Vettel cruises to easy Australian GP win

Sebastian Vettel cruised to an easy victory in Melbourne (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Red Bull‘s Sebastian Vettel won the opening race of the 2011 Formula 1 season in Melbourne, his eleventh career victory and his third in succession. The reigning world champion will enjoy few more straightforward victories, converting pole position into a comfortable lead over Lewis Hamilton which he maintained through the pit stops to win at a canter by 22 seconds. The McLaren driver had a largely uneventful and lonely drive to second, while Renault‘s Vitaly Petrov became the first Russian driver to achieve a podium finish in third.

Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso recovered from a poor start to finish fourth ahead of a frustrated Mark Webber at his home grand prix. Hamilton’s teammate Jenson Button was sixth, paying for a poor start which left him bottled up behind Felipe Massa for several laps, resulting in an excursion down an escape road which led to a drive-through penalty. The Sauber pair of rookie Mexican Sergio Pérez and Kamui Kobayashi were initially seventh and eighth, but were subsequently disqualified when their rear wings were deemed to be in breach of the rules by the scrutineers.

This was the first time since 1970 that an F1 grid had featured five previous world champions. But while Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso and Button all finished in the top six, seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s race lasted just 19 laps. He suffered a puncture after being caught up in a first-lap incident, and was later retired by his Mercedes team as a precaution due to the damage to his car.

Here are a few thoughts on the opening race of the season, and what we can expect in the coming months.

Red Bull dominant, but McLaren already closing the gap

There is no mistaking the raw speed and aero balance of the 2011 Red Bull. In qualifying, Vettel was nearly eight-tenths of a second faster than next man Hamilton in a car which looked incredibly stable both under braking and in the corners. The old F1 maxim of  ‘if it looks good, it’s probably fast’ certainly holds true with this Adrian Newey design – his latest creation looks gorgeous and simply blew the opposition away. Vettel controlled the gap at the front of the race as he pleased and even Hamilton, wringing the absolute maximum from his McLaren, had no answer to him.

Hamilton’s effort in splitting the Red Bulls in qualifying was a stellar one, and was ample reward for his team which has essentially rebuilt their car from scratch after a torrid time in pre-season testing. It is testament to McLaren’s resources and focus that they appear to have turned what initially looked to be a dog of a car into the second-best on the grid. Button looked less able to find its absolute limits, but the way he climbed all over the back of Massa’s Ferrari for lap after lap was a sure sign of both his and the car’s potential. It would not be a surprise to see McLaren continue to close the gap in subsequent races.

We will get a better idea of the real pace of all the cars at Sepang, which will provide a sterner test of everyone’s mechanical and aerodynamic capabilities.

The tyre effect

Not only does the switch of tyre supplier from Bridgestone to Pirelli present a new technical challenge to the teams, but the requirement for this season’s tyres to wear more quickly introduces new dimensions of skill and randomness into proceedings. With soft tyres degrading after just a handful of laps, this should benefit drivers and cars who are kinder on their rubber, potentially saving a pit stop. It should also lead to more errors under braking, hopefully increasing overtaking manoeuvres.

Last year many races were run with every team running virtually identical pit-stop strategies, frequently one-stopping. Already in Melbourne we saw greater differentiation on this front, with teams opting for anywhere between one and three stops, which shakes up the running order. In addition, with the top ten having to start the race on the tyres they run in final qualifying, this is forcing the leaders into making their first stop much earlier than in previous seasons. As a result, they are unable to build a big enough gap to avoid rejoining in the midfield traffic, which adds a new and more random element to proceedings.

Overall, the impact of the new tyre regulations looks positive, with fears that the tyres would degrade too quickly seemingly unfounded. Definitely a positive.

Jury still out on KERS and DRS

After a one-year absence, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) is back in F1. The advantage of the system, which stores up energy generated under braking to provide an additional power boost when desired, is offset by the weight of the batteries used to store that energy and additional rear tyre wear. Red Bull chose to run without it in the race. It will be interesting to see if they continue to do so on circuits with longer straights and higher top speeds, or whether other top teams also choose to sacrifice it.

As for the moveable rear wing or DRS (Drag Reduction System), it was not overly successful in promoting overtaking in Melbourne – the deployment zone was on the relatively short start-finish straight – and despite its repeated use Button could not pass Massa. There is no doubt that it confers a significant speed bonus. However, it probably requires the longer straights found on other circuits to be used to its full advantage in order to allow a following driver to make a pass stick and still brake earlier from a higher speed with initially lower downforce. It will certainly promote more overtaking, but it will be more evident on some circuits than others. Don’t expect it to make much of a difference on street circuits such as Monaco.

The final result is never the final result

One of the most infuriating aspects of F1 is the number of times you switch off at the end of a race, only to discover a couple of hours later that someone has been disqualified or demoted on a technicality. Pérez, on his debut, and Kobayashi had both driven superbly to finish at the bottom of the top eight, only to be disqualified on a minor technicality. While the decision was correct, it does nothing for the credibility of the sport with casual fans when a result is changed after the event.

Sauber are appealing against the double disqualification, so by the time we get to Malaysia in two weeks’ time the race result may have changed again. Only in F1.

How did the new drivers do?

Pérez, the runner-up in last year’s feeder GP2 series, was the most eye-catching of the four rookie drivers in Australia. Although he was slower than teammate Kobayashi throughout practice and qualifying, he was assured and mistake-free throughout, and was fast and lively in the race itself, coming in ahead of Kobayashi and recording a fastest lap four-tenths faster than his Japanese teammate.

GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado‘s race lasted just nine laps before a transmission problem, but he was within three-hundredths of his vastly experienced Williams leader Rubens Barrichello in the first qualifying session. Force India‘s Scottish rookie Paul Di Resta, the DTM German touring car champion, was promoted to tenth after a solid if unspectacular weekend, earning him a point on his debut after he had qualified ahead of teammate Adrian Sutil. Jérôme d’Ambrosio, who won one race in GP2 last year, had a largely anonymous weekend, being the 22nd and last qualifier (a second behind fellow Virgin driver Timo Glock) and ending up as the last classified finisher in 14th.

The return of an old friend

I couldn’t finish without mentioning Renault‘s new livery, which is a tribute to the black-and-gold colours sported by the John Player Special-sponsored Lotus cars of the 1970s and 1980s. It is gorgeous, and immediately brings to mind memories of Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and a young Ayrton Senna. It’s lovely to see its return.

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