Yes, the 2011 season is finally under way, and Sebastien Vettel started this campaign exactly as he ended the last, by converting pole position into a dominant win over Lewis Hamilton. However, the real sensation of the day was Renault’s Vitaly Petrov, who successfully defended against Fernando Alonso to claim the third step of the podium.
There were a number of surprises on Sunday. Neither Williams or Mercedes finished the race; Maldonado developed problems early and parked in a runoff area, while Barrichello ended his race later after a run-in with Nico Rosberg (which caused the German to retire); Schumacher suffered from early contact and was out by lap 19. Heidfeld, who many thought would blow Petrov out of the water, could only manage 14th place (later adjusted to 12th) after early contact left his Renault’s sidepod in tatters (although the car kept working).
But the biggest story in my view was Sauber… both in the good and bad columns I’m afraid. The Swiss team managed to place an incredible 7th and 8th, mostly owing to a spectacular drive by rookie Sergio Perez who was the only driver not to need two stops. It was all good until the post-race scrutineering where a part of the car’s rear wing was found to be slightly smaller than it needed to be; this was a manufacturing defect, but it resulted in the two Saubers getting disqualified for the race, much to everyone’s disappointment. It makes one wonder why 23 hours in parc fermé aren’t time enough for the scrutineers to look things over a little more thoroughly.
The disqualification handed additional points to Massa, who did little in this race but confirm his status as a kind of Eddie Irvine to Ferrari top dog Fernando Alonso. Imagine what a “Trulli train” would have been like if Jarno Trulli had had a fast car, and that’s pretty much how the early part of the race went; then Felipe just kind of faded away for some reason.
Button finished 6th in one of those races that are best forgotten about, because it was very poor judgment that put him there. He lost a lot of time on the start and was stuck in 6th behind Massa for a few laps, when he opted for an ill-advised overtake maneuver and ended up taking an escape road around turn 12 (I think). At the same time Alonso (who had been tailing Button for some time) was pretty much waved through by Massa so that if Button gave the place back to Massa he had to let Alonso through as well… but then Alonso pitted and Button still refused to yield. This is the sort of thing that will live on as one of the great inexplicably dumb moves of Formula One. Massa, being ever the good #2, pitted the next lap and the stewards had to impose a drive-through penalty as there was no possibility of giving the place back. Button was insistent that he was ahead of Massa and was pushed out into the escape road, but frankly he should have known better. Had it not been for the time lost serving the penalty Jenson would have been vying for a podium spot.
It’s not to say that the officiating was spotless. After a pit stop Vettel came charging after Button and overtook him by taking an extremely long way out of the track and in an area that’s normally a car park. None of his wheels were anywhere near the track area, but somehow that never attracted the stewards’ attention… it was blatant enough to warrant a replay and a comment from Brundle, but sometimes with the FIA one does find that with all animals being equal, some manage to be more equal than others.
Toro Rosso did quite well on the weekend with a 10th (adjusted to 8th) place finish for Buemi. It seems that he’s responding pretty well to the pressure that’s mounting on him to get some results. He was followed by the two Force Indias which don’t seem to have improved much over last year. Neither have the Lotus or the Virgin team; in fact Glock was so far down from the pack (9 laps behind) that he didn’t classify in that race at all. Rookie D’Ambrosio finished but 4 laps down on the field. Kovalainen retired with a water leak and Trulli finished the race second to last.
HRT was there too… for the pre-race. Keeping in mind that this weekend was supposed to be the SECOND race weekend of the year, they were in even worse disarray than their detractors (like myself) had imagined. They literally didn’t have working cars until Saturday, and when Karthikeiyan finally managed to do a shakedown lap he was so incredibly slow that I, along with lots of other people no doubt, thought it was some kind of a joke. The best Tonio could manage was a Q1 time over 1.5 seconds off the 107% cut-off mark, and Narain was over 1.5 seconds off THAT. I felt I was faster than them just sitting in my office chair watching it happen. Joking aside, I’m not confident they’d be competitive in GP2. HRT is the new Andrea Moda — mark my words, unless some miracle happens and soon, they’ll just get struck off the F1 list before mid-season.
Of the new technologies, the Pirelli tires didn’t fare as badly as everyone thought, and some drivers are saying that the tires they had on Sunday were very different from the ones they tested on. KERS wasn’t much of a factor — Red Bull didn’t bother with it at all — and DRS seems like an expensive but futile gimmick. One thing that did make a difference, though, was the lack of double diffusers. You had a lot more cars right up against the car in front in Australia, and hopefully this trend will continue.
Other than that, it seems that the Ferrari is nowhere near as fast as pre-season testing would lead one to believe. Renault is a lot quicker than everyone expects. The Sauber was shockingly good, but we should probably reserve judgment until we’ve seen them race with a legal car. Red Bull is still kicking butt, and the McLaren’s pace caught everyone by surprise. Especially when you factor in that Hamilton ran a good portion of the race in a car with a damaged undertray that kept scraping on the track, but kept gaining a little bit on Vettel in his late run. What are Lewis and Jenson going to look like if a)they can manage to exercise better judgment, and b)the car holds together the way it’s supposed to? only time will tell.
Oh, and can I say that I just want Petrov to keep holding off Alonso as often as he possibly can?.. I was a bit skeptical of the guy until Abu Dhabi last year, but now I’m practically turning into a fan.
The next round of F1 takes place in two weeks, at Malaysia’s Sepang circuit.