Australian Grand Prix Review
Formula One is back! Melbourne Australia played host to the opening round of the 2013 season and what a race it was!
The drama started in the week leading up to the race when it became suddenly apparent that FOM had no agreement in place with Marussia to broadcast footage of the red and black cars. They were notably absent from the pictures during Practice, despite Bianchi going only 3 tenths shy of a Toro Rosso in FP1, and only the same margin off Bottas’ Williams in FP2 although the latter hadn’t managed to set a properly hot lap.
Red Bull were about where they expected to be after last season, topping the timesheets in FP2 after Webber only managed fifth in FP1. Vettel was top in the first session as well. Webber had a hairy moment towards the end of the second session, spinning out of Turn 13. He kept it out of the barriers though and finished the session with an undamaged car.
Ferrari also looked pretty solid through the weekend. They couldn’t match Red Bull but they weren’t far off. They look good for an early second-place in the Constructors’ Standings, but whether they can maintain it is anyone’s guess at this stage. They did get a decent result from FP1 – second and third – but dropped to sixth and eighth in the later Friday session. I expect different aspects of the weekend were tested in each session, however, so their pace is likely somewhere in the middle.
McLaren were nowhere on Friday, with their cars finishing outside of the top ten. Balance issues (including a huge rear wing compared to the likes of Red Bull) proved to be their main setback, although they couldn’t work out where they could improve the cars. Button went ninth then eleventh, while teammate Perez went first eleventh, before dropping to thirteenth in the second session.
Lotus managed fourth and fifth in FP2 as they look to continue their strong runs from 2012. Whether they can translate that into a more competitive 2013, however, is another question. Apart from Grosjean’s tenth place in session 1, The Lotus cars never finished a session outside the top six.
Mercedes’ pace was very strong through the early sessions until both cars ended FP2 disappointingly, Rosberg suffering gearbox problems and Hamilton's splitter breaking. That said, in both sessions they managed to get one car in the top four.
Sauber weren’t far behind McLaren in these early sessions, with Gutierrez very close in pace to his predecessor’s new car in FP2. Hulkenberg went twelfth then tenth, while the Mexican rookie set the sixteenth-and-fifteenth-best times.
At Force India, returning driver Adrian Sutil was inside the top ten in both sessions, while teammate di Resta was just outside, running first thirteenth then twelfth. The team looked strong at this early stage compared to 2012.
Williams admitted they never really got to grips with their setups on the FW35, with Maldonado sitting fourteenth and sixteenth and Bottas taking fifteenth and eighteenth. The team wore black arm bands in Melbourne, paying their respects to Lady Virginia Williams who died during the final build-up to the season.
Toro Rosso saw Vergne staying seventeenth on both Friday’s sheets, while teammate Ricciardo admitted he had a setup issue in FP1 where he finished eighteenth, before rising to fourteenth between the two Mexican drivers in FP2. James Key’s input, though not as apparent as it has been with Force India and Sauber in the past, is nonetheless evident in the second session result for the Australian.
Caterham’s rookie driver Van der Garde was consistently last in both sessions, beaching his car early in FP2. However, while Pic joined him at the bottom of the FP1 timesheets, the Frenchman rose above Marussia’s rookie to steal twentieth in the second session giving hope for battles throughout the field.
Marussia saw Jules Bianchi take consistent nineteenth places, three tenths from Ricciardo in FP1 and the same margin from Bottas in FP2. Behind him teammate Max Chilton took twentieth to beat both Caterhams in FP1, and lost a place to Pic in FP2.
Moving to Practice 3, with the clouds hanging over the circuit and my first bit of live viewing of the 2013 season, I can’t deny I was very excited to see what would happen. Prior to the session going green I noted the lack of change to McLaren’s “barn door” rear wing setup. Meanwhile Lotus were distracted by one of Australia’s spiders making a move on one of their mechanics. Fair to say the mechanic won, as the spider ended up in a jar in the paddock, out of the way of the cars and the mechanics.
Webber set the early pace with a 1:31.171. The McLarens were some three seconds off that initial pace. The Woking-based team still seemed to have balance issues, although Button fought through these to take a second out of his own time on his second lap, as did Perez behind him. Webber took a couple of tenths off his own first lap on the second. Massa then joined the half-dozen other cars on the track while Button complained of understeer and graining on only his third flying lap. Webber responded to this by setting a 1:30.288, while Van der Garde went only three tenths off that time in the Caterham. For some reason yellow flags were out as Sutil went a couple of tenths faster than the Caterham, Ricciardo went top with a 1:29.976 and Button pitted for fresh tyres. Vergne then beat his teammate by two tenths.
