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Pastor powers to maiden success in Barcelona

Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen lift the new winner, Pastor Maldonado aloft

A NEW star has been well and truly born in the world of Grand Prix racing tonight after Pastor Maldonado powered to a wonderful victory at the Spanish Grand Prix.  It is the first time a Venezuelan driver has won a Grand Prix and sees the iconic Williams team return to the winners circle for the first time since Juan Pablo Montoya’s win in the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix.  Second place for the home favourite Fernando Alonso sees him join world champion Sebastian Vettel level on 61 points at the top of the drivers championship.

Great management of the delicate Pirelli tyres and some tactical strategy were the keys to Maldonado’s maiden success in just his 24th Grand Prix.  He also had to stay calm under pressure from a charged up Alonso and constant backmarker incidents on his way to the top step of the podium.  In the process, 2012 has become a record season.  We now have had five different winners from five races, in five separate teams and the last time this happened was back in 1983.  Also the top seven in the points standings are now covered by a meagre 20 points.

Maldonado inherited pole position last night when Lewis Hamilton was sent to the back of the grid following McLaren’s costly error in not being able to give the FIA a litre of fuel for a sample after qualifying.  However his lead disappeared when Alonso made the better start.  The pair went wheel-to-wheel on the rundown to turn one but just like in 2011, Alonso led into the first bend of his home Grand Prix.  A clash between Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez punctured a rear tyre on the Sauber and trashed the Mexican’s afternoon.  Kimi Raikkonen moved into a third position he would not relinquish, whilst Grosjean’s delay enabled Nico Rosberg to sweep into fourth place.

Alonso kept a solid lead to make sure he wouldn’t be affected by DRS, although he never was able to leave Maldonado standing.  Further back, there was trouble for Red Bull with both Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel stuck in heavy traffic and both pitted inside seven laps to get some clear air.  Later, the nosecones on the two cars were changed after some issues with tyre rubber and debris ending up in the front assembly of each chassis.  A late fightback from Vettel, despite a drive-through penalty for ignoring yellow flags saw him back to sixth.  Webber missed out on points for the first time in 2012, finishing half a second outside the scorers in 11th place.

Senna and Schumacher came together and not for the first time in Formula One either (Planet F1)

Sharp pitwork from Ferrari kept Alonso ahead in the first round of pitstops and with Raikkonen and Lotus not able to show their prestigious long run pace from Friday’s simulations, the fight for the win turned into a two way scrap.  Out of contention though would be Maldonado’s team-mate, Bruno Senna.  Senna was struggling behind Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham in the early laps and was gambling on a two stop strategy, meaning he was mixing it with some of the frontrunners but on older rubber.  On lap 12, Grosjean made a late dive up the inside into turn one and contact was made, removing a corner of the Lotus driver’s front endplate.  One lap later, Michael Schumacher closed up quickly through the DRS zone but made a complete mess of his braking point.  He misjudged Senna’s wherabouts and crashed into the rear of the Williams.  Debris and tyre smoke flew into the sky as the two cars headed for the turn one gravel.  Schumacher retired on the spot, his third DNF from five races and Senna had to park his car before getting back to the pits due to heavy rear wing damage.  On the radio, Schumacher branded his rival an ‘idiot.’  The race stewards disagreed and handed a five place grid penalty to the German for the Monaco Grand Prix in two weeks time.

After his qualifying exclusion, Hamilton had to start from the back and did well to miss a wayward Perez in turn three on the first lap.  He battled well with tyre management and had an entertaining dice with his old rival Felipe Massa.  Hamilton eventually finished eighth whilst Jenson Button’s struggles continued and he could do no better than ninth.  Tyre issues, understeer and a new brake supplier might well have accounted for his lack of speed throughout the last two days.

In the second round of pitstops, Williams pitted Maldonado earlier and got him out infront of Alonso, inheriting control of the race in the process.  There was no change after the third round of pitstops either but Alonso cutdown the seven second lead to basically nothing and got close to overhauling Pastor twice without succeeding.  A severe vibration with the rear of the Ferrari denied us a grandstand finish for the win, although Raikkonen suddenly closed up in the closing laps, having pitted for his third and final stop later than his rivals.  The way was clear for Maldonado to take an emotional win, with all of Sir Frank Williams family here in attendance this weekend; the team principal having celebrated his 70th birthday yesterday.  Sir Frank Williams told the BBC afterwards; “All the boys are delighted, and I’m quietly delighted, boy did we need that win as you can well imagine.  Most of the season has been thanks to a fresh group of people but it’s been very well balanced.  The aero guys have done their stuff, more than their stuff. The Renault engine is very competitive.”

Alonso and Raikkonen completed the podium placings.  Raikkonen couldn’t hide his disappointed in the press conference, saying; “I’m a bit disappointed.  I expect to be a bit stronger in the race, especially at the beginning.  At end of the race, we were good but it was too late.  We were too slow at the start which is why we couldn’t fight for the win.  We showed we still have the speed. Maybe we took the wrong choice in the first stop.”

Grosjean came through to finish an excellent fourth and Kamui Kobayashi matched his best ever result with fifth for Sauber.  Nico Rosberg fell away to seventh place at the chequered flag as his tyres hit ‘the cliff,’ in the last two laps.  Nico Hulkenberg took the final point after a solid drive in the Force India.  Scotland’s Paul di Resta missed out this time in 14th and a drive-through penalty for ignoring yellow flags added insult to another disappointing performance from Massa, well back in 15th.

