- Australian Grand Prix - The Final Stint
Back with a bangLaurence Edmondson March 17, 2013
A round-up of the good, the bad and the downright ugly from the 2013 Australian Grand Prix
- Australian Grand Prix
Making a two-stop strategy work when everybody else was struggling to a three-stop was impressive. But just to underline Lotus' superiority on Sunday evening at Albert Park, Kimi Raikkonen set the quickest time of the race on lap 56. It was a middle finger to the rest of the field and signalled the end of Fernando Alonso's chances of fighting for victory. While everybody else was managing tyre degradation and getting slower lap after lap, Raikkonen and Lotus were enjoying a phenomenon Pirelli refer to as "negative degradation", whereby the performance gain from the decreasing fuel load trumps the performance lost from the tyres. In Melbourne this weekend, achieving "negative degradation" was the engineering equivalent of achieving Zen. In those temperatures, on that circuit and with these tyres, Raikkonen and Lotus had its set-up nailed and its car perfectly honed. But you only have to look at Romain Grosjean's race to see how delicate Lotus' advantage was. He started one place behind Raikkonen but dropped to 11th at the start and from that point onwards ruined his tyres in traffic and was forced onto a three-stop strategy. So while the conditions played to the strengths of the Lotus, Raikkonen's ability to work his way up to fourth at the start and run in clear air was vital. It remains to be seen whether Lotus will retain its advantage in Malaysia.
McLaren raised a number of concerns about its car during pre-season testing, but it was hard to believe the car was a complete dud after the promise it had shown at the first test. Inside the team, however, the engineers and mechanics knew better. On the first day at Jerez the team had used a set-up that ran the car very close to the ground and it simply wouldn't be workable at other tracks. However, on Friday in Australia the latest set-up also looked far from workable as the car bucked from bump to bump while struggling for grip. The team is hoping F1's visit to a "proper circuit" in Malaysia next weekend will see a return to form, but Martin Whitmarsh admitted four days would probably not be enough to completely reverse the team's fortunes. There has also been talk of returning to the basis of last year's car, but Whitmarsh insists the team will persevere with the MP4-28.
The Story of the Weekend
- Shock Red Bull - Somewhere between qualifying and the race Red Bull lost its tag as favourites for a championship whitewash
- Shocker McLaren - The car is possibly worse than its 2009 effort, which is really not good
- Best overtake Kimi Raikkonen - Lewis Hamilton is not an easy person to pass, least of all when he's in his first race for his new team. But Raikkonen managed it at the start of the race in what would prove to be a crucial move
- Best lap Fernando Alonso - On lap 22 he managed to put in a quick enough time to get ahead of both Vettel and Sutil as they returned from the pits
- Worst lap Mark Webber - His first lap saw him drop from second to seventh after a problem with his car's ECU messed up his start procedure
- Drive of the day Kimi Raikkonen - For getting the most from the new tyres as everybody else, including his team-mate, struggled
Rain, rain, go away...
It was far from ideal for Formula One to postpone the first qualifying session of the season to Sunday morning. It was also ironic that the late session - scheduled to provide European audiences with a palatable viewing experience - eventually restricted those wanting to watch both the end of Q3 and the start of the race to less than five hours of sleep. However, in much the same way tennis and cricket occasionally suffer rain delays, F1 is also vulnerable to poor weather. The key difference is that heavy rain doesn't just make it difficult to partake in the sport, it makes it downright dangerous. "When it gets to wet for these tyres it doesn't matter what speed you drive around, you will aquaplane," Jenson Button explained on Saturday night. "That is it because the tyre cannot take a certain amount of water. When you hit that water you are completely out of control and you might as well close your eyes and take your hands off the steering wheel. That is not what F1 racing is about. It's about a guy trying to tame a 750bhp Formula One car, but in conditions where he can actually tame it. You could say 30 years ago that they probably would have raced in these conditions, but safety has come a long way since then and I'm very happy that I'm racing in this period of time."
After a year away from the sport, Adrian Sutil showed few signs he had been away. The pressure on him to perform is huge this year, but he appears to be relishing it and put in a very impressive performance on Sunday. Like the Lotus, the Force India is lighter on its tyres that its rivals and Sutil had the 'advantage' of starting the race outside the top ten. By not taking part in Q3 he had a free choice of tyres at the start of the race, and with Nico Hulkenberg failing to make the grid, his 12th place gird position put him in the prime position to exploit that. His strategy was the reverse of Raikkonen's and his early long stints on the mediums allowed him to take the lead twice before the reality check of the super-soft tyres hit in his final stint. He finished the race 3.381s clear of team-mate Paul di Resta and took the first step towards proving he deserves his second chance.
Over one lap there is little doubt that Red Bull is king. In qualifying Sebastian Vettel was 0.6s faster than his nearest non-Red Bull rival, but oddly that did not transfer into the race. Tyre preservation was not the RB9's strong point in the race and it was made to look rather average as Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso closed in during the first stint. It appears as though Red Bull's approach of taking pole, running and hiding will not pay off this year as the tyres play a key role in making or breaking races. If Pirelli continue to bring aggressive compound choices to races it could be a very mixed season that will force Red Bull to change tack. But Christian Horner believes the car's set-up was not suited to the unexpectedly cool conditions, so it remains to be seen whether normal service will be resumed in Malaysia.
Mixed success for Hamilton
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes had a mixed weekend. At times it looked as though the car had the potential to challenge for the podium, but ultimately it fell short. Figuring out what happened in the race is not easy. After qualifying third it is clear that one lap pace is not too big an issue, but as Red Bull's race proved, that is no guarantee of success in the race. On the super-soft tyres the early signs were good as Hamilton set himself up for a two-stop strategy by stretching his first stint to 13 laps, but on the medium he struggled for balance and had to revert to a three stopper. In the end he drifted away from the rear of Felipe Massa's Ferrari and only managed to hold off Mark Webber by 1.239s. Still, it could be worse, he could be driving a McLaren.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1