Massa was almost a second off everyone else on his first lap, while Alonso was the first to enter the 1:27’s on his own first timed tour of the circuit. Massa promptly beat him. The Force India’s had taken third and fourth by this stage ahead of the Toro Rossos, although the latter pair was split by Gutierrez shortly after. With twelve cars having run, McLaren were only eleventh and twelfth. Martin Whitmarsh looked rather concerned on the pit wall as Hulkenberg also beat them.
Bianchi took tenth place in the Marussia ahead of the Caterhams. Vettel’s first lap wasn’t good enough to beat Marussia’s new signing, who only got the seat in the eleventh hour as Razia’s sponsors failed to pay up. The reigning World Champion rectified that situation on his second lap.
Alonso managed to set a 1:27.000, reaffirming his top spot on the timesheets with a time I felt just had to be written down as a number of cars started to see graining on their rear tyres.
Perez’ car was being taken apart by the fifteenth minute of FP3, with the Mexican nowhere in sight as the clouds rolled ever closer to the circuit. It seemed they had missed their chance to give their new signing any further dry running prior to the race. Contrary to Williams’ expectations, rain appeared only a minute after Perez’ car was dismantled, although he looked like he was returning to the circuit anyway. Meanwhile, everyone else was pitting. Grosjean was the only man to beat Alonso's beautifully neat lap time with a 1:26.929.
With only four sets of intermediate tyres available and at least McLaren expecting them all to be used to get through a potentially wet qualifying session, the track was unsurprisingly quiet as the rain continued to fall.
Massa took to the circuit somewhat tentatively on the full wet tyres to explore the track more closely. With no major rainfall it looked more akin to intermediate conditions, but McLaren likely weren’t the only team to write off the idea of wasting a valuable set of inters.
Alonso, both Toro Rossos and the Saubers rejoined the circuit to join the second Ferrari, soon joined also by Adrian Sutil and current fastest driver Romain Grosjean. Bianchi then made a move for Marussia, as did Raikkonen in the other Lotus, Rosberg's Mercedes and Van der Garde’s Caterham. Hamilton put the other Mercedes onto the track as well, as did di Resta in the second Force India. Only Button and Vettel remained in the garage completely, Red Bull likely not wanting to bend the chassis so close to qualifying. McLaren’s logic had already been made abundantly clear although they changed their mind and sent Perez out on full wets also. Button was meant to join him but a small problem prevented that.
Drivers started returning to the pits as the final fifteen minutes of the session got going, although most returned to the circuit on inters. Nico Rosberg, still on wet tyres, was complaining of oversteer and overheating.
Vettel, running with a history of KERS problems already in his RB9, parked at Turn 4 with some sort of gremlin in the systems once more. Seb assisted the marshals to move the stricken car out of harm’s way as team radio confirmed it was not a KERS issue but a hydraulic problem.
Button was complaining of too much downforce on the front of his McLaren now he had finally left the garage, although he was headed for the pits again with under seven minutes left on the clock. McLaren didn’t send him back out and with conditions returning towards slick tyres again Rosberg was also called back into the pits, presumably along with others whose radio we didn’t hear.
Grosjean did indeed finish the session on top ahead of both Ferraris, both Force Indias, both Toro Rossos and his teammate Raikkonen. The Saubers were ninth and tenth ahead of Rosberg, both Red Bulls, Bianchi, both Caterhams, then McLaren and Williams ran two by two ahead of Chilton and Hamilton. Those final four drivers only set times in the wet.
With track temperatures falling and the circuit far from bone dry despite the dry line now appearing, qualifying was looking to be an exciting session.
Hulkenberg, it transpired, had a speeding fine of 1000 Euros while Adrian Sutil was under investigation for using DRS in the wet. Meanwhile Vettel’s “hydraulic fault” turned out to be a faulty sensor. Sutil was lucky that the stewards realised Force India had endured a power cut when the notice went out and thus took no further action.
With the rain heavier than expected, at least by the fans, the qualifying session was postponed by ten minutes to allow the circuit to dry a little and to give teams more time to perfect their setups before entering parc fermé conditions. In the delay I decided to partake in some bird watching. Unfortunately at that point the camera stopped giving us shots of birds in puddles and found Hamilton and Grosjean instead.
Watching marshals in plastic ponchos sweeping water into drains was a strong reminder of the legendary Canadian Grand Prix back in 2011. This time, however, there were five drivers in the field who had never before qualified an F1 car. For some reason it was at this stage, as the Medical Car went for a careful lap of the track to assess the situation, that it occurred to me that I’d barely looked at my spreadsheet of this season despite it needing details from the very session I was waiting for. Luckily the delay gave me more than enough time to finish adding drivers into it and prepare the formulae for the green light I was starting to think wasn’t going to appear until Sunday morning. Right on cue, the session was postponed for a further ten minutes to allow further water to be cleared from the track.