After the race, celebrations were muted by a serious fire in the Williams garage.  Luckily, there are no serious injuries although four mechanics had to be treated with smoke inhalation afterwards.  (see separate story).

A sour and fiery note to end on but take nothing away from Pastor Maldonado, who fully deserves his time in the limelight.  It is always nice to see a new winner and who knows, we might get another one when the sport visits the jewel in the crown that is Monte Carlo in two weeks time.  Anything is possible in 2012 if this season’s first five races are anything to go by.

2012 FORMULA 1 GRAN PREMIO DE ESPANA SANTANDER RACE RESULT

 

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS TIME/DNF REASON
1 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 66 1hr 39min 09secs
2 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 66 +3.1secs
3 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 66 +3.8secs
4 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 66 +14.7secs
5 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 66 +1min 04.6secs
6 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 66 +1min 07.5secs
7 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 66 +1min 17.9secs
8 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 66 +1min 18.1secs
9 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 66 +1min 25.2secs
10 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 65 1 LAP
11 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 65 1 LAP
12 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 65 1 LAP
13 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 65 1 LAP
14 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 65 1 LAP
15 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 65 1 LAP
16 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 65 1 LAP
17 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 65 1 LAP
18 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 64 2 LAPS
19 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 63 3 LAPS
Retired SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 37 TRANSMISSION
Retired CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 35 DRIVESHAFT
Retired NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 22 TECHINCAL
Retired BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 12 DAMAGE FOLLOWING COLLISION WITH SCHUMACHER
Retired MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 12 COLLISION WITH SENNA

 

  DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 SEBASTIAN VETTEL (RED BULL) 61
2 FERNANDO ALONSO (FERRARI) 61
3 LEWIS HAMILTON (MCLAREN) 53
4 KIMI RAIKKONEN (LOTUS) 49
5 MARK WEBBER (RED BULL) 48
6 JENSON BUTTON (MCLAREN) 45
7 NICO ROSBERG (MERCEDES GP) 41
8 ROMAIN GROSJEAN (LOTUS) 35
9 PASTOR MALDONADO (WILLIAMS) 29
10 SERGIO PEREZ (SAUBER) 22
11 KAMUI KOBAYASHI (SAUBER) 19
12 PAUL DI RESTA (FORCE INDIA) 15
13 BRUNO SENNA (WILLIAMS) 14
14 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE (TORO ROSSO) 4
15 NICO HULKENBERG (FORCE INDIA) 3
16 DANIEL RICCIARDO (TORO ROSSO) 2
17 FELIPE MASSA (FERRARI) 2
18 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER (MERCEDES GP) 2

 

  CONSTRUCTORS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 RED BULL RACING RENAULT 109
2 MCLAREN MERCEDES 98
3 LOTUS RENAULT 84
4 FERRARI 63
5 MERCEDES GP 43
6 WILLIAMS RENAULT 43
7 SAUBER FERRARI 41
8 FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 18
9 SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO FERRARI 6


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Super Seb storms to Bahrain glory

SEBASTIAN Vettel send out a reminder to everyone today; ‘try and stop me if you can!’  The world champion dominanted the Bahrain Grand Prix to claim his first win of the 2012 season after a trying start.  Having started from pole position, Vettel battled high fuel consumption and constant tyre management throughout to lead almost from the start.  Cooler track temperatures helped in Red Bull’s return to the front of the field and Vettel is now reunited with the top of the drivers championship leaderboard.

Sebastian Vettel kisses his trophy after beating the competition in Bahrain (jconline)

The Lotus pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean completed the rostrum.  It was the first time a Lotus driver has stood on the podium since Nelson Piquet finished third in the 1988 Australian Grand Prix.  It was a nightmare day for the British duo at McLaren as pitstop blunders, poor pace and reliability issues left the team leaving tonight with just four points to show for their hard efforts this weekend.

As in many situations last year, Vettel led into the first corner and pulled out a massive early advantage to clear him of any attack from the DRS zone.  He stormed into a seven second lead as from early on, the McLaren attack, led by Lewis Hamilton was already looking blunt.  Grosjean had made an unbelievable start to move upto fourth from seventh on the grid.  The Frenchman quickly found a way past Mark Webber and then easily used the DRS to drive clean past Hamilton on the seventh lap and into second place.  Button was complaining of poor traction and he was overwhelmed by a feisty Raikkonen, before pitting to ditch the option tyres after only eight laps.

Nico Rosberg and Felipe Massa were in similar trouble as the race quickly turned into a battle managing the Pirelli tyres.  After the race Michael Schumacher, who came tenth after starting on the penultimate row of the grid launched a scatching attack at the Italian manufacturer.  He said to BBC Sport; “The main thing I feel unhappy about is everyone has to drive well below a driver’s, and in particular, the car’s limits to maintain the tyres.  I just question whether the tyres should play such a big importance, or whether they should last a bit longer, and that you can drive at normal racing car speed and not cruise around like we have a safety car.”  Pirelli boss Paul Hembrey defended his company, telling Autosport magazine tonight; “I’m disappointed to hear those comments from someone of Michael’s experience.  Others were getting on with the job and getting their tyres to work.  His comments during winter testing were that he was very happy with the tyres, and now he seems to have changed his tune.”

