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Talking Point: Is Monaco safe to race on?

THIS weekend sees the hosting of the ultimate jewel in the crown of Formula One, the Monaco Grand Prix.  The late team boss Enzo Ferrari once said that ‘winning Monaco is worth half a championship.’  It isn’t quite like that but after the unpredictable start to 2012, with five different winners in the first five races, Monaco could turn out to be a pivotal event when it comes to momentum for the rest of the championship.

Many of the greats have won around here.  The late Ayrton Senna won six times between 1987-1993 and was almost unbeatable at his peak.  2001 might have been his last success in the principality but Michael Schumacher didn’t win Monaco by accident on five separate occasions.  Graham Hill is another five time winner and the ‘Professor,’ Alain Prost triumphed four times.  Out of the current crop, Fernando Alonso, Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, Mark Webber, Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton have all won around the principality.

However with the radical advances in modern day technology, especially in the car industry – have the streets of Monaco outgrown Formula One and is it time to stop racing there for good?

Last season’s race weekend had some lucky and frightening shunts that brought the safety around Monaco argument up into the mould again.  Nico Rosberg was incredibly fortunate to escape a nasty connection with the barriers on Saturday morning last year when he crashed his Mercedes on the approach to the Nouvelle chicane.  In qualifying, Sergio Perez wasn’t so lucky and missed the race following an even worse shunt at the same corner.  Perez was concussed, bruised and admitted later on that it took him at least three races to get over the accident psychologically.  In the race, a multiple accident triggered by Adrian Sutil clattering the wall at Tabac saw Vitaly Petrov hospitalised with bruising on his ankles and caused the race to be suspended.  It was the busiest weekend for the F1 medical team since the 2001 Australian Grand Prix.

The officials have listened and made some safety changes for the 2012 event.  The barriers where Perez crashed last season have been moved back in the hope of restricting a sudden impact should a car lose control at the fastest part of the track.  Like in 2011, the use of DRS has been banned from use in the tunnel and more of the corners will have the impact-absorbing barriers that no doubt saved Perez from even more serious injury.  The tunnel area has come in for criticism as a hotspot for potential serious shunts.  Karl Wendlinger crashed in 1994 and fell into a deep coma from his injuries.  Jenson Button was concussed and missed the 2003 event following a similar shunt in practice and Alexander Wurz escaped without injury after a huge smash in the 1998 race.  However the only fatality at the Monaco Grand Prix has been Ferrari’s Lorenzo Bandini, way back in 1967.

Michael Schumacher told BBC Sport last week that the risk of racing in Monaco is justifable as it is just once a year; “For so many years we have successfully campaigned for more track safety and then we race in Monaco but in my view this is justifiable once a year – especially as the circuit is so much fun to drive.  Every time you go there, you just look forward to finally getting out and driving the track.”

I asked the opinion of some F1 fans through the Planet F1 forum about this subject;

Laura23: “Schumacher says it’s worth the risk because it’s once a year.  I’m sure all the other drivers, Petrov excluded perhaps, share the same views.  If they don’t go to Monaco because of the risk then I’m afraid F1 won’t be F1 anymore, it’ll be a nanny stated sport.  The real reason they should stop going to Monaco, if they ever do, is because it doesn’t exactly provide good racing unless it rains.”

JohnnyGuitar: “Monaco is probably safer now than it’s ever been.  The top speeds the cars hit around the circuit has been pretty similar for two or three decades probably but trackside barriers have improved and the safety of the cars themselves has increased immeasurably.  If it was safe to race there throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s – I see no reason why there should be any talk of stopping the event on the grounds of safety now.”

Lt. Drebin: “Not safe but safer than before.  Still, the possibility of a disastrous crash is enormously high in comparison with any other race track.”

j man: “Personally I love Monaco, precisely because it is a laughably unsuitable setting for an F1 race.  It presents a totally unique challenge for the drivers, provides a totally unique setting for the fans and the race’s rich history means that it should never be removed from the calendar.”

slide: “No , it seems dangerous to race there but thats the draw.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is the most prestigious event on the calendar and still king of the street circuits, despite the glamour of night racing in Singapore.  If you’d say Monaco is dangerous, what about faster tracks with average speed like Spa, Suzuka and Monza?  Fingers crossed that the weekend goes through peacefully without any serious accidents but the risk has always been there.  It isn’t a deathtrap and as far as I’m concerned, if the race in Monte Carlo disappeared ever – there wouldn’t be much point of holding a Formula One World Championship.

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Talking Point: Should Schumacher stay on?

THE elder statesman in Formula One, one of the greatest ever is going through another barren period in his failed comeback.  If some say Kenny Dalglish’s second return to the Liverpool FC dugout was unsuccessful, as he was sacked this week, what does this say about Michael Schumacher’s return.

Statistics can sometimes make viewpoints ridiculous but these facts don’t lie.  Two and a half years into his return and it reads; no wins, no pole positions, only twice in the top three in qualifying, no podiums and a series of desperate crashes which indicate that reactions are getting slower and speed is being lost.  True, form is temporary and class is permanent but Schumacher has shown evidently little in his return and after five races in 2012, he sits a dismal 18th in the championship, with three non-finishes and just two points to show for his efforts.  This is Schumacher’s worst start to a Formula One season and there will be those in the paddock will be questioning his motivation to continue.

The second Michael Schumacher certainly is a lot more relaxed than the first version and there can be no doubt that there is some enjoyment in him competing.  However he isn’t delivering the results expected and no excuses about the car in 2012 should be allowed.  The Mercedes was the class of the field in China, as shown by new race winner Nico Rosberg.  The team probably aren’t getting the full potential out of the chassis at the moment but whereas Rosberg has finished fifth and seventh in the last two events, Michael has only managed a fortunate tenth and another DNF in Barcelona last weekend.

In their previous two years at Mercedes together, it was notable that Rosberg had been comprehensively outperformed by Schumacher at the Circuit de Catalunya, with Michael achieving fourth and sixth place finishes in that time.  The tables were turned last week and his performance was simply forgettable.  He only just scraped into Q3, lagged behind Rosberg on raceday and then had a clumsy accident with Bruno Senna which ended his race after just 13 laps.

Another misjudgement from Schumacher in his failed comeback last Sunday (BBC Sport)

The incident occured entering turn one, as the Mercedes had a great run on the Brazilian’s tyre-hungry Williams.  At the braking zone, Senna moved but only slightly to the inside to protect his line.  Despite having not pitted, this was a battle for position.  Schumacher completely misjudged his braking point and smashed into him.  It was an error you’d expect to see a rookie driver make, not a seven-time world champion.  A five place grid penalty for Monaco next weekend is deserved and with Monte Carlo being so difficult to overtake on, his chances can’t be that good to improve on his points score.  What made me laugh even more was the way he called Senna an ‘idiot,’ over the radio.  Those with small memories should remember Adelaide, Jerez, Hungary 2010 when he tried to put ex-team-mate Rubens Barrichello in the pitwall.  You have to admit your mistakes or you don’t improve as a driver and these are testing times for the German, who might have produced some masterstrokes in the Ferrari days but is only tainting his own reputation and status as one of the greats.

While panic stations shouldn’t be alerted now and others like Felipe Massa could be only one race away from the sack, attention must turn to 2013 and what the Mercedes GP board do.  Schumacher’s contract expires at the end of the season and I think he has an intention to carry on.  Ross Brawn wasn’t present in Barcelona but he won’t want more performances like this from an experienced head.  Ross has got a tough decision to make, especially considering the success the pair have had at Benetton and Ferrari together.  Loyalty is a big commodity to have but how far can you go?  Rosberg has a long-term deal, is now a race winner and looks extremely settled and Mercedes will want a second driver who can deliver the goods on a regular basis.  I’m afraid Schumacher isn’t ticking this box at the moment.

Who should Mercedes go for then?  Lewis Hamilton is believed to be stalling on a new deal at McLaren, works closely with Mercedes anyways and has a great relationship with Rosberg.  There’s Paul di Resta who is producing consistent performances again at Force India and is groomed by Mercedes through his successful DTM days.  Although he has struggled initially in 2012, Nico Hulkenberg is German and would fit well into the marketplace, plus he has talent.  Jaime Alguersuari is Pirelli test driver and would bring lots of tyre knowledge to the team for next season and although there are grave uncertainties about his full fitness, a Rosberg/Robert Kubica partnership would be dynamic, considering the Pole is out of contract now following his injuries in the past couple of seasons.  There are options and Schumacher’s future looks like being an integral part of the 2013 drivers market.

I hope we see more of the best from Michael Schumacher and there have been gradual improvements, particularly in qualifying performance but there are too many troughs and issues to iron out.  He might love his racing for sure but I don’t think that is going to be enough to keep him in a drive with Mercedes GP next season, unless he starts scoring points regularly and matches what Rosberg can do.  It is time for Michael to step up and answer those doubters and Monaco is the perfect place to begin a fightback in his fortunes, both in the short and long term.

Talking Point: Driving Etiquette in Formula One

REFLECTING on Nico Rosberg’s crazy and unecessary swerves on his rivals in Bahrain, I wanted to share my opinion on the state of defensive driving in Formula One and how lucky there hasn’t been any serious accidents because of this for a while.

Schumacher's attempt failed at Jerez in 1997 (f1wolf)

There was a time in Grand Prix racing where turning into your rival early or deliberate attempts to take a competitor out of the race seemed to be okay.  Ask Michael Schumacher, who did it at Jerez in the 1997 title decider and received a very leninent penalty for the crime.  Then we had the debate about weaving excessively to keep track position in defence.  Damon Hill did this in Canada 1998, which upset Schumacher greatly afterwards.  The boundaries continue to be pushed in the element to be totally successful.

Driving etiquette in Formula One needs to be looked at because the standards in defending a position seem to be getting worse.  Any driver doesn’t want to get into a position like Jarno Trulli used to; ‘There’s a green arrow, pass me on the inside.’  However, today’s drivers need to respect their competitors more and know when track position is gone.

Rosberg’s moves on Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in Sakhir were dangerous and he didn’t get penalised.  Luckily no contact was made in either incident but they were lucky escapes.  In the first incident with Hamilton on lap 10, Rosberg dived inside the McLaren as Hamilton was exiting the pits from his first pitstop.  As Hamilton got into the slipstream, the Mercedes driver went to defend the inside and started to move across the road.  As the Brit dived out from underneath the rear wing, Rosberg squeezed him completely off the track.  Lewis had to take to the concrete asphalt to avoid Rosberg’s late direction movement and actually got infront.  He might have exceeded track limits but it was either that or have an accident.  I would have given Rosberg the benefit of the doubt, maybe give him a reprimand for this as he isn’t a regular offender in Formula One.

The second moment with Alonso was even more dangerous, as the Spaniard had to get out of the throttle to avoid being launched over the Mercedes car.  The extra speed used thanks probably to some KERS use from the Spaniard looked frightening.  Rosberg continued to move from the traditional racing line and although his direction change wasn’t quite as brutal as it was with Hamilton, he didn’t give Alonso an option and sensibly, the double champion took a safe choice and backed out of the attempted overtake on lap 25.  On this occasion, I would have added some time onto Rosberg’s finishing position, maybe 5-10 seconds as there seemed to be more of a thoughtful decision in what he was doing rather than a sudden movement or rush of blood.  It was risky and very severe, uncalled for actually.

No-one wants a repeat of Mark Webber’s terriyfing accident in Valencia 2010.  The race stewards in Bahrain had their chance to send out a message of no nonsense and this they failed to do.  Rosberg’s manoevures were not the worst ever seen in Grand Prix racing but it deserved a time penalty even if that just dropped him behind the two drivers affected in the final classifcation.  He could count himself lucky to have not been sanctioned for the incidents.

On his team radio during the race, Alonso said; “He pushed me off the track.  You have to leave a space, all the time you have to leave a space.”  Later that evening, he posted on his Twitter page when finding out Rosberg would not be punished,“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! ;)))”  It is very true but I find his reaction to this hilarious.  Pot, kettle, black spring to mind Fernando.  Weren’t you the driver who squeezed Sebastian Vettel onto the grass during the Italian Grand Prix last season?  Vettel criticised the move and rightly so, he was brave to make it stick too.

The FIA Sporting Regulations say this under Article 20.4;

“Manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are not permitted.”

Sounds like Rosberg was guilty then but no action was taken.  The defending ruling changed at the start of the season where a competitor will be penalised if they moved across the road more than once in an overtaking scenario.  This ruling was brought in after the feisty scrap between Schumacher and Hamilton at Monza last year.  Is it a ruling or just a guiding?  After last Sunday’s incidents, you can’t help but agree to some form with Fernando Alonso.

The decision was made and at the end of the day, all the drivers have pushed the regulations of driving etiquette to the brink on occasion.  Schumacher has done it all throughout his career, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton have both made questionable track movements in the past in an attempt to defend their position and even the world champion isn’t perfect.  Vettel has shown his ruthlessness at times.  Remember giving Jenson Button minimal space at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix last season.  These examples show I’m not singling out Nico Rosberg but I reckon that a precedent has to be set, starting from the annual drivers meeting before practice for the Spanish Grand Prix on May 11.   I worry that in the top line of motorsport, we have got to a point where the standard of defensive driving is getting to a very dangerous stage.  Make it hard and competitive of course but fair and responsible too.

