Race Reviews are brought to you by our on track reporter James Parker
Kimi Put’s Out Red Bull’s Barbeque
The start of the 2013 Formula 1 season began in scintillating style. Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen, took the chequered flag for his 20th victory in the sport ahead of the chasing Fernando Alonso and a “struggling” Sebastian Vettel at Albert Park.
Tyres were once again the dominant talk amongst the paddock, as the drivers fought incredibly aggressive graining due to the low track temperature, with only a handful of drivers managing to pull off a 2 stop strategy – the race winner being one of them. But more on that in a minute, as we have the small matter of Q2 and Q3 to get through first so everyone sat down and ready? Let’s go.
Race day was always going to be a claustrophobic affair, as after the calamity we saw on Saturday with the postponed Qualifying session after Q1, it meant the pecking order was still to be decided with Q2 and Q3 being held from 11am Sunday morning. Conditions on track were still very damp for the start of Q2, with intermediates still the preferred choice as a drying line was starting to appear.
Both Torro Rosso cars wanted to make the most of the early running. They were queuing up together at the front of the pit lane for just over 3 minutes before the green light was given to start the session. However, as the track started to dry Vergne and Ricciardo could not show the same pace as they had with the more unpredictable conditions of Saturday and both were knocked out, managing only 13th and 14th respectively.
The other drivers knocked out were the unlucky Nico Hulkenberg, missing the cut by 4 tenths, the rejuvenated Adrian Sutil in 12th, the struggling Sergio Perez in 15th, with Finnish rookie Valtteri Bottas rounding off the field in 16th.
The big story of Qualifying 2 were the drivers who opted to try the super soft tyres in a bid to slingshot them up the grid. Both McLaren’s bit the bullet, however struggled massively for tyre temperature, leaving them some 5 and 6 seconds off the pace. Button immediately pitted for Intermediates once again and claimed 8th, whilst teammate Perez decided to stay out in desperation, and could not make the cut.
Bottas and Vergne were the other two drivers to try slicks and ultimately paid the price alongside Perez.
Q3 was a much more open affair and with the track drying rapidly all the drivers opted to bolt on a fresh set of Super Soft Pirelli tyres in order to chase the first pole of the 2013 season.
It became a game of cat and mouse, with the driver last over the line given the best opportunity to claim pole. Early on the Mercedes pair looked fast, with Rosberg and Hamilton trading P1. Alonso showed up to snatch it off them but was not going to hold on to it for long.
Towards the end of the session, track conditions were improving to a point where lap times were almost 10 seconds faster than in Q2. Red Bull ultimately played their hand and claimed the front row of the grid with a Red Bull 1-2, Vettel leading Webber.
Hamilton managed to secure 3rd with a solid 1m28.0, nearly 7 tenths off the pace, whilst the big surprise came in the form of Felipe Massa. The rejuvenated Brazilian claimed 4th and in the process out-qualified Alonso who ended up 5th.
Rosberg topped off a solid qualifying for Mercedes in 6th, whilst Lotus looked to struggle once again in bringing the tyres up to temperature when required. Raikkonen and Grosjean could only manage 7th and 8th, whilst our very own Paul Di Resta capped a very positive qualifying session by claiming 9th for Force India.
Jenson Button was the first of the runners to bolt on Super Softs and ultimately paid the price by “showing his hand” far too soon. By the time the track had dried to its optimum late on, the McLaren driver had used all of the life his tyres had to give and could only managed 10th with a 1m 30.357 – nearly 3 seconds off the pace, adding to the Woking team’s woes.
Albert Park eventually gave way to some warmer weather for the afternoon’s action. Track temperature was still a worry and clouds continued to loom over Melbourne. The biggest question on everyone’s lips became evident after Q3 earlier in the day – how long could the Pirelli Super Soft tyres last.
After a solid qualifying, Hulkenberg on fresh Medium tyres from 11th looked a very strong combination. However optimism soon turned to visible frustration as the young German’s Sauber suffered a mysterious fuel problem after qualifying. The problem could not be fixed in time for the start and he was left watching the race from the sideline.
At the start Vettel got away cleanly however Webber made his now customary poor start from 2nd, losing 5 places going into turns 1 and 2. Apparently the poor start was due to a faulty ECU that also robbed him of KERS. Both Alonso and Massa made lightning starts, a trait of recent Ferrari cars. Massa claimed 2nd and Alonso passed Hamilton into turn 3 to claim 3rd behind Massa.