Alonso was less than impressed with Rosberg's driving today, taking to Twitter to voice his anger (Sky Sports)

On lap nine, Hamilton had fallen into the clutches of Webber and both pitted for fresh rubber.  For the second successive race, a troublesome wheel rim affected the race of a McLaren driver and a frustrated Lewis was left shaking his head as he was held for 12 seconds.  He slipped behind Webber, Button and Fernando Alonso and when he returned to the track, he had a near-miss with Rosberg following a vicious defensive move by the Mercedes driver.  Hamilton had to use extra concrete to miss his rival and actually got past.  The race stewards with driver reprsentative Emanuele Pirro, investigated the incident after the race but took no further action.  Rosberg was later involved in a similar and more dangerous incident with Alonso, which left the Spaniard driver furious, using the team radio to channel his frustrations.  Again, Rosberg was cleared of any wrongdoing.  Tonight, Alonso sarcastically put this on his Twitter webpage; “I think you are going to have fun in future races!  You can defend position as you want and you can overtake outside the track!  Enjoy!”

Vettel briefly handed the lead to two stopping Paul di Resta when he pitted, but quickly overtook the Scot on lap 13 to reassume control.  On the same lap, Raikkonen powered past Webber into turn 11 and started closing in on Grosjean, who was falling back into his team-mate’s grasp.  Raikkonen got past on lap 22 with consummate ease and through the second stops, was on a mission.  Vettel’s six second gap evaporated and by lap 35, the pair were together with the Lotus looking fundamentally faster.  Meanwhile, another horrific pitstop for Hamilton pushed him behind Massa and out of the points positions by half-distance.  Pastor Maldonado retired when the Williams suffered a tyre failure and spun exiting turn three.  He crawled back to the pits and retirement with shattered rear suspension.

Raikkonen had one brief opportunity to pass Vettel, but was blocked resolutely by the champion.  Both came in together on lap 40 and a quicker Red Bull pitstop enabled the German to build up a three second lead.  Aware of the tyre issues that saw his alarming fallback through the field in China last Sunday, Raikkonen and Lotus applied a more cautious approach to the chequered flag and bag the useful points on offer.

Whilst Hamilton spent a frustrating afternoon chasing the Ferrari’s, Button had a lonely race circulating between fifth and seventh places.  He was catching di Resta when he made a sudden pitstop with four laps to go.  The 2009 winner in Bahrain had detected a left-rear puncture.  He slid out of contention into 13th and a broken exhuast a lap later saw him retire in the garage.  Bruno Senna retired late on too with mechanical gremlins to compound a miserable day for Williams with a double retirement.

Vettel was able to cruise across the line to take the victory, although he was instructed by his race engineer Rocky to stop on the pitlane exit, presuminably with minimal fuel levels.  It meant we were denied the ‘that’s what’s I’m talking about,’ message on the team radio.  Raikkonen was a fantastic and committed second and considering he started 11th, this underlined severe underperformance in qualifying.  Grosjean’s third place is the first podium for a French driver in F1 since Jean Alesi at Spa in 1998.  The way he is driving at the moment, it won’t be the last in 2012.  Webber cemented his consistent approach to record fourth for the fourth successive start.  After a terrible first lap that saw him slip to ninth, Rosberg battled back aggressively to fifth.  Paul di Resta held off Alonso and Hamilton in the closing laps to match his best ever result in F1 with sixth.  Massa achieved his first points of the season, despite breaking down on the slowing down lap back to the pits and Button’s late demise enabled Schumacher into the points.  Sergio Perez missed out in 11th, whilst Daniel Ricciardo’s chances of a great result were ruined by a shambolic start, then contact with Heikki Kovalainen on the first lap that left the Australian with a damaged front wing.

The four flyaway races are complete and only ten points cover the top five in the drivers championship.  Six different teams have already stood on the podium and we have four different winners in the first four races for the first time since 2003.  Formula One 2012 is proving to be a very unpredictable and challenging season to even guess, let alone predict.  Luckily the racing did the talking today and Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Todt can breath a huge sigh of relief tonight that there was no significant trouble in the unstable area today.

There is a test at the Italian circuit Mugello next week, before the start of the European season at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona on May 13.  It is advantage Red Bull and Vettel after Bahrain, but 2012 has plenty more twists and turns in store to come.

2012 GULF AIR BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX RACE RESULT

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS TIME/DNF REASON
1 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 57 1hr 35min 10secs
2 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 57 +3.3secs
3 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 57 +10.1secs
4 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 57 +38.7secs
5 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 57 +55.4secs
6 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 57 +57.5secs
7 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 57 +57.8secs
8 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 57 +58.9secs
9 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 57 +1min 04.9secs
10 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 57 +1min 11.4secs
11 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 57 +1min 12.7secs
12 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 57 +1min 16.5secs
13 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 57 +1min 30.3secs
14 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE TORO ROSSO FERRARI 57 +1min 33.7secs
15 DANIEL RICCIARDO TORO ROSSO FERRARI 56 1 LAP
16 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 56 1 LAP
17 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 56 1 LAP
18 (Ret) JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 55 BROKEN EXHAUST
19 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 55 2 LAPS
20 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 55 2 LAPS
21 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 55 2 LAPS
22 (Ret) BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 54 TECHNICAL
Retired PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 25 PUNCTURE
Retired CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 24 ENGINE

2012 FIA FORMULA ONE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP DRIVER STANDINGS AFTER FOUR RACES

  DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 SEBASTIAN VETTEL (RED BULL) 53
2 LEWIS HAMILTON (MCLAREN) 49
3 MARK WEBBER (RED BULL) 48
4 JENSON BUTTON (MCLAREN) 43
5 FERNANDO ALONSO (FERRARI) 43
6 NICO ROSBERG (MERCEDES GP) 35
7 KIMI RAIKKONEN (LOTUS) 34
8 ROMAIN GROSJEAN (LOTUS) 23
9 SERGIO PEREZ (SAUBER) 22
10 PAUL DI RESTA (FORCE INDIA) 15
11 BRUNO SENNA (WILLIAMS) 14
12 KAMUI KOBAYASHI (SAUBER) 9
13 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE (TORO ROSSO) 4
14 PASTOR MALDONADO (WILLIAMS) 4
15 DANIEL RICCIARDO (TORO ROSSO) 2
16 NICO HULKENBERG (FORCE INDIA) 2
17 FELIPE MASSA (FERRARI) 2
18 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER (MERCEDES GP) 2

2012 FIA FORMULA ONE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP CONSTRUCTOR STANDINGS AFTER FOUR RACES

 

  CONSTRUCTORS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 RED BULL RACING RENAULT 101
2 MCLAREN MERCEDES 92
3 LOTUS RENAULT 57
4 FERRARI 45
5 MERCEDES GP 35
6 SAUBER FERRARI 31
7 WILLIAMS RENAULT 18
8 FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 17
9 SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO FERRARI 6


History of the Chinese Grand Prix

SHANGHAI hosts the third round of the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship.  The Chinese event has now been a fixture on the Grand Prix calendar since 2004.  Although it has struggled to maintain a decent attendance from the Chinese locals, the circuit is enjoyed by the drivers and with the various mix in weather conditions, the event has thrown up many special races.

The inagural event in September 2004 was won by the Ferrari of Rubens Barrichello.  It was a popular win for Rubens, on a weekend where Michael Schumacher had one of his worst weekends ever at Ferrari.  Schumacher had a technical problem on Friday, spun off into the gravel in single lap qualifying and in the race, had a clash with Christian Klien, another spin and a puncture.  Schumacher finished a lap down and back in 12th place.  Jenson Button made a two stop strategy work to finish a close second for BAR Honda whilst Kimi Raikkonen completed the first ever podium at the Chinese Grand Prix.

2005 was the season finale and there was a close battle for supremacy between Renault and McLaren Mercedes for the constructors championship.  Renault carried a two point advantage and thanks to more powerful engines, dominanted the weekend.  Fernando Alonso coasted to his seventh win of the season in which he became the man to knock Schumacher off his perch.  McLaren’s cause to win the teams battle wasn’t helped, when Juan Pablo Montoya hit a loose drain gully, which wrecked his front suspension.  Raikkonen’s second place wasn’t enough for the Woking team whilst a pitlane infringement by Giancarlo Fisichella in the sister Renault handed Ralf Schumacher a surprising podium for Toyota.  Narain Karthikeyan spectacularly crashed out in the last event to witness a Jordan Grand Prix entry and Schumacher Snr had another mere in China.  He unbelievably crashed into Christjian Albers on the way to the grid and then spun off behind the Safety Car.  A year later, he conquered those demons.

On a wet and windy weekend in 2006, the teams running Michelin tyres had a significant advantage.  All of the Bridgestone shod users like Williams and Toyota struggled with the conditions.  Schumacher wrestled his Ferrari around to sixth on the grid, then put an immense drive on Sunday.  He was helped by a technical retirement for Raikkonen and some poor tyre strategy from Renault which meant early leader Alonso lost a comfortable 15 second lead.  The team decided to use Fisichella in an attempt to win the race, but he couldn’t hold back Schumacher’s relentless charge.  The German won his 91st race in Formula One and it was one of his most unlikest successes.  The delight he showed in parc ferme afterwards summed up his delight.  As we stand now, this is his last win and last podium in the sport.

Tyres played a crucial role in 2007 too.  Lewis Hamilton arrived with the possibility of winning the title in his stunning maiden season.  He was 12 points clear of team-mate Alonso and 17 ahead of Raikkonen, now driving for Ferrari.  He took a brilliant pole position and drove away effortlessly from the field in the opening laps.  When the first pitstops arrived, McLaren elected to keep him on worn rubber.  Raikkonen closed him down and passed him comfortably.  Rather than back off and save his worn rubber, Hamilton attempted to keep pushing and the team were very reluctant to bring him in, hoping for another rain shower.  It didn’t come and when he did pit, the tyres gave up their final bit of grip.  Lewis agonisingly slid into the gravel trap and got beached.  His race ended and with Raikkonen winning from Alonso, the championship shootout went all the way to Brazil.  There was also a noticeable drive to fourth place in the unfancied Toro Rosso from a certain S. Vettel!

After the nightmare of 2007, Hamilton arrived for the penultimate event of 2008 under pressure.  This followed a diabolical drive at Fuji seven days earlier.  He was receiving stinging criticism from his rivals, with Alonso and Robert Kubica very outspoken about his aggressive approach.  Hamilton did his talking on the track and produced a disiplined drive to an easy victory.  In a race that lacked excitement, Ferrari had to play the team orders game with Raikkonen to allow Felipe Massa two extra points for second place.  Kubica’s outside championship hopes ended when he was knocked out in Q2 and struggled to sixth place for BMW Sauber.

From 2009 onwards, the Chinese Grand Prix has moved from a season ending race to one of the early flyaways.  Torrential rain in 2009 halted the Brawn GP march towards both championships.  Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello finished third and fourth, but couldn’t match the ultimate speed from Red Bull Racing.  Despite a driveshaft issue in qualifying, Sebastian Vettel took pole position and controlled the race with supreme composure, on a day when many of his rivals were sliding off the road for fun.  He took Red Bull’s first ever Grand Prix victory and Mark Webber followed him home in second place.  It was the start of things to come for the Milton Keynes empire.

Red Bull had a bad day in China 2010 though, trailing in a distant sixth and eigth thanks to some awful pitstops.  Button got it right on the day in changeable conditions, to lead new team-mate Hamilton home for a McLaren 1-2.  It was Button’s second win in four events for his new team and cemented his move from Brawn GP over the winter.  Nico Rosberg produced a strong race to finish third and Alonso recovered from a blatant jump-start to record fourth for Ferrari.  His fightback included a bold overtake in the pitlane entry on his team-mate Massa.

Seven different winners in seven years, but the run ended last year.  Hamilton produced a metoric display to pass Vettel with four laps to go and record a brilliant victory.  This was despite an engine issue nearly prevented him the chance to start the race.  The 2011 race has gone down as one of the all-time classics ever in history.  A fuel consumption issue blew Rosberg’s chances of a shock victory and he wound up a frustrated fifth.  Poor strategy decisions from Ferrari cost Massa a deserved podium and left him trailing in sixth, but nearly half a minute clear of Alonso.  Button made a meal of his first pitstop, by stopping in the wrong pitbox!  He finished fourth, overwhelmed in the dying stages by the incredible Mark Webber.  The Aussie finished third having started a miserable 18th on the grid.

2011 provided passing galore thanks to DRS and the Pirelli tyres.  Throw in the unpredictable weather elements and I’m sure we will be in for another Shanghai stunner at the weekend.

Lewis sets the standard in Sepang Practice

Hamilton looks the man to beat on practice form in Sepang (FoxSports)

LEWIS Hamilton set the standard in practice for Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix.  The McLaren driver looked comfortable on the Sepang layout throughout the day and ending up topping the timesheets today in both sessions.  In the morning session, he lapped a full half a second faster than world champion Sebastian Vettel in very humid conditions.  A few hours later, Michael Schumacher was the Brit’s closest challenger, but still 0.4secs slower.  Although thunderstorms are forecasted for the rest of the weekend, Hamilton will start tomorrow’s qualifying session as an overwhelming favourite for pole position.

Having looked decidedly unhappy with his podium in Albert Park last Sunday, there were questions being raised about Hamilton’s attitude.  However, he came across as a happier individual in the paddock today and looks in formidable form.  Team-mate Jenson Button was playing down the pace of the car today, admitting to BBC Sport that this year’s regulations are making the circuit configuration harder for everyone. “It is always tricky around here.  Compared to last race, there is far less grip around here.  It’s working ok, but compared to last year, the new regulations make it far more difficult around here.”

Mercedes GP were McLaren’s closest rivals today, with Schumacher and Nico Rosberg featuring prominently in the top four in both sessions.  Vettel, who expressed that the balance was not perfect over the team radio in the second session wound up a slightly frustrated tenth.  He is normally cool, but even the young German seemed to be feeling the heat of Kuala Lumpur after his struggles this afternoon.

There was plenty of drivers who made use of the wide asphalt areas, although only Narain Karthikeyan stopped out on track today and that was after only eight laps in the first session thanks to a hydraulic glitch on the struggling HRT.  The one driver who suffered the most was Paul di Resta, who went off the road twice.  His first execursion was caused by a brake duct issue, which punctured one of his front tyres.  The second mistake was down to driver error, although the Scot did keep the car out of the barriers.

Ferrari have brought a new chassis to this event for Felipe Massa, although the Brazilian made no impact on the times.  Team-mate Fernando Alonso experimented with a new front wing in second practice and finished a solid sixth, after finishing up behind Massa in session one.  There was a new driver in the car today, as GP3 champion Valterri Bottas took over from Bruno Senna this morning for Williams.  The youngster accredited himself well, outpacing Pastor Maldonado before handing back driving duties to Senna this afternoon.

There was a blow for Kimi Raikkonen, when his gearbox which had been damaged by some off-roading in Australia overheated in the sweltering conditions.  He will lose five grid positions for the race by getting a new gearbox.  Raikkonen told Sky Sports F1; “It was a frustrating day.  We struggled to get a good set-up and it felt quite slippery.  Hopefully it will be better tomorrow.”  Fellow Finn Heikki Kovalainen will get a five place drop too following a Safety Car infringement in Melbourne.

Raikkonen also mentioned about high levels of tyre degradation and the boss of Pirelli, Paul Hembrey has admitted that three stops are likely for most drivers on raceday.  So, Mercedes GP look like a contender for top grid positions, Red Bull have work to do and McLaren certainly seem to be the leading force again.  Weather permitting, Hamilton has to be confident for his chances tomorrow.

MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE 1 TIMES

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 19 1.38.021
2 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 21 1.38.535
3 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 21 1.38.813
4 MICHAEL SCUMACHER MERCEDES GP 19 1.38.826
5 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 17 1.38.919
6 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 20 1.39.092
7 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 22 1.39.128
8 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 23 1.39.298
9 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 15 1.39.323
10 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 19 1.39.440
11 VALTERRI BOTTAS WILLIAMS RENAULT 23 1.39.724
12 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 23 1.39.783
13 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 16 1.39.896
14 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 21 1.39.910
15 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 23 1.39.980
16 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 23 1.40.099
17 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 19 1.40.247
18 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 23 1.40.469
19 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 25 1.40.857
20 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 23 1.41.085
21 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 18 1.43.170
22 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 14 1.44.580
23 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 8 1.45.360
24 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 18 1.45.528

MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE 2 TIMES

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 28 1.38.172
2 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 34 1.38.533
3 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 30 1.38.535
4 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 34 1.38.696
5 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 33 1.38.853
6 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 27 1.38.891
7 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 29 1.39.133
8 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 33 1.39.297
9 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 22 1.39.311
10 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 25 1.39.402
11 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 35 1.39.444
12 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 26 1.39.464
13 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 20 1.39.625
14 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 16 1.39.687
15 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 29 1.39.696
16 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 28 1.40.271
17 BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 34 1.40.678
18 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 33 1.40.947
19 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 25 1.41.464
20 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 20 1.41.681
21 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 18 1.42.594
22 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 24 1.42.874
23 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 18 1.43.658
24 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 22 1.43.823

Talking Point: Will a new chassis save Massa from the sack?

