Thursday, 20 March 2008

Australian Grand Prix Review

Better late than never. Here is a review I wrote for the Aussie Grand Prix last weekend. Bear in mind I wrote this literally as the cars were taking the chequered flag at about 6:30am after staying up the whole of Saturday night. Things are a bit ropey is what I'm trying to say! Excuses out of the way, here goes...

Wow! Formula One returns from the winter break with a bang, in every sense of the word! The packed grandstands at Melbourne's Albert Park were treated to a thrilling afternoon's entertainment from start to finish under the baking hot sun.

Lewis Hamilton took a comfortable pole-to-flag victory out in front to get his 2008 season off to the dream start, and blowing away the memories of the nightmare finish to last season. But that tells just a fraction of the story of a truly crazy race in which only SEVEN cars actually crossed the finish line, one of which may yet be disqualified for jumping a red light in the pit lane. To make Hamilton and McLaren's victory all the sweeter their big rivals Ferrari had a truly woeful weekend and will leave Melbourne possibly pointless and licking their wounds.

The thrills and spills started on the very first lap. There were always going to be question marks as to how the loss of traction control would effect the starts of Grand Prix, and things certainly were more dramatic than usual. Most drivers got away cleanly barring the star of qualifying Sebastian Vettel who bogged down off the start line and got swallowed up by the drivers behind him. Things were to get much worse for him and others around him though as the lap unfolded. It was difficult to see exactly what happened but numerous cars came together including Vettel, Button and Webber. Davidson and Fisichella also came together spectacularly, putting them all out of the race. Up at the front everyone seemed to get away cleanly and Massa made a move on Kovalainen on the inside of turn one. Massa has a bit of a reputation for losing his cool when the pressure is on, and he will have done little to dispel that feeling as he jumped on the throttle too early and spun off into the wall breaking his front wing. The lack of traction control had claimed its first victim!

The safety car came out to clean up the mess and as things settled down Raikkonen looked to be the man to have benefited from the chaos in front of him. A remarkable stroke of luck for the World Champion, and it looked as though fortune may be smiling on Kimi after some rotten luck in qualifying. As the safety car pulled in Robert Kubica managed to keep Hamilton honest for a few laps before Hamilton crept inexorably away at the front. There was plenty of tight racing throughout the field behind the untouchable Hamilton though, with the predicted tight midfield battle really hotting up. Having two quick Ferraris trying to fight their way through the field certainly helped in that respect. While battle was raging Adrian Sutil retired from the race with a mechanical problem of some sort, and Trulli jumped out of his car in the pits seemingly in pain from something leaking in the cockpit; a strange retirement if ever I've seen one!

Just as things were sorting themselves out after the pitstops the safety car was brought out again after a dramatic coming together between Massa and Coulthard. Massa tried a move up the inside of DC at turn three and Coulthard turned in on him and clipped Massa's front right wheel. This launched the Red Bull into the air and caused terminal damage, and eventually the damage told on Massa's suspension several laps later. Coulthard was seething afterwards, there were no doubts as to who he thought was to blame, but from the replays it looked like Massa was well within his rights to try a move. A racing incident I think.

The big loser in this safety car period and the laps afterwards was Robert Kubica. He struggled badly on the option tyres and he got tangled up in traffic, which put paid to his chances of a podium. Raikkonen was now in a strong position to be able to challenge McLaren for the race victory but he suffered from a rush of blood to the head as he tried to dive past Kovalainen into turn 3 but he was way too quick and went straight on into the gravel and was fortunate to keep his Ferrari running. An uncharacteristic error from Kimi, and it wasn't to be his last. As Hamilton romped off into the distance again Kovalainen was having a great debut in the McLaren in second place, fending off Nick Heidfeld's BMW. BMW seem to have a lot more pace than was suggested by their winter form as Heidfeld really wasn't far off the pace of the McLarens at times. Rosberg was having a fine day in the Williams too ahead of the likes of Barrichello who was doing sterling work in the Honda.

Then there was yet another surprising mistake from Kimi Raikkonen. As he tried to pass Timo Glock he seemed to lose concentration and got his rear end up on the grass. With no electronic safety net to bail him out he soon found himself pointing the wrong way and stationery on the grass. He kept things running and set off again with all hopes now surely extinguished. Sato limped out as did Piquet, who had an appalling debut all round for Renault, before the final safety car of the day was brought out in dramatic fashion, and again played fortuitously into the hands of Raikkonen and Ferrari.

