McLaren’s Jenson Button got his 2012 Formula 1 campaign off to a flying start with a crucial opening victory in Melbourne.
The 2009 World Champion led nearly every lap, eventually finishing only two seconds ahead of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel.
Button’s McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber (Red Bull) came home a further two seconds adrift.
Despite starting 2nd on the grid, Button was in front by the opening corner, while poleman Hamilton bogged down off the line.
Button made the most of a clear track, slowly building his lead to 3.5 seconds his first tyre stop (lap 16), before extending it further to 13.9 seconds when the McLaren pair pitted on the 36th lap.
That lead was slashed in an instant when Vitaly Petrov’s lifeless Caterham ground to halt on the start / finish straight, bringing out the safety car.
Making his final stop just as the race was neutralised was an opportunistic Vettel, who managed to split the McLaren duo, as the field realigned itself.
Vettel could do little about Button for the final seventeen laps under green, leaving the McLaren racer to control the closing segment and take the thirteenth victory of his career.
“The starts of the past two seasons have both been tricky for us, so today is really encouraging. At the start, I really wanted to get away fast in the first two laps to avoid the threat of DRS – it wasn’t easy because I had Lewis right on my tail. My biggest worry was the late-race Safety Car: I had a 10-second advantage, which was pretty healthy, but the Safety Car cut that to nothing.
“That was a big worry for me, but it worked out okay in the end: I got clear of Seb [Vettel] and the DRS zone pretty quickly and was able to pull out an advantage and hold it to the end.”
Next in line
With Button unassailable, the reigning world champion’s focus was devoted entirely to the chasing Hamilton and Webber. Neither driver was able to make headway, ensuring Vettel claimed a valuable runner-up spot, despite starting 6th on the grid!
The Red Bull man wasted little in cutting his way up the order. A pass on Lotus’ Romain Grosjean at the start, followed by a startling move around the outside of Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) in turn nine on the next tour brought Vettel to 4th.
That became 3rd when the other Mercedes of Michael Schumacher retired on lap 11 with a gearbox failure.
Although the gap to Button was already 14 seconds by this stage, Vettel – now free of traffic – reeled Hamilton in, closing to within three seconds after the first round of pitstops on laps 16 and 17. Vettel spent the following twenty tours in Hamilton’s wheeltracks, pushing at every opportunity, before leapfrogging the Briton in the pits.
When racing resumed on lap 42 after the safety car period, Hamilton pressed Vettel repeatedly, with the McLaren man dipping into the Red Bull’s sightline at every opportunity. As the laps passed, the effectiveness of Hamilton’s medium compound Pirelli’s slipped away, allowing Vettel to ease away.
After a disappointing qualifying position, Vettel was happy to come away from Melbourne with 2nd position.
“I felt good in the car. Even before the safety car, I think we would have had a good shot at Lewis towards the end, as we were getting close. I decided to stay out when he went to the pits and we would have had a crack even without the safety car. I’m very happy to come away with second place, it’s a lot of points and I think people would not have expected it after yesterday.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton struggled to hold back his disappointment with 3rd place, after starting the race on pole.
“I struggled out there a little – it wasn’t my day. I’m not sure what happened at the start, but I lost ground and then suffered from tyre degradation at the end of the first stint. Then, at the end of the race, I wasn’t able to close the gap to Seb – he was very quick on the straights which meant that it was always going to be difficult to pass him – so I dropped back into some clear air, then Mark [Webber] put me under pressure.”
All the while Hamilton pressed Vettel, the 2008 World Champion was also preoccupied by a lingering Webber.
From 5th on the grid, the Australian fell to 9th off the line, when he was hit by the returning Nico Hulkenberg and Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso), rendering the Force India man too damaged to continue. Webber crept up the order in the early running, taking advantage of competitor’s poor luck and pit strategy to climb to 6th after the opening round of stops.
The Australian claimed two more positions as the next group of stops began; however the Red Bull team solidified Webber’s new found 4th spot with a quick thinking stop under the safety car.