Hamilton, after such a positive Q3, simply could not match the front running pace of the front four and by lap 2 the fast starting Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen put manners on the Mercedes man. Raikkonen passed Hamilton round the outside of Turn 13, “releasing” the Iceman to chase down the leading three. He quickly closed the gap on Alonso to create a quartet before the first round of pitstops.
It didn’t take long for the super soft compound to show signs of wear. Button pitted as early as lap 5. Webber followed on lap 6 in a bid to claim a bit of free air after getting held up behind the squabbling Di Resta and Grosjean in the early stages of the race.
The leaders pitted on lap 8 and held status quo going into the second stint. An “on-fire” Massa was relishing the challenge of chasing Vettel down. The quartet led by Vettel quickly honed in on the long running Force India of Sutil, who was leading the race at this time and was attempting to pull off an ambitious two stop strategy.
The Force India driver managed to halt the charge of the German’s Red Bull, and this is where the Grand Prix started to get away from Sebastian. Alonso, sitting in 3rd place, was called in to pit for his second set of mediums early in an attempt to undercut the front 3 (including his team-mate). It worked out brilliantly for Alonso. Vettel and Sutil pitted one lap later but as they emerged from the pits they found themselves behind the Ferarri of Alonso.
This was the turning point of the race as Massa, after doing everything right in the first part of the Grand Prix, found himself behind both Vettel and Alonso pitting two laps later on lap 23. He passed Sutil with ease and settled down in 4th place.
The big winner was Lotus and Raikkonen though. The Finn drove conservatively and managed to keep his tyres alive for longer and could therefore stay out in clean air. The plan was a two-stop strategy that, if it worked, would leapfrog leading trio. He pitted on lap 34 and emerged behind Massa in 4th. The leaders all had to make their final stops 2-3 laps later leaving Raikkonen to lead the race once again.
Hamilton and Rosberg were rather anonymous in 6th and 7th respectively, looking like a very positive first race of the season for the W04. However not long after his first stop, Rosberg forced to retire with electrical problems, with Mark Webber inheriting 7th.
Up front, Raikkonen controlled the race with ease up to the finish. The final lap saw him light up the time sheets in purple, setting the fastest lap of the race while fighting off a resurgent Alonso. The Finn simply had bags of pace in reserve to shadow Alonso’s lap times.
3rd was a struggling Vettel, who simply could not get on top of abnormal tyre graining on his RB9 – a result he was satisfied with given the circumstances. He was followed by the despondent Massa who must be feeling today was very much a missed opportunity.
Further down, Sutil finished in an impressive 7th after being passed by Hamilton and Webber in the closing stages of the race. This was due to the extreme wear on quickly degrading super soft tyres he put on at his last pitstop. Di Resta rounded off a strong weekend for Force India with 8th, whilst Button and Grosjean rounded off the top 10.
For me there are a few key aspects we can take from the race, most notably the incredible Bianchi who showed his class in the Marussia. His fastest lap of the race was only 0.046 off Vettel’s in the RB9 and he finished a magnificent 15th, blowing his teammate – Max Chilton into the weeds. He will be key to Marussia’s climb into the midfield this season – not ready for a Formula 1 drive? Yeah right!
McLaren clearly have a lot of work to do, they struggled on the high fuel runs early on in the race and Button’s early pitstop really hurt him with traffic on his second stint. McLaren seem to make more tactical errors than any other team (Q2 and slicks) at the moment and maybe they should look to fix that as well as their car. Given the dismal pace all weekend 9th and 11th was really the best result they could have hoped for.
Sutil – what a comeback drive for the German today! He showed his class today, only missing out on a 5th place due to the sorry state of the soft compound tyres. He will give the team consistency this season and that is exactly what they need to secure 6th in the WCC.
It appears Red Bull do not have things all their own way. The Lotus E21 famously loves the hot conditions, so for them to be such a strong threat in the “cold” opening Grand Prix. Considering how easy on the tyres the E21 looks, this is quite an ominous sign for the warmer Malaysia.
Red Bull’s race pace disappeared due to abnormal graining and it will be exciting to see if the picture changes for them for the next Grand Prix in a week’s time.
The Ferrari looks solid and it seems the F138 has a wider set-up window than its predecessor. The Mercedes W04 also looks like it has a solid base for both drivers to work from, but today was evidence that they still have a long way to go to catch the leaders in terms of race pace.
Plenty of questions have been answered today, but plenty more have been posed, see you in a week’s time!
Race Classification – Final: