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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


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Vettel back on pole in the desert

Sebastian Vettel is back on pole position and the German's finger salute returns too! (Scotcars)

THE familiar German middle finger was shown in the Sakhir paddock yesterday as Sebastian Vettel returned to his customary spot of starting on pole position.  It is the world champion’s first pole since the season finale in Brazil last November.  Team-mate Mark Webber will start today’s race from third, confirming that Red Bull Racing’s qualifying pace is back.  It was a tense scrap for pole position in what has to be said is a tense backdrop to the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Whilst the TV stations worldwide and UK newspapers lead with the trouble in the country and led to the death of another protester during demonstrations on Friday night, this is a qualifying report and shall remain that.  The action on the track did cause a few unexpected surprises.

The difference in time between the prime and option tyres in Bahrain led to the demise of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes in Q1.  Schumacher had been amongst the top five in every practice session leading into qualifying, but by not chancing it on the option tyre, the German was knocked out by Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham Renault.  Later, it was revealed that an issue with the DRS meant the seven times world champion couldn’t get the lap time he wanted.  To compound Schumacher’s nightmare, a gearbox change overnight means he will start 22nd.  It will be interesting to see his progress today.  Jean-Eric Vergne also missed the cut and then ignored a pitlane red light which ordered the rookie to stop at the weighbridge.  This was an excludable offense 20 years ago but amazingly, no action was taken against the Frenchman!

In Q2, a KERS problem left Pastor Maldonado high and dry in the pits and like Schumacher, the Veneuzelan has been hit with a five place grid penalty for changing his gearbox.  Felipe Massa made his expected exit and the former double winner in Sakhir will start from a distant 14th.  Kimi Raikkonen was squeezed out as the track temperature dropped and the track continued to evolve.  The Lotus driver will start 11th and revealed afterwards that he only had himself to blame for his shock exit.

Paul di Resta made the final part of qualifying for the first time this season and will start tenth.  Considering that Force India missed FP2 due to safety concerns following the events of this weekend, this is a notable achievement.  With no option tyres left, Fernando Alonso decided to save his remaining sets for raceday and seemed content with ninth, setting no time like di Resta in Q3.  The star of qualifying was the young Australian for Toro Rosso, Daniel Ricciardo.  The Italian team has never scored a championship point around this circuit but they have a great chance today after Ricciardo charged to sixth place on the grid.  It is his best ever qualifying performance and he showed his delight to Sky Sports F1 afterwards.  “We had a pretty good morning and we thought all going well, we might have a crack at Q3 today.  Each little step seemed to be very beneficial and I’m really happy, I’ll enjoy this today.”

Nico Rosberg couldn’t repeat his Shanghai heroics and he had to settle for fifth place, making a tiny error in the final corner on his best lap.  This meant that the Red Bull and McLaren teams disputed the pole battle.  After the first runs, Lewis Hamilton looked to have his third pole position of the season.  However, Vettel and Red Bull had saved a set of option tyres from Q2 and he used them to perfection.  His time was left than a 0.1secs quicker than Hamilton, but enough for his second Bahrain Grand Prix pole position.  Webber has his best ever grid position here, which was previously fifth for Williams back in 2005 whilst Jenson Button aborted his final attempt and seemed satisfied with P4 on the grid.  Relief more than delight was echoed on Vettel’s face after his return to the front of the field.  Speaking to BBC Sport, he said: “We didn’t have the best Q1 or Q2 and I made a couple of mistakes.  I knew though in Q3 we could make another step and the first run I was happy with, although it wasn’t perfect.  I knew I had more to give on the new set and I was pleased.  I owe this one to the boys in the garage for their hard work.”

With Red Bull back at the front after qualifying, this season continues to have many twists and turns.  The race begins in just under an hour’s time and it is highly conceivable that we could have four different winners in the first four events for the first time since 2003.

2012 GULF AIR BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX QUALIFYING RESULT

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS BEST TIME
1 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 18 1.32.422
2 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 13 1.32.520
3 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 17 1.32.637
4 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 12 1.32.711
5 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 10 1.32.821
6 DANIEL RICCIARDO TORO ROSSO FERRARI 17 1.32.912
7 ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 13 1.33.008
8 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 17 1.33.394
9 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 11 NO TIME in Q3
10 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 15 NO TIME in Q3
11 (Q2) KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 6 1.33.789
12 (Q2) KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 13 1.33.806
13 (Q2) NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 12 1.33.807
14 (Q2) FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 14 1.33.912
15 (Q2) BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 14 1.34.017
16 (Q2) HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 10 1.36.312
17 (Q1) JEAN-ERIC VERGNE TORO ROSSO FERRARI 8 1.35.014
18 (Q1) VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 7 1.35.823
19 (Q1) CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 8 1.37.683
20 (Q1) PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 6 1.37.883
21 (Q2) PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 8 NO TIME IN Q2
22 (Q1) MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 5 1.34.865
23 (Q1) TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 7 1.37.905
24 (Q1) NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 7 1.38.314

PASTOR MALDONADO RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR GEARBOX CHANGE    

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER RELEGATED FIVE PLACES FOR GEARBOX CHANGE

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.

Driver performance at the Malaysian Grand Prix

WELCOME to my second driver performance scoring chart of the 2012 Formula One season which covers how I thought every driver did in the 2012 Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix from Sepang;

JENSON BUTTON

By Jenson’s high standards, Malaysia 2012 will be a weekend he will want to forget pretty quickly.  His practice running on Friday was compromised by a hydraulics problem.  Although his race simulation pace was impressive, it was difficult to gauge how close he would be to Lewis Hamilton in qualifying.  Another majestic Hamilton lap in qualifying kept Jenson off the pole and the pair were running nose to tail in the race.  That was until Button ran into Narain Karthikeyan and broke his front wing.  For once, he couldn’t capitalise on the mixed weather conditions and his struggles in the midfield afterwards highlight just how close the midfield pack is in 2012.  At least he had the honesty to admit his mistakes afterwards.  7/10 

SEBASTIAN VETTEL

Like Button, Sebastian Vettel had a mere in Malaysia and scored no points for his valiant efforts.  He looked dejected and frustrated all weekend, clearly looking concerned about Red Bull’s outright pace.  A potential masterstroke to qualify on the prime tyres rather than the options that he never got working all weekend was ruined by Sunday’s changeable conditions.  His race was fairly quiet, but Hamilton was in his sights for a potential podium until his clash with Narain Karthikeyan.  Who’s fault it was is irrelevant and the war of words afterwards suggests that Sebastian is struggling under pressure.  It is totally unnecessary too.  He will be hoping for much better in China.  7/10

LEWIS HAMILTON

Lewis Hamilton was the dominant pacesetter throughout the first two days in Malaysia.  He was fastest by some distance on Friday and scored his second consecutive pole position with something to spare in qualifying.  Hamilton was hindered by a couple of dreadful pitstops in the race, one when the team struggled to remove gaffer tape from the front brake ducts.  Nevertheless, McLaren’s lack of pace in the wet/dry format will give the team a few concerns, especially considering their dominance in recent years through this weather.  It was a mature and controlled drive from Hamilton to finish on the podium, who looks to be at least more of a consistent force than he was last year.  8/10

MARK WEBBER

The Mark Webber from 2010 is back and looking very hungry this season.  He defintely seems far happier than Sebastian Vettel in the 2012 Red Bull and his general speed is encouraging.  A solid couple of days in practice lined him up for an excellent fourth in qualifying, less than 0.3secs away from the pole.  Incredibly, he made a great start too and once Romain Grosjean had destroyed Michael Schumacher’s race, was third in the early stages.  Cautious after the restart cost him positions to both Fernando Alonso and Vettel, but his team-mate’s run-in with Karthikeyan gifted him his second successive fourth place.  If the team can improve all round, I reckon Webber can be a multiple winner at the minimum in 2012.  8/10

MICHAEL SCHUMACHER

Michael Schumacher is achieving little reward for a very promising return to his old self.  His Achilles heel of the failed comeback previously had been qualifying.  However, he backed up second in Friday practice with third on the grid on Saturday, only fractionally off the pace of the McLaren’s.  He got a tardy start, but was spun around in turn three by an ambitious Romain Grosjean on the first lap.  Afterwards, the lack of pace from the Mercedes was badly highlighted, but Schumacher kept fighting on and he got a late point for his efforts when Pastor Maldonado retired with a technical problem.  I don’t he will have enjoyed being passed around the outside by both Bruno Senna and Kamui Kobayashi though!  7/10

Alonso showed his class on Sunday (Motorsportretro)

FERNANDO ALONSO

Hamilton might be unbeatable on his day and Vettel has set the benchmark in recent years.  However, no-one can match Fernando Alonso when it comes to getting the most out of a car.  Tactically, he is world class and it was shown in abundance on raceday.  Not many would have won in this Ferrari that has handled like a dog, but Alonso has and it proves his standing as one of the greatest ever behind the wheel.  With a minor front wing upgrade, he dragged the machinery into Q3 and eighth was solid considering the team’s low expectations.  He made the most of others mistakes, kept cool under severe pressure from Sergio Perez and produced an ultimate masterclass in how to handle a wet/dry event.  Incredibly, he now leads the championship.  Deserved for his sheer skill.  9/10

