Round 3, Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne
FUN FERNANDO CRUISES ON CRASHTASTIC DAY
1 Fernando Alonso (Renault)
2 Kimi Raikkonen (McLaren Mercedes)
3 Ralf Schumacher (Toyota)
4 Nick Heidfeld (BMW Sauber)
5 Giancarlo Fisichella (Renault)
6 Jacques Villeneuve (BMW Sauber)
7 Rubens Barrichello (Honda)
8 David Coulthard (Red Bull Racing Ferrari)
FOR the first time in a decade, the Australian Grand Prix was not hosting the opening round of the Formula One world championship. Instead, it was stop no.3 on the continent tour, due to Melbourne’s commitment in hosting the Commonwealth Games. Nevertheless, the Australian fans flocked to Albert Park for their annual, if later pilgrimage in the season full of hope and expectation for an exciting battle between the top teams. Though the winner turned out to have a relaxing afternoon without any bother, there was a load of drama involving many of the other competitors that made this an unforgettable classic.
Renault had taken the laurels in the Asian heat of Bahrain and Malaysia and were favourites to triumph again Down Under. However, in Honda and McLaren, they had two teams who were capable of spoiling the party. Jenson Button managed to achieve this on Saturday afternoon, with an awesome lap to take pole by nearly half a second. World champion Fernando Alonso was forced to settle for third on the grid, behind team-mate and Sepang winner, Giancarlo Fisichella.
The cooler conditions played havoc with the teams on Sunday afternoon. The April date had certainly caught out Bridgestone, who had brought the wrong tyre compound to this event, harming the chances of the Ferraris. The drama started on the last corner of the original formation lap, when Juan Pablo Montoya got a little too excited in warming up his rear tyres and embarrassingly, spun his McLaren out of fifth spot. Luckily for the passionate Colombian crowd who made the long trip, their hero was given a second chance as Fisichella threw away his victory opportunity by stalling on the grid. A second parade lap was required and allowed Montoya to move back to his initial position on the starting grid.
When the lights went out, Button went super defensive to keep back Alonso, who locked both front wheels to avoid the Honda. Jenson held on and behind them, the squabbling McLaren’s fought over third. Kimi Raikkonen took the moral ground and Montoya ran wide in retaliation, dropping two positions. However, the Safety Car was already out as Felipe Massa had stuck his Ferrari into the wall for the second time in 24 hours. Felipe, starting down in 15th, following his qualifying shunt, got stuck inbetween Scott Speed and Christian Klien, tangled with the Red Bull, connected with the innocent Nico Rosberg and ricocheted in the tyres. Rosberg was out, as was Jarno Trulli who spun and stalled after a failed attempt to pass David Coulthard at turn 6.
At the restart, Button’s tyres were not up to the required temperature and he was a sitting duck, as Alonso breezed through into the lead. Montoya started his fightback, by disposing of Ralf Schumacher and the local man, Mark Webber. Seconds later, Klien was in the tyres, having suddenly lost control of his Red Bull over an awkward bump. It seemed like the earlier collision with Massa had heightened his downfall. With debris on the track, the Safety Car was out again. Button realised that his Honda was simply no use to him in caution territory, highlighted further when Raikkonen steamed past from a mile back, missed his braking point completely, yet still stole second from the Englishman. It wasn’t Button’s day, as Montoya leapfrogged him at the first round of pitstops, again caused by lack of heat in the front tyres. Ralf Schumacher was having a good run, but his chances took a knock when the stewards issued a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pits. The Toyota driver had visited the cast of Neighbours earlier in the week, and obviously had forgotten that he should have been in Ramsay Street mode in the pits, not in F1 mode!
Brother Michael was having a horrid time. He failed to make the pole position shootout, due to a late sprinkling of rain and in the race; he was being outmanoeuvred by the Toro Rosso of Vitantonio Liuzzi. The fluctuations in his race were shown after his frist stop, as Schumacher put his usual surge in and started setting fastest sector times. His case for points was helped further when Webber, leading having not pitted, crawled to a halt with transmission failure. Alonso had a comfortable advantage, which was wiped out again at half-distance, when Schumacher crashed his Ferrari on the final corner in a desperate attempt to catch and pass Button. With debris sprayed across the racing line again, the Safety Car came out. Michael was clearly very sheepish by this foolish error, as he kept his helmet on and walked into the Toyota garage by mistake. For the Scuderia, the weekend had been a disaster, with the wrong tyres, reliability issues and three chassis smashed by Sunday evening.
With half the race still to go, there was a flurry of activity in the pits as drivers peeled in for their last scheduled stops. The real loser was Montoya, forced to queue behind Raikkonen, who was having a new front wing fitted following an earlier cut on his tyres. Montoya was incensed and showed more signs of the growing frustration in his tenure with the Woking team. The order was now Alonso, the effective Nick Heidfeld, Raikkonen, Button, Ralf Schumacher and Montoya. When the race got underway again, Alonso used the buffer of the Midland cars to pull out a commanding lead again. Tiago Montiero and Christjian Albers inability to check their mirrors caused chaos within the next group, as they traded places and bodywork for several corners, Button getting tagged by Montoya in the concertina. The yellows were out again when Liuzzi tried to pass Jacques Villeneuve’s BMW, went onto the damp grass and slid straight into the wall, continuing the crashfest that was Australia 2006. Despite a fourth Safety Car period, Alonso remained unflustered and even had the coolness to tell the Renault team and the millions of TV viewers at home that he was very relaxed. Race engineer Steve Nielson replied with a great sound bite: ‘Alright mate, I’m pretty chilled out here myself.’ Sound bites were the last thing on Montoya’s mind, when his electrical systems took the brunt out of a wild excursion onto the Astroturf at the final corner. The engine instantly died and Juan Pablo’s dramatic afternoon was brought to an abrupt conclusion.
The way was left clear for Alonso to back off and take a dominant win, with Kimi Raikkonen in a solid, if unspectacular second. Ralf Schumacher drove brilliantly to come back from a penalty to clinch a deserving podium, chased home by fellow countryman, Heidfeld in his BMW Sauber. The main focus on the last lap was whether the recovering Fisichella could grasp fifth position from Button’s ailing Honda. Into the penultimate corner, Jenson’s engine self-destructed in plumes of smoke and flames. Determined to make the flag, he pulled off the racing line, but saw Fisi pip him to fifth, then be told by race engineer Andrew Shovlin to stop before the chequered flag. Consequently, he would not receive a grid penalty for Imola, but lost him three points for this race. The beneficiaries were Villeneuve, Rubens Barrichello and Speed, who were the remaining scorers. However, Coulthard would move upto eighth in the final classification when Speed was given a 25 second penalty for overtaking the Red Bull under yellow flags.
For Jenson Button, a day that promised so much ended in a horror show. For Fernando Alonso, it was a day full of ease and security. He now had a healthy lead over Fisichella, Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher as the show moved to Europe for the mainstream battle of the 2006 championship.