IT MIGHT only be the second round of the championship this weekend in Malaysia but already, Felipe Massa is under a pile of huge pressure to deliver.  The Brazilian’s shambolic performance in last week’s season opener in Melbourne has left his future prospects of staying with Ferrari hanging even more by a thread.  On Tuesday, the Italian team announced that a new chassis will be flown to Kuala Lumpur, but is that enough to save the charming Ferrari no.2 from the sack.

From the moment Felipe spun off in the opening practice session, his fate in Albert Park of a mediocre performance was sealed.  He never looked comfortable with the F2012, which it has to be said, is proving to be a real handful anyways.  Qualifying saw him a distant 16th, four places behind Fernando Alonso.  That was despite Alonso spinning out early on in Q2.  Although he made an excellent start which saw him upto tenth, Massa quickly fell away from the leading group and spent the majority of the afternoon battling a poor chassis, high tyre wear and probably, his demons on a mental basis.

Massa struggled to hold off the Sauber cars in Melbourne on Sunday (Autoweek)

He was overwhelmed by the likes of Kimi Raikkonen and Kamui Kobayashi and the race ended with an unsavoury tangle involving the Williams of Bruno Senna.  When you consider Alonso saved fifth place for the team and was lapping 2-3 seconds a lap quicker on a regular basis, it highlights Massa’s nightmare Down Under.  I described his driving performance as akin to a pig on rollerskates!  It is a sad and sorry decline for one of F1’s nice guys.  Team principal Stefano Domenicalli is still backing his driver though, telling JAonF1; “We need to stay close to Felipe because it’s clear that he’s under pressure.  I’ve asked his engineers to analyse the data on the car, also to reassure him.”  It means that there can be no excuses this weekend.

Mentally, Massa is driving like Damon Hill did in his final, troubled season in the sport in 1999.  The former golden boy of Ferrari has been cast adrift by Alonso’s arrival and moulding the team around the Spaniard’s comforts.  The days of Felipe outpacing Raikkonen in their three years together are a distant memory.  Has he ever recovered from the radio message below (using clever F1 2010 graphics) whilst leading the German Grand Prix by merit in 2010;

I don’t think he has and Shanghai aside last season, I don’t think he has driven as well as he did that day at Hockenheim.  Immediately afterwards, he said he would walkaway from F1 if he was a no.2, having experienced a similar order at Sauber in his debut season, ironically at the same circuit.

Now I don’t know what Felipe Massa thinks about, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a mental note saying ‘it is wrong to beat Alonso.’  It is frustrating, as he can match the best on his day.  Since Hockenheim 2010, it has led to those basic errors that littered his first season in 2002 reappearing far too regularly.  Don’t forget his attempt to pass cars on the grass on the approach to turn one of the 2010 Japanese Grand Prix?  Of course, his high profile incidents with Lewis Hamilton last year have been well documented.

Then, there’s the factor of the crash during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix when Massa was knocked out by a loose spring that had bounced down the road off Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car.  He might have scars for the incident, but big knocks can affect a driver.  Ralf Schumacher had a similar experience after a testing shunt in 2003 and he never recovered from this shunt, while it took Mika Hakkinen the best part of 18 months to fully recover from his near fatal accident at Adelaide in 1995.  Only Massa will know how much the Budapest shunt has affected him.

I do hope that the driver who came within seconds of the 2008 world championship does find some of his old form again.  The bare facts are he hasn’t scored a podium since Korea 2010, the longest run a Maranello driver has gone without a podium since Eddie Irvine, 17 races between (1996-1997).  We will see whether a new chassis is the solution to Massa’s problems.  However, more races like Melbourne and Felipe will be lucky to see the season out, let alone hope for a contract extension.

Hamilton and McLaren lead the way in Melbourne Qualifying

IT IS A British lockout of the front row of the grid for tomorrow’s opening race of the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship.  Lewis Hamilton took his 20th career pole position for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, just edging out double Albert Park winner Jenson Button in Melbourne.  On a day full of shocks, the British team took the first two positions on the grid for the first time since the 2009 European Grand Prix.

Having set the fastest time in FP3, Hamilton and McLaren came into the acid test of the one hour qualifying session looking like the driver/team combination to beat.  However there were plenty of surprises along the way.  Kamui Kobayashi was the fastest driver in Q1 and Red Bull looked very beatable on a Saturday.  World champion Sebastian Vettel spun off this morning and was working the steering wheel of his RB8 far more than he ever did with its predecssor.  The big casualty of Q1 was Kimi Raikkonen.  The returning champion made a mistake on his best lap, then an error with timing saw his Lotus drop out of the running, continuing the Finn’s messy return.  As anticipated, both Caterham drivers and the untested Marussia cars failed to make the cut too.  Neither HRT of Narain Karthikeyan or Pedro de la Rosa made the 107% rule and for the second year running, the team has been refused permission to start the season in Australia.  Again, Hispania are a case of lost time, lack of ability and a total waste of garage space!

The plight of Ferrari had been very evident in winter testing, but even the Scuderia can’t have predicted the nightmare they were to have in qualifying.  Felipe Massa only just made it out of Q1, but barely featured in the second session and when he did, he looked more like trying to keep the car pointing in the right direction rather than going quickly.  As ever, Fernando Alonso looked to be getting more out of his car.  His chances of making the top ten ended with a rare mistake from the double world champion, as he copied Massa’s error in Friday free practice by dropping two wheels onto the grass.  Same result was produced as even the Spaniard’s class couldn’t save him from being beached in the gravel, although it was at turn one, not turn nine where Massa spun off yesterday.  He starts 12th and Massa 16th; Ferrari’s worst combined qualifying since Raikkonen and Giancarlo Fisichella lined up 11th and 19th for the 2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.  The car looks slow, unreliable, monstrously ugly and is struggling to stay in a straight line!  They aren’t far away from crisis point.

Hamilton looks the man to beat in Melbourne (Planet F1)

Into the final qualifying session and Hamilton set a blistering lap of 1.24.922.  No-one initially came close, although Button went only a tenth slower on his second run.  Critically, Hamilton abandoned his second run when notified that the pole was his.  Strangely, Red Bull didn’t get their act together.  An off-colour Vettel begins sixth, behind Mark Webber.  The Australian told Planet F1 afterwards; “I don’t know what happened to Seb on his last lap, it looks like he made a mistake. I didn’t have KERS either but I’m satisfied with the job I did.”  Michael Schumacher was an excellent fourth for Mercedes GP, three places better than a scrappy Nico Rosberg.  This allowed the Frenchman Romain Grosjean to end up a sensational third on his return to the sport for Lotus.  Solid efforts from Pastor Maldonado, Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo saw them complete the top ten in eighth, ninth and tenth respectively.

The last time Lewis Hamilton started from pole at the Australian Grand Prix was in 2008.  He won the race and ended up taking the title too.  A good omen perhaps?  In the press conference, he said; “I think it is going to be incredibly tough and intense through the race.  Obviously looking after the tyres is going to be key.  The team need to be prepared tomorrow, as do me and Jenson and I’ll make sure we are.”  Well, McLaren not only have the prettiest car in 2012, but for now at least – look to have the fastest too.  Tomorrow’s race looks set to be a real cracker.

AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX QUALIFYING – THE GRID (All times are fastest in Q3)

1. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes) 1.24.922

2. Jenson Button (McLaren Mercedes) 1.25.074

3. Romain Grosjean (Lotus Renault) 1.25.302

4. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes GP) 1.25.336

5. Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.25.651

6. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.25.668

7. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes GP) 1.25.686

8. Pastor Maldonado (Williams Renault) 1.25.908

9. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes) 1.26.451

10. Daniel Ricciardo (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) NO TIME

11. Jean-Eric Vergne (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari)

12. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)

13. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber Ferrari)

14. Bruno Senna (Williams Renault)

15. Paul di Resta (Force India Mercedes)

16. Felipe Massa (Ferrari)

17. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus Renault)

18. Heikki Kovalainen (Caterham Renault)

19. Vitaly Petrov (Caterham Renault)

20. Timo Glock (Marussia Cosworth)

21. Charles Pic (Marussia Cosworth)

22. Sergio Perez (Sauber Ferrari) – PEREZ RELEGATED FIVE PLACES DUE TO A GEARBOX CHANGE

DNQ: Pedro de la Rosa (HRT Cosworth)

DNQ: Narain Karthikeyan (HRT Cosworth)

Lotus and Kimi end on a high

Raikkonen and Lotus set the benchmark again in Spain (BBC Sport)

THE countdown to the Australian Grand Prix is now well and truly on as pre-season testing concluded this afternoon in Barcelona.  Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus ended on a high, finishing fastest and confirming the Enstone team’s threatening pace.  In this test, the team have ended up top of the timesheets at the end of three of the four days of running at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Whilst Raikkonen was overcoming his problems that affected his running yesterday, it was the turn of world champion Sebastian Vettel to have a nightmare.  Vettel could only do 23 laps and made little running on the final leaderboard, actually ending slowest.  This morning, a trip into the gravel broke the new front wing that Red Bull brought to Spain yesterday.  This afternoon, gearbox malfunctions left the German cutting a forlorn figure in the garage.  Maybe the double world champions have a bit of fallibility?  However, anyone who thinks Vettel will be slowest driver in Albert Park will need their brain to be severely tested!

RBR will be hoping it was just one bad day, but Ferrari have had frankly, a disastrous winter testing season.  Fernando Alonso may have ended up second fastest today, but technical director Pat Fry has admitted the team have “little chance of finishing on the podium in Melbourne.”  Bad vibes have been coming out of Maranello throughout the winter.  Others were in trouble today too, with Sauber packing up early due to an engine failure for Kamui Kobayashi, whilst Caterham’s Vitaly Petrov brought out the red flags after more reliability problems in the final hour of the day.

Testing always is a difficult guide to read, with different set-ups, simulations and tyre compounds to contend with.  However, it looks like McLaren and Mercedes GP have excellent race simulation and good reliability, Force India look consistent, Lotus have superb one-lap speed and durable simulation and Red Bull look as formidable as ever, but might have some questions over reliability.  Ferrari definitely have work to do, as do Caterham and certainly Marussia and HRT, the latter two not showing up to any test with their 2012 cars.