Timo Glock ran a little wide in the very fast turn 12, and as he went across the grass run-off the service road somehow launched him skywards. He returned to earth with a big bang as his Toyota shed wheels and bodywork aplenty until he spun to a halt at the side of the track. The accident looked nasty enough, but in truth he was lucky it wasn't worse given the high speeds and the close proximity of the walls. The ensuing safety car period had disastrous consequences for two drivers. Heikki Kovalainen got seriously unlucky as the safety car came out at precisely the wrong moment for his fuel strategy, ruining what should have been a comfortable McLaren 1-2 finish and a strong podium for Kovalainen. The other loser was Barrichello who had to take an illegal refuelling stop otherwise he would have ground to a halt out on the track. In the process he managed to drive off with the fuel hose still attached due to a mistake from the lollipop man (something that has blighted Honda before with Jenson Button), and then ran a red light at the end of the pitlane. He may yet be DQ'd from the race and be denied his first points in over a season.

As the safety car pulled in for the final time there was a strange incident at the back of a severely dwindling field as Nakajima drove into the back of Kubica while warming his brakes. It ended Kubica's miserable afternoon and caused an unscheduled stop for Nakajima. Inexperience showing no doubt on the part of Nakajima, who shows a lot of raw promise but is clearly far from the finished article. It was now a ten lap sprint to the chequered flag. Kovalainen clearly had the bit between his teeth after being robbed of his podium and launched a bold move up the inside of Raikkonen. Whilst fighting to make it stick Fernando Alonso managed to overtake both the flying Finns on the same corner! Brilliant racing from Alonso and Heikki, and they weren't finished for the day by a long shot. Raikkonen though was soon to be finished. His Ferrari began sounding more and more sickly with each tour, and eventually he was forced to retire. A truly awful weekend for Ferrari was over. They didn't show the pace we all expected, they had a couple of reliability issues, and the driving from both Massa and Raikkonen was poor throughout the race. Even when the safety cars appeared to play into Raikkonen's had time and time again he couldn't take advantage. What a difference 12 months makes after his flawless performance here last year!

Amid all the chaos of the race one man who had quietly gone about his business was F1 debutant Sebastien Bourdais. He suddenly found himself up in fourth place and was managing to bravely fend off the advances of the McLaren and Renault of Kovalainen and Alonso. However, he too was to fall victim to Ferrari's miserable weekend as his Ferrari engine blew just 3 laps from a real dream start for Toro Rosso and Bourdais. Rotten luck for the Frenchman. And yet the action still wasn't finished! With two laps to go Kovalainen put a fantastic move on Alonso through turns 13 and 14, surely the passing move of the race. There were smiling faces all along the McLaren pit wall, but they were soon to turn to looks of horror as somehow Kovalainen managed to hit his own pit lane speed limiter on the home straight whilst pulling a tear off strip from his helmet visor. Alonso was able to simply cruise by him and regain his position. A silly mistake from Kovalainen to compound his disappointment at not getting the podium he probably deserved.

So Hamilton was able to cruise home to a comfortable race victory, leading home the impressive Heidfeld and Nico Rosberg who was clearly thrilled at claiming his first ever F1 podium. Advantage McLaren. And Ferrari will have just 6 days to turn things around before qualifying for Malaysian at Sepang. BMW and Williams will take great heart from their showings, which indicated that perhaps the top two teams from last year aren't quite as far ahead as the rest of the pack as was originally feared. Great news for all F1 fans if they can keep up the pressure on the big boys.

As the dust and shattered carbon fibre settles on a crazy race in Melbourne questions will inevitably be asked about the role the loss of electronic aids had in the demolition derby. Personally, I don't think it was that big a factor. With the exception of Massa spinning off the first lap incidents were the sort of comings together that could easily have happened with or without driver aids. Same goes for the coming together of Massa and Coulthard and Glock's shunt. I guess it was just one of those races where all hell seems to break loose, much like Canada last year. There were also an alarmingly high number of mechanical failures. Not something you expect after a couple of years of outstanding reliability throughout the grid, and particularly from Ferrari.

Hopefully Malaysia next week can be just as thrilling in terms of the on track action an competitiveness. Let's see if we can actually get more than 7 cars over the line next time though, eh fellas?!

No comments: