2011 Australian Grand Prix
If Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was dominant in qualifying, he was simply imperious in today’s Australian Grand Prix.
The reigning World Champion led every lap on his way to the chequered flag, crossing the line with a 22 second advantage over McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton.
Yet while Vettel’s victory was emphatic, it was by no means easy.
Indeed, the Red Bull man fought spent much of the early laps fighting off an inspired Hamilton.
Both dropped the second Red Bull of Mark Webber early on, as the gap between Vettel and Hamilton rarely extended beyond three seconds in the opening stint.
For Webber it was slightly unfortunate that he lost out to Hamilton off the line. While Vettel surged away as if on rails, Webber drew slightly ahead of the McLaren driver through the opening chicane, only for Hamilton to draw away under the KERS 80 bhp boost – a system that neither Red Bull was even running. Thereafter, Webber simply could not match the pace of the leading pair.
It is something that could not be said for Renault’s Vitaly Petrov. The Russian had a fabulous weekend up until race day, as he showed veteran teammate Nick Heidfeld the way and it was a theme that continued in the Grand Prix.
Starting from 6th, Petrov shot passed both Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) and Jenson Button (McLaren) to slot into 4th behind Webber’s similarly powered machine.
Not everyone’s start was quite as clear cut. Alonso initially got off the line well from 5th, only to run wide at the first turn and emerge 9th. It would not deter the double World Champion – swift moves on Kamui Kobayashi (lap 2), Nico Rosberg (lap 5) brought Alonso to 7th.
Bump and Fumble
However, the Spaniard still faired better than numerous runners behind him. As the field squeezed into turn three, the Williams of Rubens Barrichello outbraked himself, decided the tourist route around the gravel trap was more his style.
That incident, though, was nowhere near as dramatic as the midfield fumbling that caught out Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), Heidfeld, and the Toro Rosso pairing of Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari.
It was a series of silly little bumps that was instigated by the Spaniard, leaving Alguersuari with a broken front wing and Schumacher with a right rear puncture. Heidfeld for his trouble received plenty of damage on his sidepod, but continued, while Buemi rode on regardless, only losing minor positions in the melee.
Nearer the front, an epic battle was unfolding between Massa and Button. With the Brazilian receiving early warnings that his brakes were overheating, Button smelled blood, but even he could not move in for the kill.
Despite utilising the new-for-2011 Drag Reduction System (DRS), Button could not seize the position from Massa, thanks mainly to the Ferrari’s ever-powerful engine performance and Massa’s questionable on track defensive tactics. While Button ducked and dived, Alonso closed in causing the 2009 World Champion to get more and more desperate.
Eventually, Button made a dive around the outside of Massa through the turn 11 / 12 chicane, passing the Brazilian while off the track. Unwilling to give the position back, the McLaren driver would quickly be penalised.
Come laps 13 and 14, it gave both Ferrari’s an opportunity to pit without having to worry about Button. The former Brawn driver would eventually take his penalty on lap 18, before stopping for tyres two laps later, dropping him to 12th spot.
Cementing the Position
The Red Bull’s also took time out to stop for tyres early, with Webber diving in on lap 12 and Vettel on lap 15; however while Webber slotted out in 9th, Vettel had to deal with Button who had yet to take his drive through. And deal with him did.
Where McLaren may have seen potential for Button to (fairly) hold up Vettel until Hamilton’s pit, Vettel – on new tyres – dispatched Button around the outside of turn four as if he wasn’t there, such was the difference in grip level.
For Hamilton, it was a crucial moment. The Briton had pulled to within 1.5 seconds of Vettel prior to the Red Bull’s stop, but with the reigning Champion now in clean air, Vettel pulled out enough to beat the McLaren driver out, when he pitted on lap 17.
It was quite literally game over for Williams débutante Pastor Maldonado. The 2010 GP2 Champion didn’t get too far in his first Grand Prix, as mechanical gremlins brought the FW33 to a halt early on. It was a situation that left Maldonado puzzled.
“We don’t know exactly what happened with the car; we will have to look into the problem with our engineers. There was no warning, we just stopped and that was it for us.”
At Renault, another GP2 graduate was having a stellar day. Petrov, his confidence running high capitalised on his stunning start, with a fabulous drive through the rest of the race. With Vettel and Hamilton charging out front and Webber chugging in 3rd, the Russian settled into a busy 4th place just ahead of Alonso’s Ferrari.