Rosberg’s revival continues in shaky start to Sakhir weekend

Rosberg did his talking on the track today (Telegraph)

NICO Rosberg is on cloud nine following his maiden success in Shanghai last weekend and momentum is a key word in Formula One.  So the German picked up where he left off in Sakhir to end up quickest driver today in the opening two practice sessions for Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix.

As the sport is forced to deal with a very unstable environment, Rosberg and Mercedes GP did their talking on the track.  His fastest time of 1.32.816 was nearly half a second quicker than Mark Webber in the afternoon session.  Consistent pace on a long race simulation towards the end of FP2 suggests that the team’s tyre wear issues don’t seem to be such a nightmare issue as it was in the first two races.

Red Bull have gone for a standard exahust configuration setup after different variations for both Webber and Sebastian Vettel.  The Australian was marginally faster today, although the 0.3secs difference at the end of the session flattered the closeness between the pair.  Vettel was second quickest this morning and third fastest in the afternoon.  Championship leaders McLaren have never won the Bahrain Grand Prix, but will still probably be marginal favourites going into tomorrow’s important qualifying session.  Lewis Hamilton was the pacesetter this morning and content to work on race setup this afternoon, ending fourth fastest.  Team-mate Jenson Button didn’t seem as settled with the balance of his car today, but was still amongst the top six in both sessions.

Once again, Ferrari lacked the ultimate pace as Fernando Alonso managed eighth and Felipe Massa twelfth in the afternoon session.  Sauber ran excellent race simulations and both Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi ended up in the top ten.

However off-track politics continued to be the dominant landscape today.  In midweek, clashes between Bahrani police and protesters over the running of the country almost led to a tragic incident involving the Force India team.  Four of their team mechanics had petrol bombs thrown at them and two of them have flown back to the UK.  With other team members expressing concern over their safety of leaving the circuit at dusk, the team elected to pull out of the second practice session on safety grounds.  Personnel from the Sauber team also were caught up in flare ups in the Manama region last night and it is reported that Mercedes GP have requested moving to a hotel closer to the circuit to be further away from the protest.

With Amnesty International and Labour leader Ed Miliband among those today who added their voices to the demand in calling the Grand Prix off, the king of F1 Bernie Ecclestone and the Crown Prince of Bahrain had to face some akward questions from a hungry worldwide media circus.  Both have said that the race will go ahead as scheduled on Sunday, although you get the sense that the racing will disappear into obsecurity all weekend.

Mercedes GP and McLaren look set to lead the way in qualifying tomorrow again, but the region’s issues might have more severe implications as the weekend progresses.

2012 GULF AIR BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE 1

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES  11 1.33.572 
2 SEBASTIAN VETTEL  RED BULL RACING RENAULT  21  1.33.877 
3 PAUL DI RESTA  FORCE INDIA MERCEDES  26  1.34.150 
4 NICO ROSBERG  MERCEDES GP  23  1.34.249 
5 JENSON BUTTON  MCLAREN MERCEDES  14  1.34.277 
6 NICO HULKENBERG  FORCE INDIA MERCEDES  26  1.34.344 
7 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER  MERCEDES GP  17  1.34.483 
8 MARK WEBBER  RED BULL RACING RENAULT  22  1.34.552 
9 KIMI RAIKKONEN  LOTUS RENAULT  18  1.34.609 
10 ROMAIN GROSJEAN  LOTUS RENAULT  20  1.34.817 
11 SERGIO PEREZ  SAUBER FERRARI  22  1.35.024 
12 PASTOR MALDONADO  WILLIAMS RENAULT  25  1.35.268 
13 FERNANDO ALONSO  FERRARI  21  1.35.436 
14 VALTERI BOTTAS  WILLIAMS RENAULT  24  1.35.497 
15 FELIPE MASSA  FERRARI  19  1.35.719 
16 KAMUI KOBAYASHI  SAUBER FERRARI  24  1.35.929 
17 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE  TORO ROSSO FERRARI  20  1.36.195 
18 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 11  1.36.330 
19 VITALY PETROV  CATERHAM RENAULT  18  1.36.484 
20 DANIEL RICCIARDO  TORO ROSSO FERRARI  20  1.36.591 
21 CHARLES PIC  MARUSSIA COSWORTH  18  1.37.467 
22 TIMO GLOCK  MARUSSIA COSWORTH  18  1.38.006 
23 PEDRO DE LA ROSA  HRT COSWORTH  19  1.38.877 
24 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN  HRT COSWORTH  23  1.39.996 

2012 GULF AIR BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE 2

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 NICO ROSBERG  MERCEDES GP  35  1.32.816 
2 MARK WEBBER  RED BULL RACING RENAULT  26  1.33.262 
3 SEBASTIAN VETTEL  RED BULL RACING RENAULT  28  1.33.525 
4 LEWIS HAMILTON  MCLAREN MERCEDES  26  1.33.747 
5 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER  MERCEDES GP  32  1.33.862 
6 JENSON BUTTON  MCLAREN MERCEDES  28  1.34.246 
7 KAMUI KOBAYASHI  SAUBER FERRARI  34  1.34.411 
8 FERNANDO ALONSO  FERRARI  31  1.34.449 
9 ROMAIN GROSJEAN  LOTUS RENAULT  32  1.34.615 
10 SERGIO PEREZ  SAUBER FERRARI  34  1.34.893 
11 DANIEL RICCIARDO  TORO ROSSO FERRARI  29  1.34.895 
12 FELIPE MASSA  FERRARI  30  1.34.941 
13 KIMI RAIKKONEN  LOTUS RENAULT  33  1.35.183 
14 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE  TORO ROSSO FERRARI  26  1.35.229 
15 PASTOR MALDONADO  WILLIAMS RENAULT  38  1.35.459 
16 VITALY PETROV  CATERHAM RENAULT  33  1.35.913 
17 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN  CATERHAM RENAULT  35  1.35.968 
18 BRUNO SENNA  WILLIAMS RENAULT  30  1.36.169 
19 TIMO GLOCK  MARUSSIA COSWORTH  33  1.36.587 
20 CHARLES PIC  MARUSSIA COSWORTH  33  1.37.803 
21 PEDRO DE LA ROSA  HRT COSWORTH  28  1.37.812 
22 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN  HRT COSWORTH  27  1.39.649 
23 PAUL DI RESTA  FORCE INDIA MERCEDES  NO TIME 
24 NICO HULKENBERG  FORCE INDIA MERCEDES  NO TIME 

Nico joins the elite in Chinese Classic

FORMULA ONE crowned a new winner today as Nico Rosberg joined the elite of winning a Grand Prix.  He won the Chinese Grand Prix from Jenson Button by over 20 seconds to become the first new winner since Mark Webber triumphed at the Nurburgring in 2009.  Not only that, the result sees the first triumph for Mercedes GP since their return as a full manufacturer two years ago.  The last time a Silver Arrow was first past the chequered flag came at Monza in 1955, when Juan Manuel Fangio took the honours.  Rosberg’s drive was through a combination of managing his tyres in another classic on the Shanghai International Circuit and steady pace throughout the 56 laps.  Another third place for Lewis Hamilton saw the Brit claim leadership in the drivers championship for the first time in nearly two years.

The Mercedes cars lead the pack through the first few bends (formula1onlive.com)

Although there was no sign of rain spicing up the action, cooler track temperatures played right into the hands of the Mercedes team who have struggled with significant amounts of rear tyre wear on raceday in the past.  Rosberg made no mistakes from his maiden pole position yesterday and made the perfect start.  He left the rest trailing into the first corner, with team-mate Michael Schumacher keeping the chasing pack behind.  This enabled Rosberg to build an early three second cushion and let the German, starting his 110th race this weekend into an early rhythm.  Further back, Button gained two positions and Kamui Kobayashi dropped from his fantastic third on the grid into seventh by the end of the first lap.  There was minor contact between Bruno Senna and Felipe Massa whilst world champion Sebastian Vettel had a nightmare first lap and looked completely out of contention in 15th place during the early laps.

Mark Webber’s decision to pit as early as lap seven to get rid of the graining soft tyres inspired his race and gave the event added dynamic.  Drivers like Button and Hamilton pitted soon afterwards, indicating that McLaren were planning on making three tyre stops.  Other teams such as Mercedes GP and Sauber went on a two stop strategy.  There would be no benefit for Schumacher though, as he made his second early departure from three races in 2012.  The seven-times world champion made a scheduled pitstop on lap 12, but a problem on the right front wheel meant a brief delay.  The nut wasn’t tightened before the green light was given for Michael to leave the pits.  He felt the problem into turn three on his return to the track and wisely pulled off the road.  Mercedes would be fined for the unsafe release after the race.  Schumacher told Lee McKenzie from BBC Sport; “I noticed it in Turn 3 once I started to load the front right tyre.  Already by Turn 6 there was quite a bit of smoke and damage and I thought it was better to stop.”  He would be the only retirement from a dramatic afternoon.

It started as a slow burner, but the Chinese Grand Prix was about to come alive from half-distance as cars on different strategies scrambled for track position.  Those planning to make the extra pitstops were rejoining in traffic all the time. Both Hamilton and Button lost crucial time in the traffic; Hamilton enjoying a brief scrap with his old adversary Massa before making a clean pass.  Button’s strategy meant he had a brief stint in the lead.  However he never got the gap higher than the nine second mark and any lingering hope of catching Rosberg disappeared when an issue with the wheel gun on the right rear tyre led to a lengthy nine second stop during his final pit visit.  It dropped Button into the traffic and left him fighting for second.

Kimi Raikkonen was part of the scrap, as the Finn planned on only making two pitstop visits.  It didn’t work out as his tyres simply ‘fell off the cliff’ with nine laps remaining.  In one lap he was swamped by the pack and was relegated from second to tenth.  Eventually Raikkonen finished a distant 14th.  The two stop strategy plan didn’t work for the Sauber drivers or Massa but it did for the two Williams cars.  Bruno Senna finished an excellent seventh and Pastor Maldonado achieved his best ever result in Formula One with eighth.  This included the best dice of the race with Romain Grosjean.  Both survived the wheel-to-wheel entertainment and it was the Frenchman who prevailed, taking sixth place at the chequered flag for his first ever points in F1.  Following Raikkonen’s drop down the field, Vettel held a surprising second place.  World champions aren’t immune to tyre trouble though and just like last year, Sebastian couldn’t hold on against the more tyre friendly McLaren drivers.  On the penultimate lap, Webber got past around the outside to take a satisifying fourth place.

Nico Rosberg finally becomes a Grand Prix winner (Telegraph)

The day belonged to Rosberg though as he cruised across the line to take a fantastic first victory in the sport.  Button and Hamilton completed the podium positions with Webber finishing fourth for the third successive race.  After the race, Hamilton said to Planet F1; “We knew Nico would be really quick, and we knew if he got away it would be hard to catch him as it proved.  First pole and first win is always special so congratulations.”

Behind Vettel, Grosjean, Senna and Maldonado was Fernando Alonso.  Despite racing Hamilton closely during the event, the double world champion struggled passing the two stoppers with his equipment and had to settle for ninth place.  After their Malaysian success, Ferrari have been brought back to reality.  Kobayashi set the fastest lap and took the final point ahead of Malaysian hero Sergio Perez, Paul di Resta and Massa.

At long last Nico Rosberg has managed to fulfil his longstanding promise.  Sometimes in sport, good things do come to those who wait.  Next up is the Bahrain Grand Prix in seven short days time where hopefully the action on track in Sakhir will take the headlines rather than the off-track events in the country.

2012 UBS CHINESE GRAND PRIX RACE RESULT

 

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS TIME/DNF REASON
1 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 56 1hr 36min 26secs
2 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 56 +20.6secs
3 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 56 +26.0secs
4 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 56 +27.9secs
5 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 56 +30.4secs
6 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 56 +31.4secs
7 BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 56 +34.5secs
8 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 56 +35.6secs
9 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 56 +37.2secs
10 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 56 +38.7secs
11 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 56 +41.0secs
12 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 56 +42.2secs
13 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 56 +42.7secs
14 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 56 +50.0secs
15 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 56 +51.2secs
16 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 56 +51.6secs
17 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 56 +1min 03.1secs
18 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 55 1 LAP
19 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 55 1 LAP
20 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 55 1 LAP
21 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 55 1 LAP
22 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 54 2 LAPS
23 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 53 3 LAPS
Retired MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 12 LOOSE WHEEL

 

  DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 LEWIS HAMILTON (MCLAREN) 45
2 JENSON BUTTON (MCLAREN) 43
3 FERNANDO ALONSO (FERRARI) 37
4 MARK WEBBER (RED BULL) 36
5 SEBASTIAN VETTEL (RED BULL) 28
6 NICO ROSBERG (MERCEDES GP) 25
7 SERGIO PEREZ (SAUBER) 22
8 KIMI RAIKKONEN (LOTUS) 16
9 BRUNO SENNA (WILLIAMS) 14
10 KAMUI KOBAYASHI (SAUBER) 9
11 ROMAIN GROSJEAN (LOTUS) 8
12 PAUL DI RESTA (FORCE INDIA) 7
13 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE (SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO) 4
14 PASTOR MALDONADO (WILLIAMS) 4
15 DANIEL RICCIARDO (SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO) 2
16 NICO HULKENBERG (FORCE INDIA) 2
17 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER (MERCEDES GP) 1

 

  CONSTRUCTORS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 MCLAREN MERCEDES 88
2 RED BULL RACING RENAULT 64
3 FERRARI 37
4 SAUBER FERRARI 31
5 MERCEDES GP 26
6 LOTUS RENAULT 24
7 WILLIAMS RENAULT 18
8 FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 9
9 SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO FERRARI 6

 

 


Maiden pole for Rosberg in Shanghai surprise

FOR the first time since the 1955 Italian Grand Prix, Mercedes GP have locked out the front row of the grid.  That day at Monza, it was the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss who led the field.  Tomorrow the Silver Arrows will be driven by Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher.  In a breathtaking hour of action, Kamui Kobayashi completes a very surprising top three on the grid as some of the favourites struggled in cool track temperatures.

The top three in qualifying before Hamilton's gearbox change

Rosberg had struggled to get the job done in qualifying so far in 2012, but was meteoric today.  An early lap in Q3 of 1.35.121 looked like it was not going to be beaten by anyone else.  No-one came close.  Lewis Hamilton was closest challenger but a five place grid penalty for a planned gearbox change today has damaged his chances of winning tomorrow.  Michael Schumacher inherits second place to complete the Mercedes GP front row.  It is the first time that a Red Bull or McLaren driver hasn’t taken pole position since Fernando Alonso for Ferrari in the 2010 Singapore Grand Prix.

Speaking of Alonso, it was another tough day for Ferrari and five main updates on their car don’t seem to have moved the Scuderia forward.  Alonso edged into Q3 and achieved the maximum possible which was ninth place.  The current championship leader will be praying for rain tomorrow to stand any chance of staying with the frontrunners.  Felipe Massa scrambled to 12th spot, but the issues with the car are clear to see for anyone.  Kobayashi had looked strong in free practice and kept his form into qualifying, always looking on the limit.  Third is the best for a Japanese driver since the days of Takuma Sato at BAR Honda.  Kimi Raikkonen came from nowhere to record the fourth fastest time for Lotus and team-mate Romain Grosjean made Q3 again but didn’t set a time and starts tenth.

It was a lacklustre day for Jenson Button.  The 2010 winner at the Shanghai International Circuit looks to be struggling all weekend with a lack of grip from the front tyres.  Nevertheless he seemed satisfied with fifth place, directly ahead of Hamilton on the grid.  Red Bull Racing had another difficult day and there were no smiles from world champion Sebastian Vettel.  Vettel missed out on a pole position shootout in dry weather conditions for the first time since the 2008 Hungarian Grand Prix for Toro Rosso!  He starts 11th as a radical set-up backfired against his team-mate Mark Webber.  Webber managed to take sixth place on the grid.  The top ten was completed by Sergio Perez in the second Sauber.  The Mexican seemed to be on a similar strategy to his rival from Malaysia, Alonso.

On a big sporting weekend, the Chinese Grand Prix has all the making to be another nail-biter.  Today though, Nico Rosberg was the fastest across the line and it will be interesting to see whether Mercedes GP have the endurance missing from the first two events.

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 11 1.35.121
2 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 13 1.35.691
3 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 13 1.35.784
4 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 15 1.35.898
5 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 16 1.36.191
6 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 14 1.36.290
7 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 14 1.35.626
8 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 17 1.36.524
9 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 17 1.36.622
10 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 15 NO TIME
11 (Q2) SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 11 1.36.031
12 (Q2) FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 14 1.36.255
13 (Q2) PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 14 1.36.283
14 (Q2) BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 14 1.36.289
15 (Q2) PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 14 1.36.317
16 (Q2) NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 14 1.36.745
17 (Q2) DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 14 1.36.956
18 (Q1) JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 8 1.37.714
19 (Q1) HEIKKI KOVALAINEN LOTUS RENAULT 9 1.38.463
20 (Q1) VITALY PETROV LOTUS RENAULT 7 1.38.677
21 (Q1) TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 10 1.39.282
22 (Q1) CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 10 1.39.717
23 (Q1) PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 7 1.40.411
24 (Q1) NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 10 1.41.000

LEWIS HAMILTON RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR GEARBOX CHANGE

Schumacher ends fastest in quiet Shanghai opening

MICHAEL Schumacher went quickest in the second practice session on a quiet opening day for track action in China.  The German followed up a second fastest slot in the first session which was led by Lewis Hamilton.  It was a day where racing on the Shanghai International Circuit was at a premium, as matters off the track dominated the headlines.  This was because the FIA released a statement in the early hours of the morning to confirm the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead as scheduled next week (see later story tonight for further details).

The first session was punctuated by mixed conditions, with smog and drizzle meaning there was a lack of clear indication in who looks the fastest pacesetters in China.  Only in the last ten minutes did meaningful times get set; Hamilton leading the way ahead of Nico Rosberg, Schumacher and the star of Malaysia, Sergio Perez.  Hamilton’s fastest lap was a full second quicker than anyone else but he does carry a grid penalty for changing a gearbox between Malaysia and this weekend.  McLaren managing director Martin Whitmarsh confirmed to BBC Radio 5 Live this morning that Lewis was using the cracked gearbox today and the change will happen overnight.  Test drivers Jules Bianchi, Valeri Bottas and Giedo Van der Garde got minor running in for their teams as Paul di Resta, Bruno Senna and Heikki Kovalainen sat out FP1 respectively.

Schumacher set the pace after a tepid start to the action this weekend (Eurosport)

A dry second session promoted more decisive running.  The cooler track conditions mean that it will be a gamble to guess how the Pirelli tyres will handle in what is likely to be a warmer race circuit come Sunday afternoon.  There was more action in FP2, as drivers attempted to make up for the lack of running in FP1.  di Resta spun on the pit straight and Timo Glock had a late off into the barriers at the first corner, minus his Marussia Cosworth’s nosecone.  A late effort from Schumacher was enough to deny Hamilton a clean sweep of the fastest times.  World champion Sebastian Vettel was an encouraging third and Mark Webber backed up a radical Red Bull improvement with fourth.  Championship leader Fernando Alonso had a quiet day and was a meagre tenth fastest in FP2, as Ferrari were brought back to reality after their shock Sepang success.  Lotus also had a bad day, Kimi Raikkonen propped up the timesheets in FP1 after technical problems intervened.

On a day when politics ruled the sport again, Mercedes and McLaren again looked fast out of the blocks but little has been given away ahead of qualifying tomorrow morning at 7am UK time.