As news came in that small pockets of rain were continuing to head towards the track the FIA put the session back by a third ten minutes. The problem seemed to be mainly between Turn 12 and Turn 13 – the final long straight before the last sequence of corners – where there was a small lake forming at the point where an access road meets the circuit at the entrance to a kink in the straight. Typically, as soon as I finished typing that, a queue built up at the end of the pit lane awaiting the green light. The curse of the commentator apparently extends to me as well. All the more reason for me to avoid predicting results!
Maldonado was told to simply get a timed lap on and “keep the car on the track”. Sound advice, but perhaps easier said than done in the treacherous conditions. Hamilton, needlessly, was reminded to look out for rivers and white lines. The latter of course being rather abundant on a street circuit. Thankfully the lake I was most wary of seemed to be little problem for the cars on their out laps.
The FIA announced a change of climatic conditions to allow the teams to get around some of the parc fermé restrictions, while the Mercedes boys set the benchmark. Van der Garde hit the wall breaking his front wing which wedged itself under the car. The last time I saw that happen was Heidfeld in Montréal 2011, where the wing launched the car through the air. Luckily Giedo wasn’t going as fast so was able to avoid such a crash. Meanwhile Hamilton had to select reverse to un-beach the Mercedes before we finally saw how lucky the rookie was not to have wiped out the rest of the car.
Amid the carnage Rosberg was fastest with a 1:48.028, while Perez held up a queue of cars and Hamilton stayed out to qualify with a broken rear wing endplate. Nico managed to break into the mid-1:46’s, in theory a fast enough time to switch to inters. Vergne set a time half a second slower before Hamilton got called in.
Massa, stuck in thirteenth, also stripped his front wing, similarly lucky to do no further damage. Webber overtook him after losing the Red Bull across the Turns 11 and 12 chicane. Further back, Hamilton was ignoring the call to pit despite Mercedes having a wing ready for him, promptly going third overall. Ahead the Toro Rosso of Vergne set a 1:46.3. Oddly, hero of Marussia during practice Jules Bianchi was the only driver not within 107% of the Toro Rosso’s time, which became Vettel's as the Bull set a 1:46.1.
Gutierrez and Perez were trying their hand at rallycross, while Button and di Resta switched to inters. Sadly Maldonado, running a decent time, lost the lap by missing Turns 11 and 12 as he too switched disciplines for a few hairy moments.
Both Williams’ pitted for inters, followed by more of the field. Bianchi managed to get within 107% at last.
Button took a second out of Vettel’s time, proving inters were the right tyres to be on. Massa’s subsequent lap was only three tenths shy. Hamilton, however, was topping the sheets in the first sector. He failed to go fastest, unlike Alonso who broke into the 1:43’s.
With two minutes to go Williams, Caterham and Marussia were in the drop zone, the latter outside 107% as a result of Alonso’s time.
Bottas escaped the drop zone followed by his teammate, before Pic lost his Caterham’s wing in similar fashion to his teammate. Gutierrez then stranded an also wingless car in the final sector, ruining any laps that hadn’t already cleared Turn 12.
Maldonado, Gutierrez, Bianchi, Chilton and Van der Garde all fell, as well as Pic who was outside 107% but expected no problems with racing on Sunday. While I was watching dodgems and the drop zone (and thinking what an awesome novel title that would be), Rosberg finished the session on top.
A fourth ten minute delay was imposed before the second session could start as a result of a sudden downpour after Gutierrez’ crash.
Seeing a Williams in the drop zone after such a trying fortnight leading up to the race, the low point being the death of Lady Virginia Williams, wife of Sir Frank, was more painful than usual for me, but while it bodes ill for the team it says a lot about Bottas’ skill that he managed in qualifying what his speed demon teammate couldn’t.
The FIA now put a further twenty minute delay in place before the second session, forcing many drivers to stretch their legs for a while.
Listening to Martin Brundle reminiscing made the delay bearable, as did Ferrari’s test driver Pedro de la Rosa pointing out that the black paint over the road markings was making the circuit even more treacherous in the rain than most tracks in similar weather. Less happily, Charlie Whiting declared he wasn’t confident of the twenty minute delay being all that would be necessary. Interestingly, there doesn’t appear to be a legal structure to create a grid from Q1 times alone, meaning a Sunday morning session could yet happen at the expense of support races. In the end that was the decision they made.