Birth of A New Generation
Whereas veterans such as Heidfeld were having tough weekend’s, a couple of rookies were making their presence felt.
Having started 13th on hard tyres, Sauber’s Sergio Perez ran well, spending much of the day in the top-ten, only a handful of positions ahead Force India’s latest recruit, Paul di Resta.
Perez made his first set of tyres last exceptionally well, with his stint running for 24 laps, changing to soft’s thereafter; he would not need to change his Pirelli’s again. Di Resta meanwhile, was running an extra stop, having originally pitted 15 laps in; however the pace of the young Scot showed definite promise for the future.
Indeed, it could be argued that Perez and di Resta showed more composure than the most experienced driver of them all, Rubens Barrichello.
The Brazilian had spent the early stint picking up a number of positions and was running 9th when he tried a somewhat thoughtless move of Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg on lap 24. Barrichello, misjudging his braking distance into turn three, slammed hard into the side of the Mercedes driver, ruling Rosberg out. A new nose was required by Williams driver, who would also be hit with a drive through penalty.
It would turn out to be a poor lap for Mercedes – with too much damage on the car, Schumacher pulled into the pits, finishing his day early.
Afterwards, the seven-time Champion displayed a certain air of disappointment:
“The start of the season certainly has not worked out as we had hoped, and we will tick this race off now and concentrate on the next one in Malaysia. I had quite a good start but was then hit in turn three which punctured the right rear tyre and resulted in damage to the floor. As the damage was quite substantial, we decided to stop the car for safety reasons.”
The Grand Prix also began to turn for the worse at Lotus – Heikki Kovalainen pulled off with a water leak after 23 laps. Virgin’s Timo Glock also pulled in to retire, but rejoined several laps later – the German would not be classified; however with the Virgin short on testing miles, the team decided to register some laps.
Showing the Way (Again)
Shortage of laps was not an issue for Ferrari during testing – they ran the most miles, but that statistic was not going to get Alonso passed Petrov. With each lap, it was becoming apparent that this was to be a battle for a podium, rather than lower points.
As Webber pitted for a second time on lap 27, Petrov held the advantage over Alonso, while the Red Bull clambered further back – the Russian was simply on it and when Alonso pitted on lap 28 (emerging just behind Webber), Petrov stayed out.
And stayed out and stayed out – Webber and Alonso’s plans for a possible podium began to unravel before their eyes.
Hamilton’s race was also becoming more difficult. As the race broke half distance, the floor of his MP4-26 worked loose, finally breaking free on lap 33. With his plank rubbing against the Melbourne tarmac, leaving a deluge of sparks in its wake, the McLaren lost traction, sending Hamilton scurrying across the grass at turn one.
From here on in, car care would be premium.
Vettel, meanwhile just kept extending his lead, despite his fading Pirelli’s, but knowing this was the time to not take chances, Red Bull received the young German at the end of the 37th lap. Hamilton and Petrov also stopped for new rubber on that same tour; both of whom were still keeping a keen eye on the Webber / Alonso feud.
Further down the field, Button pitted on lap 38. It had been something of a poor display from Button, who – while not struggling as such – was clearly not on the pace of his teammate, Hamilton. A race circling alongside an off-kilter Massa and other top-ten infiltrators, such as Perez, Kobayashi and Sutil was certainly eyebrow raising for the former Champion. Several laps would pass before Button could finally put a (clean) pass on Massa, doing so with the aid of the controversial DRS.
Massa, though was clearing struggling with no grip on his patchy Pirelli’s, pitting once again with eight laps remaining. It would give Massa the chance to scoop a position from Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi, but 9th spot in the Ferrari sandwiched by Sauber’s and a Toro Rosso simply isn’t good enough.
Webber too, appeared ashen in the face of teammate’s pace and come the 42nd lap, the Australia’s downbeat mood was cast.
Following a clean final stop for tyres, Webber overcooked his RB7 and flew on at the first corner – the slow lap would be enough to give Alonso 4th when he pitted a lap later. For the Spaniard, the race to catch Petrov was now on!!
And so he did. Over the course of the final eight laps, Alonso cut away at the gap behind Petrov, slicing it down from six seconds to just over one second as the chequered flag approached, but it wasn’t enough as Petrov controlled the situation to stay ahead.
While several young stars shun, a veteran cast his down. Following all his tribulations, Barrichello took his FW33 to the pit garage late – the engine off, the mechanics calm and subdued, the day done.
Sebastian Vettel had no such thoughts or feelings though. The reigning Champion simply rolled off consistent lap after consistent lap, nailing the Grand Prix victory long before the chequered flag.
Even more startling is the shouting following each win has now dissipated into a determined, stern message over the team radio. It is the sound of a young man who completely in control.
“I don’t think it was easy today. The start was crucial and being on the clean side I had a very good getaway. When (…) we came in, I think it was the right time, as I couldn’t have done more laps. In the second part of the race I didn’t know what was gong on behind Lewis, if he was under pressure or not, but towards the end of the race I could control it more.”
McLaren pulled a very good result out of the bag. Considering how much trouble the team appeared to be in, last minute upgrades were enough to give Lewis Hamilton the pace to take his MP4-26 to the runner-up spot. The team may need plenty of these results, as it may not be until May before the team get to seriously upgrade the machine.
“Second position is a great result. The car felt fantastic, really nice to drive, and I was able to look after my tyres throughout the race. To be able to apply pressure to Sebastian [Vettel] so soon into the season was massively encouraging, too. I don’t really know what happened with the floor, but it didn’t feel too bad to drive. After the race I had a look at it, and it looked quite badly damaged. I was just glad to be able to bring the car home, I was nursing it. The engineers know where there’s more performance to be gained, and we’ll get it to the track as soon as we can. I think we can challenge for the win at Sepang.”
Possibly the result of the day goes to Vitaly Petrov, who snatched the final podium place. The Russian showed last year in Abu Dhabi that he could withstand great pressure from Ferrari’s mighty Fernando Alonso and today was no different. The pair crossed the finish line nearly together, as Petrov held a 1.2 second advantage at the flag. The Renault driver was, understandably, happy.
“I’m delighted to be here on the podium, especially after the winter that we had as a team, which was very tough. I made a great start today, which was probably the key for my race because it got me ahead of Alonso and Button, and I was able to run in some clean air and push hard, as well as looking after my tyres. Our two-stop strategy was clearly the right decision and we made it work.”
Less convincing were Mark Webber and Jenson Button. Following lacklustre performances, they took 5th and 6th and the race conclusion respectively, but both will be aware that they should have achieved more.
Sadly, this should have been a boon day for the little Sauber team. Headed home by rookie Sergio Perez, the Swiss team brought their cars home in 7th and 8th, only for Perez and Kamui Kobayashi to be disqualified after the event due to illegalities with their rear wing.
Picking up the reward was Felipe Massa (7th) and Sebastien Buemi (8th). While Massa’s performance was shoddy at best – reminiscent of his Sauber form from several years ago – Buemi drove a quietly confident race for his Toro Rosso team to take home four points.
The disqualification of the Sauber’s gave points to both Force India’s, with Adrian Sutil taking 9th ahead of débutante, Paul di Resta (10th). The young Scot showed very well on his first Grand Prix running in what appears to be quite an unspectacular car, against a teammate that seemed to be asleep during parts of the race.
Outside the points came Jaime Alguersuari (11th) who did not seem to recover from his first lap incident. Alguersuari led the poor Nick Heidfeld (Renault) home to 12th.
Jarno Trulli was the sole finishing Lotus in 13th (albeit two laps down); however there was some pride for the Norfolk squad, as Trulli put a lap on rival Jerome d’Ambrosio, who rolled up 14th for Virgin Racing, three laps adrift.
The 2011 Australian Grand Prix was a fantastic way to start off the new Formula 1 season; however judging on what was seen today, it is Pirelli that have brought the action to the table, rather than KERS or DRS.
Race Rating: 4 out of 5
The Australian Grand Prix Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia; 58 laps; 307.574km; Weather: Sunny. 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 NC. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 8 laps DQ. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1:05.800 DQ. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1:16.800 Fastest lap: Massa, 1:28.947 Retirements: Driver Team On lap Barrichello Williams-Cosworth 49 Rosberg Mercedes 22 Kovalainen Lotus-Renault 19 Schumacher Mercedes 19 Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 10 Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth DNQ Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth DNQ World Championship standings, round 1: Drivers: 1. Vettel 25 2. Hamilton 18 3. Petrov 15 4. Alonso 12 5. Webber 10 6. Button 8 7. Perez 6 8. Kobayashi 4 9. Massa 2 10. Buemi 1 Constructors: 1. Red Bull-Renault 35 2. McLaren-Mercedes 26 3. Renault 15 4. Ferrari 14 5. Sauber-Ferrari 10 6. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1