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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The man who led Melbourne without overtaking a single car

As a spectator I really enjoyed the return to F1 last Sunday morning.  Long months have passed, full of rumour and non-stories and it's always a relief when the season gets underway again and we can talk about something concrete, tarmacadamed, and rubbered-in.

"You can’t start the season much better than winning the first race" - Kimi
©LAT Photographic/Lotus F1
After the delayed qualifying it was immediately obvious that McLaren were going to suffer under the glare of the world media and the whole of the F1 fanbase.  For the first time in years nobody was expecting them to be on the podium and the only question was whether they would be in the points.  Given the fact that they are further off the pace than they were expecting it was good to see Jenson Button have a (relatively speaking) good race.  His first priority was to finish, which he achieved. His second was to finish in front of his team-mate, which he achieved. And his third was to get points, which he achieved by finishing 9th.  McLaren may only have 2 points but considering their performance over the weekend that's better than nought, as Jenson said afterwards:
Having won the Australian Grand Prix three times so far in my career – in 2009, 2010 and 2012 – you’d have to say that today’s ninth place isn’t really much to write home about.
A statement with which his Team Principal, Martin Whitmarsh, agreed:
a ninth-place finish and an 11th-place finish don’t constitute much of a result by our sky-high standards, and ultimately the 2013 Australian Grand Prix weekend must therefore go down as a disappointing one for all at Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
Jenson led Romain Grosjean home, taking two points from a miserable McLaren opening Weekend
© Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
They can take some comfort from their horrible start in that Ferrari seemed out of the running last season, with Fernando Alonso taking 5th in Melbourne after a stunning drive from 12th on the grid but then ended up chasing for the championships.  If they can begin to get their house in order I'm certain that McLaren can find their stride again.

They also have precedent to bring back a modified version of last year's car.  If we remember their 2003 challenger, the MP4-18 (which we don't because it never raced) McLaren instead brought a D spec of the MP4-17 which had raced in 2002.  The MP4-18, much as the current MP4-28, was a complete redesign but suffered problems in testing, including a number of crashes.  The team have said that this car is all new under the hood and as such the problems may well be difficult to isolate; a heavily modified version of last year's car will be able to provide stability, speed, and reliability to the team which will let them keep in touch with the championship.  It might be less of a risk than continuing with the current proposal.

Valtteri leads Pastor in the GP on Sunday last, he also brought the car home
 © Charles Coates/Williams F1
Another team who seem to need a rethink after Australia is Williams.  They changed about 80% of the car from last year but only qualified 16th and 17th on the grid last weekend and only Valtteri Bottas managed to bring the car home, well outside the points in 14th.  Pastor Maldonado put the car in the gravel on lap 24.  It looks like they, along with the McLaren team, were not sandbagging during testing.  While the car may feel better than last year it seems that it is slow and they were well behind the Force Indias, the Lotus, and finished behind Esteban Gutierrez in the lone Sauber.  They were well off the pace of the Toro Rosso's too, which is a significant step back from where they were last year.  I hope they can fix it, it won't do their share price any favours.

Mike Coughlan said little about Pastor's brush with the gravel but you can be sure that he won't want to see any more of that this season:
It was good that Valtteri was able to bring the car home in his first race, but we have work we need to do now as a team to improve the performance
The Race Notes in the Press Release were less veiled:
Pastor Maldonado’s race came to early end as he lost the car at Turn 1 and ended beached in the gravel
Jules Bianchi, on the other hand was a revelation in his Marussia, beating the other three also rans at the back of the grid.  He was the only one of the four to be only one lap behind at the end of the race, coming home ahead of Charles Pic in the Caterham, Max Chilton in the other Marussia and Giedo van der Garde in last place.

Caterham were overshadowed and outraced by Jules Bianchi
© LAT Photographic/Caterham F1
Charles Pic didn't mince words post-race:
That wasn’t too bad a race for us. Of course we’d prefer to finish higher but I think that at this stage of the season this reflects our current performance levels
I know it's early in the season but it may well be that van der Garde has come to F1 just that little bit too late in his career.  I was giving out in the pre-season that David Valsecchi didn't get a race drive having finished GP2, but now I wonder if there is a moment in a driver's career after which he can no longer adapt to the increased rigours of Formula 1.  Horrible to think that modern F1 is such that by 27 it's too late to make a beginning in the formula.

