2012 Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix Review
Welcome to the first of an anticipated 20 Racefans race reviews for the 2012 Formula 1 World Championship season. I say twenty with some hesitance as at the time of writing, the staging of Round 4, commonly known as the Bahrain Grand Prix, continues to remain in doubt as the FIA waits to what appears to be an incomprehensibly late stage in which to confirm the race’s staging. This however, is for another occasion to be dealt with later.
Free Practice 1 and 2, Friday 16 March 2012
Friday dawned and with it came the unwelcome sight of inclement weather descending over the Albert Park street circuit. For all teams, still coming to grips with their 2012 machinery and unwilling to risk damaging their cars in the risk they may not have the parts to repair them, eagerness was in short supply. In the opening two sessions, headed by Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher respectively, what appeared clear was that Mercedes-powered cars were in good shape. Once again Red Bull put in a low key performance, perhaps still trying to come to grips with the newly introduced exhaust lay out on the RB8. Despite early rain there was some
dryish running and where Red Bull would’ve been expected to throw in some demoralising lap times, this never occurred and left many wondering whether the charge of the Bulls may well have been halted. Spins in these conditions, on this surface, under this much attention are only to be expected, and in the case of some fans… relished. So it was Felipe Massa who opened his 2012 account with a trip into the turn 9 gravel trap at Brocky’s Hill. Not captured by the cameras at first, many wondered how the Ferrari had got there; had the Ferrari’s engine, unable to resolve the ongoing disputes with its chassis, opted to destroy itself in protest? Or had Massa, aware that the Ferrari was unable to perform on the track, decided to see if it could perform better off it? A fruitless exercise. The answer came quickly as replays showed Massa had taken to the grass on the approach to the turn and lost it under braking. As Massa walked away from the car he no doubt began thinking of what to open with on his arrival at the Ferrari garage; “Sorry fellas”, “I was just trying too hard”, “It belongs there”, all appropriate in the circumstances. The other entertainment of the afternoon was provided by Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi who reminded us all of why Formula 1 needs Japanese drivers. Rounding the final turn Kobayashi played chicken with the outside retaining wall at over 200km/h.
Fortunately Kobayashi avoided the wall, coming to a halt sideways across the circuit. While spectacular, it’s easier to forget that a mistake of this kind, particularly while in the mid-field during the race, could well have tragic outcomes and put the new side impact crash testing regulations into practice. One day down and a lot of questions still unanswered.
Free Practice 3, Saturday 17 March 2012
Being from Australia, it would be only appropriate for Racefans to attend the Australian Grand Prix so following a hard weeks work and a Friday night plane flight, Saturday dawned with bright sunshine and cool weather. Accompanied by two good friends, one eagerly anticipating the return of Kimi Raikkonen and the other looking for a home-town win, we made the walk from the beachside suburb of St Kilda, past the café’s and restaurants on Fitzroy Street and in to the Albert Park circuit, a twenty minute trip each way. While grass areas of the park were sodden from the Friday downpour, the track was dry and for the first time in 2012 perhaps now we would see who really was the team to beat in 2012. While only very rough, the plan was to traverse across the infield of the circuit, parallel to the front straight, to see all the support categories that the Australian Grand Prix is so renowned for. There were many highlights in the support paddock area but notable standouts were the new Group A/C Touring Car category which had assembled an impressive array of former Australian Touring Cars from a wide variety of makes and eras. Walking past them, you were reminded of what it was that made Australian touring cars so entertaining, how cars of that era can bring excitement to the fans, even when standing still. For Formula 1 fans, a notable treat was the presence of the 2011 McLaren Formula 1 car taking part in the ultimate speed comparison test. Of most note however was its presence behind a thin rope only metres away from the crowd, a rare treat in Australia and greatly appreciated by all present. Finally, the classic cars may have been in abundance but there was no denying the 1952 and 1953 World Championship winning Ferrari F500 of Alberto Ascari was the star of the show.
With a taste of the old and the new, it was time to witness the ultra new, the cars that have secrets yet to be discovered and potential yet to be utilised, strut their stuff. Common in the minds of any F1 fan is that any practice session while certainly important to the teams, is more a chance to admire than it is to assess. Nevertheless, with Fanvision portable TV in the ears, and program in the hand, we would do our best to decipher those that had pace and those that did not. My friend had informed me the previous evening that the Red Bull and Sauber cars appeared to have retained the mid corner and exit corner engine rasp, commonly attributed to the off throttle blown diffuser technology from 2011 and banned in 2012. From our vantage point under the trees between turns 5 and 6 we stood as Vettel punch it through the park and sure enough, a distinctive rasp on exit could be heard. The next lap same again. But the next lap nothing, a quick glance at the Fanvision revealed Vettel had lost it under breaking and skipped across the gravel on the outside of turn 6. In a scene out of the Blair Witch Project we found ourselves running across the park to get a vantage point of Vettel or ‘onefinger’, a German expression loosely translated to mean “faster, younger, and two years left on contract”. However to our annoyance a chance to get closer to the stricken RB8 was thwarted by the Sidetracked venue which, for the first time in three years, had a queue of people seeking to get in, none of whom were willing to part with their hard earned scratch. While all this was occurring it is was somewhat inconsequential that Lewis Hamilton had gone to the top of the times in a session greatly affected by the yellow flags.
Qualifying, Saturday 17 March 2012
From the practice session earlier in the day it appeared certain that no team in 2012 had produced a car capable of dominating qualifying and the race, as seen in previous years.
At the commencement of Q1, attention for those in the know was not so much concerned with who would line up on the back of the grid but whether certain teams would start the race at all. Both HRT and Marussia had shown the kind of pace that makes prospective sponsors smirk. Narain Karthikeyan stopped on track in both opening practice sessions on Friday leading Sky Sports commentator David Croft to remark on air that “at least they’re showing some consistency”. In Q1 however, HRT, as was the case in 2011, failed to record lap times within 107% of Jean-Eric Vergne, continuing to impress on his debut for Toro Rosso, and would be refused entry into the race. Unlike 2011, the next round of the championship in Malaysia is next weekend so the prospect of the Spanish outfit failing to qualify again is a serious possibility. The shock of Q1 in the eyes of most was undoubtedly the failure of Raikkonen to make Q2. Arriving back at the pits, Raikkonen was quick to advise the waiting media that he had misjudged the amount of time remaining in Q1 and had failed to commence his final qualifying lap. Raikkonen is no stranger to Q1 problems, at the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2008 Raikkonen failed to make Q2 after opting not to record an additional lap time, only for his time to be bettered by his opponents.
Q2 was all about who would make it to Q3 and, in particular, would Ferrari make it. In Q1 Massa had finished 17th, only narrowly avoiding the cut. It was increasingly clear that Ferrari technical director, Pat Fry’s warning that the team would not been in contention for a podium at the beginning was a little wide of the mark, Ferrari were hardly ready for points at this stage. It therefore came as little surprise that when the session was stopped mid way through, it was Alonso’s Ferrari that was facing backwards into the turn 1 gravel trap. He, like Massa on Friday, had touched the grass on the entry into the corner and lost control. Any reassurance that this may have given Massa was not reflected on the track as despite lasting the entire session, Massa was unable to better Alonso’s time and finished 16th, promoted by the gearbox penalty taken by Perez after qualifying. For Alonso, like Raikkonen, it would be all to do on race day as the Spaniard would line up 12th.
At the conclusion of Q3 the grid had very little resemblance to that seen in 2011. Hamilton and Button on the front row for the first time as teammates, the first all-McLaren front row since the European Grand Prix in 2009 and the first all-English driver front row since Damon Hill and David Coulthard lined up for Williams at the 1995 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, an incredible statistic that reflects the domination of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari in Formula 1. Hamilton’s lap was inch perfect but with Button under two tenths behind, the race was by no means settled. Romain Grosjean in third was highly impressive on his return to Formula 1 following his unsuccessful debut for Renault in 2009, showing pace that gave him every opportunity on Sunday. Michael Schumacher confirmed that at least in qualifying, the Mercedes had found pace and following an abysmal qualifying record against Rosberg in 2011, the seven-time champion had delivered a crucial early blow. The Red Bulls, finishing on the third row, confirmed that during testing they were not foxing, the raw speed had not been extracted from the new chassis, leaving them with a tough fight for the podium. Rosberg in seventh was probably the most disappointing in Q3 following signs of great speed throughout the weekend and would have his work cut out for him in the race. Without question though Pastor Maldonado was the hero of qualifying, putting the Williams eighth on the grid and proclaiming that the Grove-based former champions had great race pace. With quality drivers spread throughout the field the stage was set for an enthralling race.
Following a long days Australian Grand Prix action it was time to relax at the Melbourne Wine Room followed by dinner at Pizza Ebirra on Fitzroy Street. Upon arrival for our 9 o’clock booking we were informed, much to our frustration, that the restaurant had run out of dough and could not make pizzas. It appeared that both on and off the track in Melbourne 2012 all things Italian were lacking that essential ingredient.
QANTAS Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix, Sunday 18 March 2012
Race day dawned and the morning retreat from the 8-bed hostel dorm, memorable for reasons I’m trying to forget, was welcome incentive for an early breakfast and track arrival at the customary GA race day spot overlooking the opening two corners. First things first, and a quick stop at the local supermarket for supplies and a raid on the fold-out chair department is a must, even if your friends proffer the hot pink version. Arriving at the track just after the 10:30am circuit opening time, the clouds had vanished and with it, any hope of a Massa victory.