With some seventeen hours having passed between Q1 and Q2, the Toro Rossos made it to the end of the pit lane with 3 minutes still to go before green. The rain had stopped, but the track remained cold and wet, albeit drying, with a strong wind buffeting the cars. Vettel was promptly warned that Red Bull were expecting rain at some stage. Five minutes later, as the times edged into slick territory, Vettel, Raikkonen and Rosberg were the top three although Vettel and Grosjean took first and third respectively soon after. Vettel then re-took pole.
With six minutes to go, Hamilton, Perez, Webber, di Resta, Bottas and Sutil were in the second drop zone. Perez was then the first to switch to the duper-soft slick tyres, followed by Button. Bottas followed the McLaren example but all three were struggling. Button switched back to inters immediately.
Rosberg was over half a second ahead of the field with two minutes remaining. Massa, Ricciardo, di Resta, Perez, Bottas and Sutil made up the drop zone. With the chequered flag out, Hulkenberg was eleventh ahead of Sutil, Vergne, Ricciardo, Perez and Bottas.
Rosberg, having dominated qualifying thus far, was the first driver on track in the final session. Q3 was looking almost dry enough for slicks, despite the failure of the same tyres at the end of Q2. Button elected to start his session on the super-soft tyres.
Hamilton and Rosberg duly followed Button’s example having set banker times on the inters. Of course now the floodgates opened and everyone switched to the faster tyres.
Raikkonen, having hit a jack as he left the garage, was wheeled back in after setting the sixth-fastest time. However, there seemed to be little damage to the car as he rejoined for one final tour of the circuit as the clock counted down.
Vettel took pole ahead of teammate Webber. Hamilton and Massa were on row two. Alonso took fifth, Rosberg sixth, Raikkonen and Grosjean getting an all-Lotus row four, in front of the all-British fifth row of di Resta and Button.
Sutil received a reprimand after the stewards investigated his re-entry of the pit lane at the end of Q2, deciding he was driving unnecessarily slowly. Remember, three reprimands results in a grid penalty. Meanwhile, the other Force India of Paul di Resta received a fine for speeding.
Fuel system gremlins found their way into Hulkenberg's car with only ten minutes to go until the pit lane opened. Incidentally he has never completed more than a lap of the Australian Grand Prix coming into 2013. This time he wouldn’t even make the grid.
Vettel led into turn one ahead of Massa, Hamilton and Alonso. The Mercedes soon lost out to Alonso who almost took Massa into Turn 13 as well. Hamilton barely remained ahead of Raikkonen, while Webber was stuck down in seventh behind Rosberg. Di Resta, Button and Sutil completed the top ten, while Hamilton fell behind Raikkonen. At the back, Ricciardo was running last in his home race.
Grosjean was being tailed closely by the now twelfth-placed Perez, the Lotus having slid backwards off the line while the McLaren improved after a poor qualifying session.
Button pitted first, taking the medium tyres after only four laps. Sutil took the chance to close right up to his teammate. Further forward Massa left Alonso behind and reeled in Vettel. Webber took his turn to pit, along with Grosjean and Gutierrez, on lap five.
Vettel pitted on lap seven, a lap after Chilton's Marussia received new tyres and a new nose after damaging an endplate. This left Ferrari free to lead the race with Massa still keeping Alonso at bay. Now in third, Raikkonen showed just how good Lotus were on their tyres, steadily reeling in the leading pair. Massa pitted on lap eight along with di Resta. Vettel managed to hold position ahead of the Brazilian.
Alonso and Raikkonen pitted in sync on lap nine, handing the lead back to Vettel while Raikkonen held station behind his old teammate. Maldonado did have track position between the Ferrari and Lotus, but fell off the track and ceded the position to the most recent Ferrari World Champion.
Hamilton and Rosberg still hadn’t pitted as they started lap eleven ahead of Sutil, Perez and Vettel. The triple World champion soon cleared the McLaren for fourth place and set his sights on Sutil’s Force India, Massa followed the Red Bull through within half a lap while Alonso lost a bit more time behind the Mexican. Raikkonen was even bolder than the drivers ahead of him, overtaking the slow McLaren on the entry to Turn 11.
Lap thirteen finally saw a Mercedes pitting. Hamilton was the first of the leading pair to blink, coming back out in eighth place behind the yet-to-pit McLaren of Perez.
Rosberg pitted on lap fourteen, leaving Sutil temporarily leading the race and giving Vettel behind him chronic understeer. The Mercedes managed to slip ahead of Button and was lucky to be able to hold the McLaren off into Turn 3.