And so to the front where the lead was shared by 7 drivers over the course of the Grand Prix.  Vettel lead from the off but couldn't make the most from their tyres, the conditions and set up of the car made it impossible for pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel to complete the race on anything less than a three stop.  From the start he pulled out a gap to the two Ferraris behind for the first 4 laps before Felipe Massa began to reel the Red Bull in and by Lap 7, when he made his first stop, it was clear that the car just didn't have the pace or stamina of those following. Vettel though was happy enough with the final result:
I think you’re always a little disappointed when you start first and don’t finish first, but overall it was a good weekend for us. We had a good day today with a pole and a podium – but in the race we were a little too aggressive with the tyres and lost the front and the rears, while others did a little better
Massa and Alonso had a great start to the Race and the Season in Australia
© Scuderia Ferrari
Massa lead for a lap before he too, being the lead Ferrari pitted, leaving Fernando Alonso to pit the next lap allowing Lewis Hamilton to lead Nico Rosberg in the two Mercedes.  When Hamilton pitted Nico took up the reins for a lap before his pitstop when, Adrian Sutil, in the Force India, utilising an unusual pit-stop strategy, inherited first place.

Sutil, who started in 12th place (technically 11th as Nico Hulkenberg failed to start in the Sauber) made up positions as everyone ahead of him pulled into the pits, first Button, then Romain Grosjean, Mark Webber, Vettel, His team-mate Paul di Resta, Massa, Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen all had pitted by Lap 9 leaving Adrian in an impressive 3rd place without having to actually overtake anyone on-track. Then when Hamilton and Rosberg pitted from on laps 9 & 10 respectively Sutil inherited 1st.

Adrian Sutil's strategy flattered the Force India Team
© Sahara Force India F1 Team
It looked more impressive live in the race than it actually was.  On his return Adrian Sutil was leading the race in a Force India.  For the seven laps he lead he was being caught by the cars behind him and when he finally pitted to replace his old Hard Tyres with a new set of the same he emerged in 7th place.  The Force India strategy was certainly audacious, as, intending to pit only once more for a set of the supersofts, Sutil once again began to climb the leaderboard as the other teams completed their second pitstop of three.

First Massa pitted and 7th became 6th, then Rosberg retired - 5th, then pitstops by Hamilton, Raikkonen, Vettel & alonso saw him once again in first, if only briefly.  His tyres were shot and the cars behind him were catching him hand-over-fist.  Raikkonen who had also done a two stop race was first to take him on Lap 42, then Alonso, Vettel and Massa on Lap 45, Hamilton and Webber got him when he pitted, but would have overtaken him on track and then his team-mate Paul di Resta would have overtaken him for 7th place but was told to hold station in 8th. This was confirmed by Robert Fernley, Deputy Team Principal Force India after the race:
Paul was on the opposite strategy and finished just a fraction behind Adrian in the end. He probably could have passed Adrian in the closing laps, but he held station to ensure we brought home the strong team result

We had a few issues on the grid, getting the telemetry from the car to the pits, which wasn’t ideal in terms of the guys knowing where to set everything up for the start. We lost KERS also for the first part of the race. It looked like we were quite heavy on the first set of tyres and we weren’t that quick to challenge for the win as a team today. We had a slow pit stop (which was due to a front jack failure), which put me behind Jenson. We salvaged something in the end, but that was Melbourne today and it was disappointing not to get more out of it.- Mark Webber on his race
© Getty Images/Infiniti Red Bull Racing
Kimi Raikkonen came home the deserved winner having raced hard all the way and, having a car under him that allowed him to complete the race on two stops certainly did much to give Lotus the first victory of the season. After the race he commented in his typical understated style

I had a good feeling that we would be ok with the tyres after practice and the team got the strategy perfect. I made a few places at the start and then had a good battle with Lewis [Hamilton] but after that it was quite simple; probably one of my easiest wins

Fernando Alonso took second but claimed it was as good as a win for the team:
with the degradation we had, it would have been impossible to manage on one less and bringing forward the second one by a few laps meant I was able to pass Vettel and Sutil. Finishing ahead of the Red Bull tastes like a win, even if we know that despite today’s race result, they are still the quickest
Sebastian Vettel came in third, with Massa, Hamilton and Webber completing the top 6.

Hamilton was happy with his race, even if he hoped for more: The car felt really good out there; I had a strong first stint and was able to make the supersofts last longer than most of the others. We’d planned for two stops but converted to a three-stop strategy during the race. I don’t quite know where we lost the ground to the cars ahead so we’ll have a look at the race again now and figure it out
© Mercedes AMG Petronas
Romain Grosjean completed the top 10 behind Button, not knowing exactly what went wrong with his race. He said that something felt wrong with the car and it was a difficult race for him but:
It’s been a great weekend for the team with Kimi’s win so it’s clear there’s pace in the car. Let’s hope I can unlock that pace too next weekend in Sepang
Sutil was the talk of the pitlane, but looking at the race in the cold light of the following day it's clear that the car is not able to compete at the sharp end as of yet.  They are, though, in the situation of being the best of the rest which will give them the courage to push on and look to break into the top 5.

If McLaren continue to hurt, their job may be simpler than anyone thought possible.