Webber charged Hamilton’s rear as the green flags flew again; however the Australian could not break the McLaren man’s composure, leaving Webber to accept a top-four finish come the chequered flag.
Fernando Alonso once again showed why he is so highly rated in Formula 1. A stellar drive from Spaniard in a car that appears difficult to handle at the best of times, saw Alonso take 5th place after starting 12th.
A great start brought Alonso up to 8th, becoming 6th on the second tour as Pastor Maldonado (Williams) and Grosjean as clashed clumsily. Alonso claimed another position during the first set of pitstops when he jumped Rosberg, before easily slicing by Sergio Perez’ long-running and gripless Sauber. Alonso could do nothing to keep Webber behind him, with the Australian passing the Spaniard on pit strategy.
As Alonso struggled to make the medium tyre last from lap 34 onwards, Maldonado drew back toward the Ferrari.
Displaying superior grip and speed, the Williams pilot hounded Alonso; however the Spaniard held Maldonado at bay – until the final lap, when Maldonado lost control of his FW34, sending it hard, nose-first into the barriers exiting turn six.
His Williams destroyed; the Venezuelan plummeted down the order and was eventually classified in 13th place – a terrible shame for both team and driver, who drove a fabulous race indelibly stained by two mindless errors.
Grabbing the advantage
Maldonado’s accident promoted Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi to 6th place. The Japanese driver crossed the line closely followed by a group of five cars, all covered by 3.2 seconds.
After qualifying 13th, the Sauber driver had a relatively quiet race for much of the day, having spent a portion of the day around the perimeter of the top ten. With pit strategies unfolding around him, Kobayashi was 10th when a wheel and sidepod banging move on Kimi Raikkonen through the tight turn four gave him 9th.
All hell broke loose on the final tour, as not only did Maldonado remove himself from the action, but Perez and Rosberg collided as they attempted to avoid the debris, wounding both machines in the process. It was a clash that left Perez furious with the Mercedes pilot.
“On the very last lap Pastor (Maldonado) crashed and I backed off because of the debris. But then Nico (Rosberg) overtook me, our cars touched and I had to finish the race with tyres that were completely gone.“
Raikkonen too accepted the gift. On his much anticipated return to Formula 1, the Lotus man claimed a solid 7th, showing he had lost little of his natural skill and ability.
Despite losing out to Kobayashi earlier in the race, Raikkonen continued to press the Japanese driver; not once letting the Sauber get clear in the final stages.
Gang of four
A hobbling Sergio Perez led a tight group of four across the line. It was a fine drive by the Mexican, who started last after a post-qualifying gearbox change, incurred a penalty.
Perez was greatly helped by a superb start that saw him reach 10th spot by the end of the third lap around the Albert Park course, despite a slightly damaged front wing. Adopting the same one-stop strategy that worked so well last year, Sauber kept Perez out until lap 24 (dropping to 13th from 2nd place), before incredibly completing the final 38 laps on the soft Pirelli tyres.
While others stopped twice or three times, Perez floated back up the order to 7th place until his last lap collision with Rosberg lost him one position.
Daniel Ricciardo took 9th in his first Australian Grand Prix, although it may have seemed against the odds early. Like his teammate Vergne, Ricciardo found himself on the receiving end of a first corner thump when Felipe Massa and Bruno Senna ricocheted off eachother like pinballs.
A second lap stop for a new front wing left the Australian trailing at the rear of the field; however a slow climb through the field brought Ricciardo to 14th.
During Ricciardo’s ascent, the Australian once again chanced upon the battling Senna and Massa – neither of whom were enjoying the finest days.
With only twelve laps remaining, the determined Ricciardo sliced by Massa at turn three, causing the Ferrari out wide. Eyeing a gap, Senna also found himself on the outside line, leading to yet another clash between the Brazilian pair.
Neither Senna nor Massa made it to the flag – victims of their own misjudgements – although Senna carried on for enough laps to register a classification – 16th – gifting the Grove team a horror finish to the race.
Now 12th, Ricciardo bunched up behind the stricken Perez and Rosberg, opening the door for the Australian to carefully and intelligently weave through the meandering traffic and into a points paying position.
On the line
Technically Vergne had not lost out in the last lap kerfuffle, although the Frenchman was unfortunate not to benefit from the lottery.
Indeed, Vergne was less than one hundred metres from his first score, but a sluggish exit from the final corner compromised his run toward the finish line, allowing Force India’s Paul di Resta to nip through to 10th as the pair crossed the grid markings.
Di Resta may be somewhat happy to score a point after a quiet day. Having started 15th, the Scot struggled badly in both the early and latter part of his tyre stints, hampering any significant progress, leaving the Scot to amble around 11th to 13th positions for much of the running.
Vergne also spent the day meandering from 11th to 13th, depending on where his tyre wear dictated he should be. He would be the first driver to not score.
Rosberg crawled across the line some twenty seconds later, rendering Mercedes pointless for all their efforts.
From all the pre-season promise, it was dreadfully disappointing weekend for the Brackley / Cologne (delete where necessary) team. A stellar opening lap saw Rosberg run 5th for the opening portion of the event, and returning to that position once the opening series of stops filtered through.
Unfortunately for Rosberg, his race fell apart in the final stint. Emerging from his second tyre change in 10th place, Rosberg struggled make headway behind the long running Perez. Despite the threatening shadows of the Mercedes, Perez held Rosberg behind for lap after lap, ensuring Rosberg fell far behind the leaders.
The last lap crash put a stamp on a poor weekend for the German giants.
Both Marussia drivers registered finished in 14th (Timo Glock) and 15th (Charles Pic), although the latter pulled into the pits with four laps remaining due to an oil pressure problem.
While the Marussia MVR01 may have been by far the slowest pairing on Sunday, the result represented a wonderful effort for a team that had not run in anger prior to Friday practice.
Marussia certainly fared better than back-of-the-grid rivals Caterham. Only five laps after Petrov retired with a steering wheel issue, Heikki Kovalainen retired his CT01 due to a broken suspension and mangled steering arm.
In what proved to be a difficult race for the Finn, he lost his KERS during the opening stint, losing even more pace as a result.
2012 Australian Grand Prix (Round 1, 58 laps) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1h34:09.565 2. Vettel Red Bull-Renault + 2.139 3. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 4.075 4. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 4.547 5. Alonso Ferrari + 21.565 6. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 36.766 7. Raikkonen Lotus-Renault + 38.014 8. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 39.458 9. Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 39.556 10. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 39.737 11. Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 39.848 12. Rosberg Mercedes + 57.642 13. Maldonado Williams-Renault + 1 lap 14. Glock Marussia-Cosworth + 1 lap 15. Pic Marussia-Cosworth + 2 laps 16. Senna Williams-Renault + 4 laps Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap DNF. Massa Ferrari 47 DNF. Kovalainen Caterham-Renault 42 DNF. Petrov Caterham-Renault 37 DNF. Schumacher Mercedes 11 DNF. Grosjean Lotus-Renault 2 DNF. Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes 1 DNS. Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth DNQ DNS. De la Rosa HRT-Cosworth DNQ Fastest lap: Button, 1:29.187 World Championship standings (Round 1): Drivers: 1. Button 25 2. Vettel 18 3. Hamilton 15 4. Webber 12 5. Alonso 10 6. Kobayashi 8 7. Raikkonen 6 8. Perez 4 9. Ricciardo 2 10. Di Resta 1 Constructors: 1. McLaren Mercedes 40 2. Red Bull Renault 30 3. Sauber Ferrari 12 4. Ferrari 10 5. Lotus Renault 6 6. Toro Rosso Ferrari 2 7. Force India Mercedes 1 ^ Notes compiled from live updates and team releases