The first Grand Prix of the year was a long time coming and, as usual, it was eagerly awaited so that we could see what the form book would look like. The ‘Winter GP’ can be misleading these days; teams have become very savvy about disguising their true performance to try to lull the others into a bit of complacency.
But what couldn’t be disguised was that the new Ferrari F2012 was no good. In testing it lacked consistent front-running pace and observers noted its lack of balance and grip. The occasional good testing time was set on low fuel and soft tyres and gave no encouragement about race-long performance. It didn’t bode well.
And aren’t the cars ugly? Whoever in the FIA dreamt up the new rule about lowering the noses ought to be sentenced to looking at them for the rest of his days.... Modern F1 cars are rarely picturesque, with some exceptions (the Brawn), but the new 2012 generation of cars were the most awful looking yet. Only the McLarens and the ex-Virgins (now called Marussia) had a different solution to the new nose regulation.
There were also some new car names and drivers to get used to. As already noted, Virgin had become Marussia (a household name for sure) and HRT morphed into Hispania. There were also goings on at Lotus and Renault who both wanted to be called Lotus. It took a court to decide that Renault is Lotus and Lotus is, er, Caterham, better known as a maker of home-built specials. How Colin Chapman must have been spinning.....probably with laughter.
A few new drivers appeared, some on merit some on money. We looked forward to seeing Romain Grosjean again for his second bash at F1, in a Lotus, and it was exciting to see Kimi Raikkonen back; Toro Rosso had tipped both of its 2011 drivers out the door, saying they would never make the required grade to be promoted to the Red Bull team. In their place came two good prospects, Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne. At the other end of the field pay-drivers were much in evidence. Lots of roubles no doubt got Petrov into a Caterham, and HRT had a really odd pairing with the personable but limited Indian driver Narain Kartikeyan and old stager Pedro de la Rosa who was making his umpteenth comeback.
But the most exciting prospect for British fans was who would win the BBC/Sky battle for TV domination? We were promised a transformation of our ‘viewing experience’ and the excellent Martin Brundle decamped off to Sky, saying the bigger opportunities would give him more scope to explain the intricacies of F1 to the masses. Bet we still won’t learn how exhaust blowing really works.
In Australia the three free practice sessions gave us the first clues about how the cars stacked up against each other. The Red Bulls were surprisingly modest, whereas the Maccas and the Mercs were going well. The latter had apparently come up with what may be the trick of the season – an F-duct fandangle involving DRS. Naturally the others grumbled, especially when it seemed to work well, but canny Ross Brawn downplayed an advantage. The two Ferraris of Alonso and Massa were all at sea, and poor Massa was the target of much replacement speculation. He really must be on his final warning now. The Lotus’ went well, with both drivers impressing.
Qualifying reinforced the general order of things. Hamilton produced a stunning time in his Macca to grab pole, followed by his team mate Button and then the surprise of Grosjean and Schumacher sharing the second row. Michael was handily ahead of Nico Rosberg which is a rarity and repeated the trend from free practice. The two red Bulls were fifth (Weber) and sixth (Vettel) with some perplexed Red Bull faces wondering why the cars were slightly off the pace. The grid times were all close together, promising a good race.
And so it turned out. Button went into a lonely lead, but behind it was topsy-turvy for the points with Hamilton, the Red Bulls, the Mercs, Grosjean, Alonso and Maldonado all in with a shout at various times. Grosjean went out with deranged suspension following a get-together with Maldonado, Schuey succumbed to gearbox failure while in third on lap 10. Hamilton seemed secure in second but Alonso was really trying in his awkward Ferrari and showing dogged determination to take fourth behind Vettel.
A safety car period started on lap 37 when Petrov parked his Caterham on the pit straight. The resulting confusion of tyre stops allowed Vettel to jump Hamilton for second, and Weber pushed Alonso back into fifth, and that’s how the top five finished, with some close wheel-to-wheel racing behind as Maldonado tried to get past Alonso but put it into the wall on the penultimate lap, and Kobayashi finally getting sixth in the Sauber just ahead of Raikkonen, Perez (Sauber), Ricciardo, di Resta (Force India), and Vergne – all just a second or two apart. It had been breathless racing.
The Ferrari result left one worrying. Alonso had spun out of Q2 and was left 12th on the grid. His never-give-up drive got him into fifth, better than could have been expected. Massa struggled throughout the weekend; he qualified just 16th, and had a coming together with Bruno Senna whilst in 13th and retired.
In a week it will be time for the Malaysian GP with the teams having no time to do anything to their cars. After Adelaide the Ferrari team bosses were summoned back to Maranello for crisis meetings. In the meantime Ross Brawn and the Mercedes team have quietly carried on replicating the old Ferrari multi-championship winning team in Brackley, although they still seem to have some way to go.
And the BBC/Sky battle? Hands down to the BBC I'd say. At Sky Brundle looked and sounded out of sorts and seemed lost, David Croft did a fairly ignorant commentary, Simon Lazenby was too scared to go talk to an approaching driver, and if Georgie Thompson nods her head one more time I'll scream! As for the Beeb, onetime Jordan designer and now Autosport tech expert Gary Anderson was about as informative as his columns. Maybe they'll settle down in time.
Stefano Domenicali: “Clearly we cannot be happy with a fifth place but, given how things went yesterday, Fernando’s result is a positive one. We knew that this weekend, the car we had was not the one we wanted going into this season. We know the main areas we need to work on – traction and top speed first and foremost – and we must accelerate as much as possible the development work to reach the level of the best as soon as possible.”
Felipe Massa: “This has been a really poor weekend for me. Already yesterday I suffered because the car was badly balanced and today, it was probably even worse, because after a few laps I was struggling with the tyres. We must work to understand why we could not reproduce the right balance on the car, as we had for example at the Barcelona tests.”