CHINESE GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE 1 TIMES

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 7 1.37.106
2 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 14 1.38.116
3 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 14 1.38.316
4 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 13 1.38.584
5 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 12 1.38.911
6 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 15 1.38.977
7 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 12 1.39.198
8 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 6 1.39.199
9 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 16 1.39.748
10 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 14 1.39.768
11 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 14 1.40.056
12 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 14 1.40.153
13 VALTERI BOTTAS WILLIAMS RENAULT 8 1.40.298
14 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 13 1.40.328
15 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 12 1.40.540
16 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 14 1.41.071
17 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 14 1.41.204
18 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 14 1.42.330
19 GIEDO VAN DER GARDE CATERHAM RENAULT 11 1.42.521
20 JULES BIANCHI FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 8 1.44.118
21 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 10 1.44.227
22 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 15 1.44.500
23 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 12 1.47.264
24 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 11 1.50.465

CHINESE GRAND PRIX FREE PRACTICE 2 TIMES

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 32 1.35.973
2 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 29 1.36.145
3 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 27 1.36.160
4 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 24 1.36.433
5 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 31 1.36.617
6 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 28 1.36.711
7 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 28 1.36.956
8 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 31 1.36.966
9 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 31 1.37.191
10 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 32 1.37.316
11 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 22 1.37.417
12 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 33 1.37.616
13 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 30 1.37.836
14 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 32 1.37.930
15 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 26 1.37.972
16 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 35 1.38.176
17 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 31 1.38.293
18 BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 37 1.38.783
19 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 36 1.38.990
20 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 20 1.39.346
21 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 15 1.39.651
22 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 25 1.40.343
23 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 30 1.40.753
24 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 26 1.41.125

Driver performance at the Australian Grand Prix

WELCOME to my first driver performance scoring chart of the 2012 Formula One season which covers how I thought every driver did in the 2012 Qantas Australian Grand Prix from Albert Park in Melbourne;

SEBASTIAN VETTEL

A quiet start to Sebastian’s season, but he showed his championship class on Sunday afternoon.  By his standards, he had a messy build-up to the weekend and a costly off in the last 15 minutes of FP3 left him short of track time for qualifying.  A mistake on his second lap left him down in sixth position on the grid, but he proved he could race with an aggressive start and superb early pass on Nico Rosberg.  He hunted down the McLaren’s in a car that doesn’t look perfect yet and granted, there was luck in the Safety Car getting him ahead of Lewis Hamilton.  Nevertheless, an excellent start to his season with second place and useful points to take to Malaysia.  8/10

MARK WEBBER

Fourth place is Mark Webber’s best ever result in Melbourne which shows his struggles in his home event before.  He was the stronger of the Red Bull drivers on Friday and Saturday, even battling a KERS failure in qualifying to admirably outqualify his team-mate.  A dreadful start took him out of the running for victory, recovering well to finish less than a second behind Lewis Hamilton.  7/10

JENSON BUTTON

Champagne spraying for Jenson, while Lewis preferred to taste his bubbly (McLaren.com)

Jenson Button is in such a fantastic place at the moment.  He has made McLaren his own team and a controlled performance saw him ease to victory at Albert Park for the third time in four years.  Fastest in the very first session of the season, the standard was set.  An excellent qualifying lap saw him get within 0.1secs of Hamilton’s incredible time on Saturday.  From the moment he guided his car into the lead at the first bend, there was little doubt who was going to win.  A superb and faultless beginning.  10/10

LEWIS HAMILTON

At least Hamilton looked happier after grabbing a pole position (remember his Korea reaction last October.)  However, his rueful look on the podium suggested he was unhappy about how his race went.  He called his start ‘shocking’ which was a bit harsh, considering he only had to give way to his team-mate.  McLaren stayed out fractionally longer in their first stints and Button was always going to be serviced first, thanks to track position.  The Safety Car played into Sebastian Vettel’s hands, but Hamilton couldn’t get on terms with the German in the last 15 laps.  He must take the positives from a solid 15 point opener, despite things not going his way on raceday.  8/10

FERNANDO ALONSO

Ferrari feared the worst when they arrived in Australia and qualifying really showed their weaknesses.  However, had he not spun into the gravel in Q2, Fernando Alonso would have probably still made the top ten.  His usual metoric start had him upto eighth and until half-distance, was a factor for a potential podium.  Pace on low fuel and worn tyres suggest the team is still a long way off, but in Alonso’s hands, he once again got the absolute maximum out of a car that looks well off-form.  8/10

FELIPE MASSA

How can you lap three seconds off your own team-mate in the same car?  Felipe Massa had a shocker in Australia.  Making a basic error and spinning off at turn nine in the first practice session set the tone for his horrendous showing.  Had it not been for a timing error by Lotus, he would have made an embarassing exit from Q1 with the F1 backmarkers. Although he made up six places on the first lap, he went backwards rather than forwards and looks like a driver who has admitted defeat before the season has even begun.  His exit came after a silly collision with Bruno Senna when he had lost the corner to the Williams driver.  Carry on like this and he won’t even see out the season with Ferrari, let alone getting a new contract for 2013.  2/10

NICO ROSBERG

Rosberg had a frustrating weekend in Australia (eMercedesBenz.com)

Australia 2012 was a frustrating weekend for Nico Rosberg, not captialising on Mercedes progress made in the winter.  He trailed Michael Schumacher all weekend and a scrappy qualifying session left him seventh on the grid, when third was possible.  Despite a brilliant start which saw him leap upto fourth, Rosberg struggled with chronic tyre wear.  He gamely held on against Mark Webber and Pastor Maldonado, but the Safety Car cost him positions and a clash with Sergio Perez on the last lap left him out of the points.  6/10

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER

Schumacher looks hungry and might have a car that will see him as a threat in 2012.  He was fastest in Friday’s second practice session and looked comfortable all weekend with his new chassis.  Fourth in qualifying was the best performance of his comeback on a Saturday and he held off Vettel easily until an unfortunate gearbox problem saw him make an early departure.  He was struggling with rear tyre wear too, but the pace of Alonso’s final stint indicated that fifth place was a likely finish.  Despite no points, plenty of encouragement for the seven-time world champion.  7/10

KIMI RAIKKONEN

The ‘iceman’ returned to F1 and his humorous team radio comment about blue flags suggested the hunger is back.  Raikkonen’s weekend started badly with a power steering problem compromising his practice sessions on Friday.  A mistake on his best lap and timing errors from Lotus meant Kimi was a surprising casualty in Q1 but he raced well.  He will have taken great satisfaction in passing his former team-mate Felipe Massa and his overtake on Kamui Kobayashi in turn four was quality.  Frustrated with seventh but it was a strong comeback.  7/10

ROMAIN GROSJEAN

Having looked all at sea on Friday, Romain Grosjean stunned the paddock with a magnificent performance in Saturday qualifying to line-up a magnificent third on the grid.  His race was very brief and with a bit more experience, probably should have backed out when he lost position to Pastor Maldonado on the second lap.  However, the contact was slight, so the Frenchman was unlucky to have suffered broken front suspension.  He will learn from this and come back better for the experience.  7/10