Perez finally pitted from an artificial sixth place on lap sixteen, taking on the super-soft compound. He was now out of the way of Hamilton’s Mercedes.
Webber pitted again from behind Button on lap eighteen, trying to get into some cleaner air. Grosjean took his turn to pit a lap later while Sutil continued to pull away from Vettel on tyres that should have been starting to fade.
Alonso pitted on lap twenty, presumably with a similar logic in mind than Red Bull in terms of escaping traffic. Earlier in the lap Vettel had been lucky not to fall off the track as the Red Bull kicked out its tail on turn four.
Sutil and Vettel finally pitted on lap twenty-one. Once again Massa assumed the lead, while Sutil remained in front of the reigning champion. Both lost out to Alonso's Ferrari on the pit exit. Massa seemed not to be due a stop as he continued to lead Raikkonen. Interestingly it appeared to be Massa who asked the team to let him try a two-stop strategy while the majority of the field were on a three-stopper.
Vettel finally cleared Sutil on lap twenty-three, turning his attention to Alonso's Ferrari instead.
Contrary to what we heard on the radio, Massa pitted at the end of lap twenty-three while Webber overtook Perez for tenth place. Massa left the pits behind Alonso, Vettel and Sutil.
Maldonado continued his Melbourne woes by beaching his Williams well off the circuit in the run-off of the first corner after dropping a wheel onto the grass. He therefore became the first retirement of 2013. As a result of the stricken car and the marshals around it, DRS was disabled. Luckily the car was soon cleared and normal service resumed.
Hamilton was fending off Alonso’s Ferrari on lap thirty-one, but didn’t seem confident of retaining that lead. His perspective proved true as Alonso finally forced the Mercedes into a mistake and immediately into a stop. He rejoined ahead of Webber, in seventh place.
Lap thirty-four saw Raikkonen make a rather late second stop. He rejoined in fifth behind Massa, while Hamilton behind him informed Mercedes that the medium Pirellis wouldn’t last for the twenty-seven laps the team were asking of them. Apparently Lotus and Raikkonen had no such worries.
Massa pitted on lap thirty-six for his final stop, dropping himself to sixth. Vettel pitted a lap later and held himself ahead of the Brazilian, tailing the now fourth-placed Hamilton in the remaining Mercedes. Button and Grosjean pitted on the same lap, rejoining twelfth and thirteenth respectively.
Sutil was ordered to yield to Raikkonen, with whom the team feared the German may “waste time”. Further down the order, Ricciardo was running a broken exhaust pipe on this Toro Rosso.
Alonso fell to third when he pitted on lap thirty-nine. As Hamilton and Vettel started lap forty behind the Ferrari, Vettel took fourth from Hamilton. The Mercedes let Massa through into Turn 13 of the same lap. It then became apparent that Rosberg had suffered some sort of electrical failure which ended his race prematurely.
Ricciardo retired as the Toro Rosso decided it could go no further while the leaders were on lap forty-two. Meanwhile Webber managed to clear di Resta into turn 9 for eighth place with a very bold move and Hamilton pitted, remaining sixth.
Raikkonen cleared Sutil with ease, but Alonso was running faster than the Lotus by now. The Ferrari was tailing the Force India, having his advance on the 2007 champion impeded somewhat. The German was finally cleared on lap forty-six, giving way to a straight fight between Raikkonen and Alonso for the final twelve and a half laps.
Sutil pitted after falling to third, now dropping back to fifth place and giving chase to Massa’s now fourth-placed Ferrari. Vettel was quietly sitting third.
Sutil’s super-soft tyres were falling apart and with six laps to go for the leading Lotus there was just over ten seconds between Sutil and di Resta, both of whom were now behind Webber’s Red Bull.
Raikkonen won from Alonso, Vettel, Massa, Hamilton, Webber, Sutil, di Resta, Button, and Grosjean. Outside the points, Perez finished eleventh ahead of Vergne, Gutierrez, Bottas, Bianchi, Pic, Chilton and Van der Garde.
Ferrari lead the Constructors’ Championship with 30 points ahead of Lotus with 26, Red Bull with 23, Mercedes with 10, Force India also with 10 and McLaren with just 2 points courtesy of Jenson Button. Vergne’s twelfth place gives Toro Rosso seventh, ahead of Sauber eighth [Gutierrez thirteenth], Williams ninth [Bottas fourteenth], Marussia tenth [Bianchi fifteenth] and Caterham sixth as Pic could muster only sixteenth.
With only a few days until the Malaysian FP1 session there will be little time for Lotus to celebrate their win or Ferrari their championship lead. Knowing Sepang, we are unlikely to be free of the wet weather just yet. See you in seven days’ time…