What we learned from the Australian Grand Prix
Gareth Llewellyn-Stevens takes a look back at the season-opening race in Melbourne
As Formula 1 prepares to ship over to Sepang for the Malaysian Grand Prix in two weeks’ time, it is time to reflect on the much-anticipated season-opening race in Melbourne.
Red Bull‘s raw pace was to be expected given their performance in winter testing and it was no real surprise to see Sebastian Vettel dominate the weekend.
But when the team revealed they had not used KERS in qualifying, the 0.8s between Vettel’s pole time and McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton’s second-place time could have been around 1.3s, and as Hamilton later said “that’s not normal”.
That Red Bull dropped KERS altogether after Friday morning and taking such a risk in the opening race is the mark of a team confident in their car’s ability – and Vettel has certainly thrown down the gauntlet to his rivals.
Mark Webber again struggled at his home race, this time with an apparent lack of speed, which was surprising given his team-mate’s superiority at the front.
There is a history of things not working for Webber at home, and while fifth is better than a DNF, an inquest is sure to take place to establish the reason behind the gulf in performance between identical RB7s.
Regardless of what happened in Melbourne, the question hanging over the team for Sepang is: does Red Bull need to run KERS at all?
The resurgence of McLaren was something to behold after their torrid time in winter testing, with some fans and journalists writing their season off before it had even started.
What makes their performance in Melbourne even more staggering is how late the changes to the car were made as they simplified their exhaust system, with only limited testing of the upgrade in the team’s simulator prior to practice on Friday.
Second and sixth is a solid start for a car which completed the least mileage of the front runners over the winter.
It is no surprise to see McLaren are still working out what is best for their 2011 challenger, and had Jenson Button not received a drive-through penalty for cutting turn 12, he could have joined team-mate Hamilton on the podium.
The change in exhaust may have been a late and major unscheduled upgrade to the car, but with the team now within one second of Red Bull -something that would have seemed impossible over the winter -the season now certainly looks more promising for the Woking-based outfit.
Renault also showed good pace during testing, and while Robert Kubica’s stand-in Nick Heidfeld struggled in the R31, Vitaly Petrov proved their early pace was no fluke by trumping his team-mate in qualifying before moving up the order in the race to silence many of his critics from 2010 as he became the first Russian driver to stand on the podium with third place.
Petrov’s performance showed he has matured over the winter and is now ready to show he can be taken seriously in F1.
And with a car as quick as the R31 is and a year behind him with the team, he has to take advantage and show he can lead the team as Heidfeld gets up to speed.
Ferrari were surprisingly disappointing in Melbourne, with their qualifying pace someway off that the other front-runners.
While their race pace was better, poor starts for Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa left them chasing the leaders, and fourth and seventh is not the start they were looking for.
But if Ferrari’s weekend was disappointing, Mercedes‘ was disastrous after both cars retired before the half-way stage due to damage from collisions.
Michael Schumacher suffered a puncture on the opening lap before being withdrawn on lap 19 as a precaution, while Nico Rosberg was hit on lap 22 by Rubens Barrichello and stopped on track with a water pressure problem.
Some people’s outside bet to win races this season after improving towards the end of 2010, they were off the pace in the first race despite having the best engine in F1. If they fail to perform in Sepang, it could be a difficult season.
Sergio Perez was another driver who had a phenomenal afternoon, going 23 laps on a set of soft tyres before completing the race on a single set of hard tyres in his Sauber to finish seventh in his first race thanks to an unexpected one-stop strategy.
Team-mate Kamui Kobayashi also had an impressive race to finish behind Perez on what should have been a fantastic weekend for the Swiss team, but both C30s were later thrown out for a technical infringement relating to the uppermost part of the rear wing.
It was later believed to be down to a manufacturing error, but despite that the Ferrari-powered cars looked good, and suggests more is to come from them this season.
As best of the teams at the back of the grid, Team Lotus still have some way to go if they are to live up to their target of becoming a midfield team in 2011.
Heikki Kovalainen retired after just 20 laps with a water leak, a problem that plagued the team in winter testing.
Jarno Trulli finished 13th behind Heidfeld to offer some hope for the Anglo-Malaysian team with their race pace proving to be better than in qualifying.
Powered by the same engine as Renault and Red Bull, reliability and handling are the pressing concerns for chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne and his team.
Hispania Racing still have a lot of work to do if they are to qualify for a race in 2011 after Narain Karthikeyan and Tonio Liuzzi both failed to get inside the 107 per cent time.
The Spanish team failed to test the F111 before Melbourne, and only just got their cars ready for qualifying – so it would be no surprise to see them struggle on the long straights in Sepang.
Finally, Pirelli completed their first race as sole tyre manufacturer since returning to F1, and motorsport director Paul Hembery admitted he was “surprised” by their own performance as teams and drivers praised the part the tyres played in the race.
The major difference from previous supplier Bridgestone was the variation in strategy from teams with a clear choice between two or three stops to maximise individual performance, while Perez surprised everyone, including Hembery, by going with a one-stop strategy.
While it is early days for Pirelli, with tougher circuits to come, it shows the effort made during a frenetic eight months of testing has paid off.