PAUL DI RESTA

Second season syndrome for the Scot perhaps as di Resta was outshone by Nico Hulkenberg all weekend.  Nevertheless, he kept battling away in a car that didn’t have the pace that testing had predicted and he showed his guile from year one to pull off a pass on Jean-Eric Vergne in the last corner and steal the final championship point of the afternoon.  6/10

NICO HULKENBERG

Hulkenberg looked composed on Friday to come second fastest in changeable conditions during afternoon practice.  He qualified a solid ninth and made a great start too.  Unfortunately, a knock from Mark Webber in the first corner melee damaged his steering and meant its two visits to Melbourne and no laps completed in either race.  6/10

KAMUI KOBAYASHI

Having gone fastest in Q1, Kamui Kobayashi underperformed in the second qualifying session and lined up an unlucky 13th.  He had a great dice with Kimi Raikkonen in the race and despite being passed brilliantly by the Finn on lap 24, overtook him again after the Safety Car period.  Benefited from Maldonado’s late crash to finish an unexpected sixth. 7/10

SERGIO PEREZ

A gearbox failure detected after his first run in qualifying left Sergio Perez at the back of the grid.  He tried a risky one-stop strategy, which unlike 2011, won’t have worked had the Safety Car not intervened.  He was seventh on the last lap, but a touch with Rosberg left his car wounded in the final few corners, leaving him powerless to defend against Kobayashi and Raikkonen.  Considering all that, eighth place completed a strong start to the campaign for the Sauber team.  6/10

DANIEL RICCIARDO

Home nerves didn’t get to Daniel Ricciardo, who fought back well after a tricky beginning.  Having qualified in the top ten, an iffy start left him part of a midfield melee and contact with Bruno Senna in the first corner left him needing to stop for repairs.  Like Perez, the Safety Car brought back onto the tail of the midfield group, but he pulled off an aggressive pass on his team-mate to finish a creditable ninth and take round one in the Toro Rosso battle.  7/10

JEAN-ERIC VERGNE

There were rookie mistakes, but the Frenchman equipped himself pretty well on his debut.  He only narrowly missed out on Q3 and despite two trips into the gravel during the race, might have taken a point.  Only denied by a more experienced Ricciardo and di Resta pipping him in the last lap midfield frenzy.  Still, plenty of potential here.  6/10

BRUNO SENNA

The Senna name is back at Williams, but Bruno had a tough time in Australia.  He was a distant 14th in qualifying and got clobbered by Ricciardo on the first corner, leaving him with a puncture.  Didn’t see a lot of him after that before another racing incident, this time with countryman Massa, left him with another puncture.  Ultimately, suspension damage put paid to his chances of registering a finish.  5/10

PASTOR MALDONADO

If only for another half a lap!  Pastor Maldonado was my surprise package of the weekend.  The Venezuelan seems to excel on street circuits and he looked set for sixth place when he clobbered the wall hard on the last lap.  Eighth place in qualifying, a lovely pass on Romain Grosjean early on and he kept up with the likes of Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso with consummate ease.  If he cuts out the basic errors, Maldonado could well cash in on a far better Williams later in the season.  8/10

HEIKKI KOVALAINEN

Less than 0.7secs behind Kimi Raikkonen in qualifying proves that Caterham have made progress over the winter.  The trouble is, everyone else has too.  Heikki Kovalainen was delayed in the first corner and ran behind his team-mate Vitaly Petrov until an unspecified technical problem forced his retirement.  An unseen infringement behind the Safety Car costs him a five place grid penalty for this weekend’s race in Kuala Lumpur.  5/10

VITALY PETROV

The star of last year’s race – Vitaly Petrov’s debut for Caterham will be one he will want to forget.  Although he ran ahead of Kovalainen in the race, it was a steering problem that ended his day early and caused the deployment of the Safety Car.  At least it added to the mixture in the closing stages.  5/10

TIMO GLOCK

Timo Glock battled well against the odds all weekend.  He kept his head down and finished the race in 14th, only a lap adrift on his birthday.  He got good mileage for Marussia and leaves the team with a shade of encouragement after a miserable pre-season.  6/10

CHARLES PIC  

Charles Pic didn’t quite get to the end of the race, as high oil pressure saw him park up in the pits with five laps to go.  Like Glock, the race was only going to be an extended test session, so 53 laps extra under his belt will no doubt help for future challenges.  5/10

As they didn’t qualify, I will not be rating the Hispania drivers this weekend.

On the first weekend back, plenty of excellent performances, some will be frustrated will how it went and others will seriously need to raise their game very quickly, starting in Malaysia this weekend.

Brilliant Button takes the honours in Oz

2012 QANTAS AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX RACE REPORT

Button made a winning start to 2012 (BBC Sport)

JENSON Button made the dream start to the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship this morning.  The Brit took his third Australian Grand Prix victory in Melbourne, leading from the start in a dramatic season opener.  The 32-year old Brit started on the front row of the grid, but took full advantage of a wheelspinning start from team-mate Lewis Hamilton to lead into turn one and control proceedings in Albert Park from there.  World champion Sebastian Vettel used a Safety Car period to leap into a fortunate second place, ahead of a rueful Hamilton, who looked disappointed with his final result of third.

Hamilton may have started on pole position, but conceded his Saturday advantage in an instant when he made a poor start.  Button drew alongside his team-mate and even shifted into second gear earlier than he should have, which nearly threw away his early advantage.  Michael Schumacher made an excellent start to move into third place, whilst Nico Rosberg charged into fourth from seventh on the grid as Romain Grosjean lost early positions in his Lotus.  Further back, another slow start from Mark Webber triggered the traditional chaos into Albert Park’s tight first corner.  Both Toro Rosso’s were involved in the meleee, with Daniel Ricciardo launching Bruno Senna’s Williams into the air.  Both pitted for damage repairs at the end of the first lap.  Meanwhile, a knock from Webber ended Nico Hulkenberg’s return to F1 before the lap was out.  The order was Button, Hamilton, Schumacher, Rosberg, Vettel and Grosjean.

Grosjean’s race didn’t last much longer as contact with Pastor Maldonado on the second lap put the Frenchman into early retirement.  Grosjean blamed his rival for the incident, telling Sky Sports F1; “I think Maldonado wanted to overtake me and braked miles too late and I couldn’t give more room.  He hit my front wheel so it’s very disappointing.”  Actually, the Williams driver was passed and it was only glancing contact that terminally broke the Lotus front suspension.  Ultimately, a racing incident but nothing else that Maldonado could have done.  Moments before, Vettel pulled off an outstanding pass on Rosberg to inherit fourth and chase after the sister Mercedes of Schumacher.

