulli was later penalized
25 seconds for passing Hamilton under the Safety Car period caused by
the Vettel/Kubica incident. Toyota were considering
protesting the results
but decided not to. Today (2nd April) Hamilton was disqualified
from the results for him and the McLaren team "providing evidence
deliberately misleading to the Stewards".
penalty on Trulli has been rescinded, giving him back his third place.
So what about Ferrari? As last year, this was not a happy race for the Scuderia. Qualifying wasn't good with Massa down in seventh and Raikkonen ninth. What made it worse was that of the cars in front, the Brawns, Williams and Toyotas were "diffuser" cars, but the Red Bulls and BMW-Saubers were not. More bad news was that the published qualifying weights showed that of the cars starting in front of the Ferraris, only Kubica's Bimmer was lighter.
Massa was elevated one grid spot and Raikkonen two when the Toyotas were moved to the back. KERS thrust, soft slicks and Rubens’ bogging promoted Massa to third and Raikkonen to fifth at the start. They maintained these positions through the first pit stops, but at the second stop it was decided to switch Felipe onto a three stop strategy. This was not a good idea. He fell to 14th, eventually floating up to 11th before retiring through ill-handling caused by a broken nose support.
Still on his two stop strategy, Kimi continued in fifth place and his fastest lap (the seventh of the race) was second quickest when it was set on lap 35. Things went badly wrong when he spun and clipped the wall after his last pit stop, retiring soon after with differential problems. Frankly, the Ferraris looked terrible and I wonder if we're back to the same lack of speed in low grip conditions that we had last year. I would also say that neither of the drivers showed much fight.
This race was of course the first since a number of technical changes. Only seven cars raced with KERS, the Ferraris, McLarens, Renaults and Heidfeld's Bimmer - the heavier Kubica preferring not to. It was interesting that Massa’s seventh was the highest KERS-equipped place in qualifying and Alonso (and originally Hamilton) were the only ones to score points. It was not clear to the viewer when the devices were being deployed, or to what effect, we need a big light on the telly screen or something. Similarly invisible were the moveable front wing flaps, Rubens’ use of it being the only time it was mentioned. So, as possible spectacle-enhancing devices, they were both useless....
The return of slicks was also hard to gauge, but the widening of the gap between the two grades of tyre employed was readily apparent. The soft tyres were extremely effective in qualifying, but totally the opposite in the race, lasting very few laps. This gave teams the problem whether to use them at the start of the race or the end, Ferrari, BWM (Kubica) and Toyota choosing the former and Brawn, Red Bull and Williams the latter. The wide range of car configurations and strategies certainly mixed things up and helped make the race unpredictable and exciting.
It was clear that the cars were simply dreadful under Safety Car conditions, there being a long period mid-race after Nakajima made one of his random mistakes and chucked his Williams into the wall. They skated and slithered round, some rubbing on their undersides, and it seemed that Massa was powerless to stop his front brakes locking. He did it five or six times and even the super-smooth Button flat-spotted a tyre. Some blamed the fact that Albert Park is not a permanent race circuit and has a slippery surface, but if it was bad in the warm Australian autumn, what will it be like in a cool/damp conditions?
This was also the first GP since UK TV coverage returned to the BBC and it was hard to tell the difference. Jonathan Legard, the former Radio 5 commentator, has yet to realise that you don't have to talk all the time on TV. He also suffers from Partridgesque tendencies. Crazy Dave Coulthud was better than I feared, but his specialised subject is still ‘The Bleedin' Obvious’. Eddie Jordan was a disappointment, strangely coming over like an embittered failed former team owner.
Ted Kravitz did his normal solid job and the new pit lane girlie was, well a pit lane girlie, but Martin Brundle was superb - when his co-commentator's verbal diarrhoea let him get a word in edgeways. The opening graphics were dull, though they have brought back "The Chain". Even this failed to satisfy a curmudgeonly fan. He complained that they'd looped it, rather than it coming to a crescendo when Fleetwood Mac start to sing again.
Speaking of curmudgeons, Flavio Briatore's comments on his former employee were less than generous. He told AUTOSPROUT “Brawn no, he has never won titles, because those were won by Jean Todt and Stefano Domenicali, Flavio Briatore and Ron Dennis.” When asked whether he was surprised about Briatore's comments, Ross (14 titles) Brawn said: “I think if he takes a step back and thinks about it, they were not very logical and a bit emotional.” Could this emotional response possibly be due to the fact that Brawn GP have totally out-thought and outperformed Flav’s Renault?
Brawn GP's pace had the effect of finally bringing Virgin into the sport. Said at one time to be considering buying the team, an opportunistic sponsorship deal was struck in time for Australia. It is said to be "substantial", though cynics have suggested that it could well have been for a couple of Paddock tickets and free TV time for its publicity-crazed proprietor, Brawn GP using the Virgin name to try to draw a proper sponsor in. However I wonder if they will succeed in progressively emptying Branston's wallet? Meanwhile we have to put up with his grinning visage. Mind you, I did smile myself when the BBC interviewed him with "Fly Kingfisher" dominating the background.
Banishing both curmudgeonly behaviour and cynicism, I must finish by congratulating Scuderia Ferrari's former Technical Director and all his colleagues at Brawn GP for a truly fantastic achievement and commiserating with the 270 ex-Honda F1 employees whose redundancies are reported to be imminent. Earth Dream indeed.