The countdown is on….

DAY 4 MELBOURNE TESTING TIMES

1. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus Renault) 1.22.030 – 121 laps

2. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1.22.250 – 115 laps

3. Bruno Senna (Williams Renault) 1.22.296 – 53 laps

4. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes) 1.22.312 – 101 laps

5. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber Ferrari) 1.22.386 – 72 laps

6. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes) 1.22.430 – 115 laps

7. Vitaly Petrov (Caterham Renault) 1.22.795 – 101 laps

8. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes GP) 1.22.939 – 100 laps

9. Daniel Ricciardo (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 1.23.393 – 100 laps

10. Pastor Maldonado (Williams Renault) 1.23.430 – 48 laps

11. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.23.608 – 23 laps

 

Raikkonen the early pacesetter as F1 returns from winter hibernation

IT MIGHT have been a chilly start to proceedings, but Formula One 2012 breathed into life, as the cars took to the Jerez circuit this morning.  This is the first winter test of three before the Australian Grand Prix on March 18 and gives the drivers their first opportunity to drive the new cars, new Pirelli tyres and adapt to new technical regulations, such as the banning of blown diffusers.

Kimi Raikkonen was quickest in the early testing times (Planet F1)

This morning, it was the Lotus Renault of Kimi Raikkonen that set the pace.  The 2007 world champion, returning to the sport after two years away in rallying looked like he had lost none of his speed, with a time of 1 min 19.6 secs around the southern Spain circuit.  Lotus technical director James Allison told Planet F1 that the initial pace should be downplayed.  “The teams are doing a whole mixture of different programmes at the moment and we obviously don’t have any clear idea of what the others might be working on currently.  We will start to know where we stand as things unfold over the coming days and weeks, but it’s still very early doors and the real picture will only come together when we get to Melbourne for the first race.”

There has been some criticism about the new noses, especially the step, ‘boxer nose’ which has been developed by the likes of Ferrari and Force India to meet the regulations criteria.  McLaren are one of the only teams to go down the slope, more prettier route.  Sky Sports pit analyst Ted Kravitz admitted this morning on the channel that the beauty element has gone; “Unfortunately, they won’t look any prettier, apart from the McLaren, who seemed to have gone down a different concept.  The one that will be interesting is Red Bull, which was a strange online launch, so we only got a few pictures.  It will be interesting to see how good that looks on the track.”

Due to new components arriving from the factory in Milton Keynes, Mark Webber could only manage eight laps before lunch, but still set the fifth fastest time.  Paul di Resta was second fastest in the new Force India, 0.1 secs behind Raikkonen.  Nico Rosberg was an impressive third fastest in a modified version of last year’s Mercedes GP.  Mercedes won’t reveal their 2012 challenger until next week.  The German has handed the driving duties over to Michael Schumacher this afternoon.  McLaren and Ferrari had quiet mornings, with Jenson Button and Felipe Massa failing to trouble serious times.

All teams, excluding Mercedes are only running one driver per day.  Marussia Virgin are the only team not present at this test, with Mercedes GP and Hispania running modified models of last year’s cars.

It is very early to predict how the season or even the week will unfold, but there was certainly no sign of rustiness from the Iceman, Raikkonen this morning.

UNOFFICIAL TESTING TIMES FROM JEREZ THIS MORNING – THE TOP 7

1. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus Renault) 1.19.670 (50 LAPS)

2. Paul di Resta (Force India Mercedes) 1.19.772 (52 LAPS)

3. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes GP) 1.20.219 (56 LAPS)

4. Daniel Ricciardo (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 1.20.694 (40 LAPS)

5. Mark Webber (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.21.472 (8 LAPS)

6. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber Ferrari) 1.22.112 (29 LAPS)

7. Jenson Button (McLaren Mercedes) 1.22.316 (22 LAPS)

Kimi is back and raring to go

ON THE twisty, tight Valencia road circuit in Spain on Monday, the sound of a Formula One car roared out of the pits, as one of its most charismatic figures made his official return to the sport.  Known to enjoy a party or two and not the media intrusion from his past, Kimi Raikkonen is back!

How will the 2007 world champion go on his return? (Autoblog)

Testing a 2010 Renault, Kimi’s two day shakedown had been agreed by the teams, so the 2007 world champion could familiarise himself with the racing cockpit again.  During the test, he sat down with BBC Sport and indicated his desire to race again, saying “I want to enjoy racing against people again.”

Following his acriminous departure from Ferrari at the end of 2009, Raikkonen disappeared from the Grand Prix scene, spending two years competing for Citroen in the World Rally Championship.  His results were disappointing and although showing flashes of speed, seemed to end rallies more often in ditches and trees.  A brief stint in NASCAR last summer rekindled Raikkonen’s desire to compete at the highest level and the 32-year old hopes to be “fast straightaway.”

Michael Schumacher’s comeback in 2010 hasn’t proved to be a success and it will depend on how competitive Lotus are to see if Raikkonen’s newly-found motivation continues.  No-one can question his natural speed, nor the excitement he has shown down the years (remember going through Eau Rouge flat through engine smoke in Spa qualifying 2002), the question will remain; will he be able to commit to a project that is more likely to achieve in the longer than shorter term.

However, it is great to see Kimi Raikkonen back in the sport and I’m sure he will remind us of his talent that did take him to a world championship five years ago.  Six world champions on the grid is unique and the Raikkonen return will be one of the most compelling features within the 2012 dynamic.