On lap six, an uncharacteristic error from Vettel saw him slide off in the first corner, luckily not losing a position.  Five laps later, Schumacher copied the move, but a gearbox problem put paid to the Mercedes GP driver’s strong weekend.  After the first round of pitstops, Button maintained his position at the front and by half distance, he had stretched his advantage over Hamilton to ten seconds.  The McLaren team did leave their cars out when the softer Pirelli tyres ‘hit the cliff.’  Hamilton did an extra lap longer and this allowed Vettel to seriously reduce the seven second deficit between the pair.  Fernando Alonso was showing that Ferrari did have some strong pace on heavier tanks of fuel, with the Spaniard in fourth ahead of Rosberg’s tyre hungry Mercedes GP and the recovering Webber.  Further back, Kimi Raikkonen was entertaining the crowd as the returning Finn got into a feisty dice with Kamui Kobayashi.  He also produced one of the early soundbites of the season on his team radio, when he said; “Why am I getting all the blue flags?”  Race engineer Simon Rennie’s cool response was; “The blue flags are for other drivers, they are not for you Kimi!”

A double pitstop from McLaren on lap 36 looked set to have cemented the team’s 1-2 position, but Vitaly Petrov stopped his Caterham on the start-finish straight seconds later.  With the Russian’s car in an tricky position, the Safety Car made its first apperance this season.  Crucially, Vettel headed for the pits and didn’t have to slow down under the SC delta time given to all the drivers.  Hamilton did and this enabled the champion to move into a dangerous second place, much to Hamilton’s frustration.  At the restart, Button caught the rest napping and opened up a three second lead which never looked troubled as the race entered its closing stages.  Attention soon focused on the battles behind and a dramatic final lap.

Chasing down a struggling Alonso, Pastor Maldonado had driven a sensational race and was on course for sixth place, which would have been his best ever result.  On the final lap, the Venezuelan exited turn six and dropped a wheel on the astroturf.  The lack of grip from his worn tyres meant he had no time to react and the result was a smashed Williams into the barriers.  It was a sorry end to a stunning performance.  Yards later, Sergio Perez and Rosberg touched in the fast turn 11 chicane.  Both cars were hobbled and it allowed for some furious scrapping and a frantic finish for the final points positions.  Ultimately, it was Daniel Ricciardo who benefited the most – vaulting up from 12th to 9th on the final tour.

Amidst all that last lap drama, Button crossed the line to secure a brilliant victory from Vettel, Hamilton and a fired up Webber, who recorded his best ever result in the Australian Grand Prix.  Alonso did drop half a minute in the closing stages but salvaged fifth on a very difficult weekend for Ferrari.  His team-mate Felipe Massa frankly drove like a pig on rollerskates all afternoon!  He never got higher than ninth and his shocking performance ended following a messy tangle with Senna entering turn four.  Although a stewards investigation was launched, neither driver was penalised.  In the final lap melee, Kobayashi wound up an excellent sixth, followed by Raikkonen, a damaged Perez, Ricciardo and Force India’s Paul di Resta, who sneaked past Vergne to take the last point on the final corner of the race.  A crestfallen Rosberg limped home 12th, leaving team principal Ross Brawn frustrated.  He told BBC Sport; “Both drivers reported trouble with the tyres very quickly and we had to manage them all race.  Michael’s gearbox problem was an added disappointment and Nico reported Perez hadn’t been fair, which added salt into the wounds.”

On the team radio, Button said; “Fantastic, what a brilliant way to start the season.  You know, it shows what the winter does.  The car is beautiful and the car is the quickest.”  He is confident and on top of the world, both in morale and the early points leaderboard.  It was a superb opener and we only have to wait seven days for hopefully more of the same in Malaysia.

2012 QANTAS AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX RESULT

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS TIME/DNF REASON
1 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 58 1hr 34min 09secs
2 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 58 +2.1secs
3 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 58 +4.0secs
4 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 58 +4.5secs
5 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 58 +21.5secs
6 KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 58 +36.7secs
7 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 58 +38.0secs
8 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 58 +39.4secs
9 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 58 +39.5secs
10 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 58 +39.7secs
11 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 58 +39.8secs
12 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 58 +57.6secs
13 (Ret) PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 57 Accident
14 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 57 +1 lap
15 (Ret) CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 53 Oil Pressure
16 (Ret) BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 52 Suspension damage
Retired FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 46 Collision with Bruno Senna
Retired HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 38 Technical
Retired VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 34 Steering
Retired MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 10 Gearbox
Retired ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 1 Collision with Pastor Maldonado
Retired NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 0 Steering damage after collision with Mark Webber
DNQ PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH    
DNQ NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH    

2012 Team Preview: Mercedes GP

THE DARK HORSES IN THE PACK

THIS season, German car manufacturer Mercedes GP begin their third season in Formula One, since they bought the Brawn GP team at the end of 2009.  Currently, no pole positions, no wins and only three podiums to show for their efforts, with the last rostrum coming from Nico Rosberg at the 2010 British Grand Prix.  It is time for the team to start threatening the frontrunners, or there could be severe drawbacks from the board in Stuttgart.  In this generation of economic uncertainty, performance in Formula One is crucial or a manufacturer will walkaway.  Just ask Honda, BMW and Toyota.

This year, Ross Brawn’s team look to be in a far better position than they ever have been.  They delayed the launch of the 2012 car, which seemed a surprising move.  However when the car turned up in Barcelona, they collected some excellent data with a model that looks consistent and reliable at worst.  It looks like the issues that made heavy rear tyre wear a chronic issue last season have been dealt with.  It is some team that Brawn now has, full of experience in technical and winning teams from the past.  Nick Fry and Andrew Shovlin remain members of the team when Brawn GP was in existance, whilst Mark Slade was part of the Ferrari team behind Kimi Raikkonen’s 2007 championship success.  Former Williams and Red Bull technical director Geoff Willis returns to the team he worked for in a former guise as BAR.  Willis comes from two wasted years at Hispania.  Bob Bell and Aldo Costa, formerly of Renault and Ferrari respectively complete a technical dream team.

Schumacher pushing hard to get back to the front in testing (Daily Mirror)

The drivers remain unchanged, with Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher remaining together for the third sucessive season.  Rosberg has performed exceptionally well, considering the equipment he has had at his disposal in the past two seasons.  Often best of the rest in 2011, Nico is about to enter his seventh season in F1, hoping to break his elusive duck and win a Grand Prix.  Since his sensational comeback, Schumacher has largely failed to deliver, especially in qualifying.  However, he began to become a stronger match for Rosberg in the closing stages of last season, still with the racecraft, starts and strategy that made him such a legend.  Form is temporary but class is permanent and Canada last year was an example that Schumacher still has that in abundance.  After all, you don’t win seven world championships by accident.

Mercedes GP look like the dark horses in 2012.  Few know their true pace heading to Melbourne, but they must be in a position to challenge for podiums on a regular basis and if possible, return to the winners circle after a lengthy drought.  The glory days of Brawn in 2009 seem like a century ago.