As a supplement to the race program to those entering the circuit on race day, Autosport provided explanations to the new rules brought in for 2012. One of the smaller references in the supplement related to article 5.5 and the tightening of electronic systems related to starting systems. Both Gary Anderson and Mark Hughes suspected the new restrictions would make it harder for drivers to get off the line and mix things up on the opening laps. This is exactly what happened, off the start Hamilton, Grosjean, and Webber, all on the right side of the grid, had terrible starts and were pounced on by those to their right and behind. In contrast Rosberg jumped to fourth behind teammate Schumacher with Vettel in fifth and Grosjean sixth. Maldonado had a good start avoiding any first corner collisions filing into sixth behind Grosjean. Not satisfied with getting past Webber, Vettel drove around the outside of Rosberg at turn 9 in an early candidate for pass of the year. Perhaps inspired by this, Maldonado tried going underneath Grosjean at the end of the back straight leaving no room for the Frenchman who’s front wheel was unceremoniously whacked by the right rear of the Venezuelan oil baron (‘The Baron’), an activity that is awarded nil pointe. On his arrival back to the paddock Grosjean, much to the confusion of the press, continually asked where the showers were (spelt ‘douche’ in French) until people realised he was talking about Maldonado, no one had the heart to tell Romain he was still circulating and as promised in qualifying, quite competitively.
The race behind the leaders was close as expected with Sauber, Force India, Massa and Toro Rosso (spot the odd one out), all fighting over ninth. By race end this battle would be for sixth as Schumacher and Hulkenberg retired, Rosberg struggled to maintain pace and Massa just plain struggled. The Toro Rosso drivers had a very disrupted race with both Ricciardo and JEV being involved in the first corner melee. The emergence of the safety car with less than twenty laps to go greatly assisted there charge for points and were it not for the first corner incidents, they looked very competitive. As it was, Perez, starting 17th following his gearbox penalty, and opting for another Albert Park one-stop strategy, found himself in 7th on the final lap, harried by Rosberg, Raikkonen, Kobayshi, Di Resta, JEV and Ricciardo. While Perez had clapped out tyres, Rosberg, no doubt taking issue with the Mexican’s refusal to stay within the painted road lanes, brought about the inevitable last lap shunt which reduced the German’s rear tyre to a used wetsuit. In the commotion that followed, Kobayashi, frequently the cause of the last lap shunt, came in sixth with Raikkonen seventh, Perez eighth, Ricciardo ninth and di Resta in tenth. The battling Toro Rosso’s power sliding across the track is something to behold and will provide serious entertainment for the rest of the season, but as it was in Melbourne it’s Aussie 1, Frenchman 0.
The heartbreak story of the race was ‘the Baron’ who, despite an early off at turn 6 early in the race, had challenged Alonso all race long until the final lap when he inexplicably lost it on the astro turf exiting that same turn, slamming into the lakeside retaining wall. It was a tough pill for the Williams team to swallow; they would have scored 8 times their 2011 points tally had the Baron finished. However, the revival of Williams in the hands of two South Americans may well be the story of the season.
With this going on behind it would be remiss to think that the racing at the front was less enthralling. After the safety car peeled off it was a case of the Red Bulls and McLarens head-to-head displaying their status as the teams to beat in 2012. What was clear today though was that Jenson Button was simply too good, recording consecutive fastest laps and pulling out a gap on Vettel to escape the grasp of the DRS zones on the restrart. For Hamilton, even with a car that had remained ahead of Vettel for the entire race up to the safety car period, he was mysteriously unable to challenge the Red Bull. The same could equally be said of Mark Webber who recorded some extremely fast times in fourth and has appeared to overcome the problems he suffered with the Pirelli rubber 12 months earlier.
That’s how it finished with Button recording the most impressive win of his McLaren career, with pressure from Hamilton behind all race, Button was never challenged, further proving the doubters wrong, me included, that maybe he has the ability to beat Hamilton over an entire season.
The Australian Grand Prix was run and won and unsurprisingly, the race has answered as many questions as it created. So as we approach the Malaysian Grand Prix this weekend here are some key points of interest to follow:
- Can HRT qualify for the race and avoid becoming the first team in F1 history to fail to qualify in consecutive races under the 107% rule?
- Will Williams continue their startling form on a purpose-built race circuit? Can Senna match Maldonado?
- Was Massa’s poor performance in Melbourne a one-off or will the new chassis he receives for this weekends race enable him to match Alonso?
- Will Raikkonen be able to show the one-lap pace of the Lotus in qualifying?
- Will Red Bull recover ground on McLaren and can Webber and Hamilton fight back against their teammates?
As at the time of writing these questions it is apparent that we may well be waiting until the Chinese Grand Prix for the answers because the weather forecast in Malaysia is for heavy thunderstorms on every day. Good news for Ferrari it would seem.