NICO ROSBERG

2012 is a frustrating start for the whole Mercedes team and Nico Rosberg will be lamenting it more than anyone.  A former specialist of Sepang, Rosberg has been outdriven comprehensively in the first two races by Michael Schumacher and it is mistakes of his that aren’t helping his cause.  Fastest in FP3, another scrappy qualifying performance left him out of position in seventh on the grid.  Sixth on the first lap, he made an early move for intermediates on the restart which had him upto fourth.  However, the chronic tyre wear issues that Mercedes have, left him vulnerable to the likes of Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.  A suicidal decision by the team to keep him out on intermediates when dries were the better option towards the end finished his unimpressive weekend.  6/10

PASTOR MALDONADO

The chequered flag still awaits a Pastor Maldonado finish after two events, but it isn’t for the worth of trying.  A mistake in Q2 saw the Venezuelan take a trip into the gravel, removing aerodynamic components from his Williams in the process.  Nevertheless, he only narrowly missed out on the pole shootout.  On raceday, his team-mate Bruno Senna had his number and an unseen collision before the race stoppage between the pair nearly ruined Williams weekend.  Both recovered and a point was Maldonado’s when his Renault engine expired with only two laps remaining.  Points for him are going to happen, it is a matter of when, not if.  7/10

ROMAIN GROSJEAN

Sensational on Saturdays and sorrow on Sundays is the story of 2012 so far for Romain Grosjean.  This time, it was all his own making.  From an impressive sixth on the grid, he made a magnificent start to be third into the first corner.  Under pressure from Mark Webber though, the Frenchman made a clumsy mistake and slammed into Michael Schumacher at turn three, spinning both drivers around.  Three laps later, he got caught out by the wet conditions and beached his Lotus into the gravel trap.  Lotus will need him to cut out these errors, especially as they have a strong car to begin with this season.  7/10

SERGIO PEREZ

Sergio Perez was always seen as a solid racing driver, but his performance in Malaysia has seen his stock rise incredibly high.  Arguably, it is an event he could have ended up winning.  Having struggled on Friday, the Mexican did really well to reach Q3 on Saturday and Kimi Raikkonen’s grid penalty left him starting ninth.  He pitted for extreme wets at the end of the first circuit, launching him upto third by the time of the red flag.  Afterwards, he only got stronger and stronger and but for a late error which saw him run wide in turn 13, he might well have caught and passed Alonso.  With Felipe Massa totally out of form, Perez surely has a great chance now of landing the second Ferrari seat very soon.  10/10

KIMI RAIKKONEN

It was another case of what might have been for Kimi in Malaysia.  He lost one of his crash helmets in a Lotus hospitality fire on Friday night, only hours after requiring a gearbox change, consequently landing a five place grid demotion.  Fastest in Q2, Raikkonen was fifth fastest in Q3, setting the same exact time as Mark Webber.  Starting from tenth, his pace in the wet wasn’t good, but got stronger as the track dried out.  He finished fifth and set fastest lap but his frustration afterwards suggests that with more luck, a podium position was more than possible.  8/10

KAMUI KOBAYASHI

Performed well in Australia, but got a tonking from an inspired Sergio Perez on this occasion.  Kobayashi’s Friday running was restricted by a gearbox issue, which the team managed to fix without receiving a penalty.  He drove poorly in Q2 to end up slowest qualifier, but did have moments in the race, including a brave pass around the outside of a tyre-hungry Michael Schumacher in turn five.  Ultimately, Kamui couldn’t keep up with the pace and a brake problem forced him to retire in the pits after 46 laps.  A tricky weekend.  4/10

JEAN-ERIC VERGNE

Having reached the top ten in FP2 on Friday, Jean-Eric Vergne had a frustrating day on Saturday and the young Frenchman was the midfield runner who dropped out in Q1.  He stayed out in the first phase of the race to rise upto ninth and ran all afternoon with the Force India drivers.  Vergne lost out to di Resta, but beat Hulkenberg to finish a delighted eighth; the rookie’s first points finish.  It certainly won’t be his last.  7/10

One of the rare occasions Hulkenberg was ahead of his team-mate this weekend (beyondtheracingline)

NICO HULKENBERG

On a circuit where he starred in the wet in A1GP for Team Germany back in 2007, Nico Hulkenberg couldn’t repeat the magic this season.  This was mainly down to the car’s lack of pace, but he brought it home in a solid, if unspectacular ninth place.  Unlike Australia however, Hulkenberg was soundly beaten in both qualifying and the race by Paul di Resta.  The battle between the two Force India drivers is certainly living upto expectations.  6/10

FELIPE MASSA

A new chassis didn’t work and now, Felipe Massa’s time at Ferrari is surely up.  It was another below-par weekend, where he failed to trouble the top ten in the timesheets at any point.  18th in FP3, a better qualifying effort pushed Massa into 12th, a closer 0.3secs shy of Alonso’s Q2 time and Fernando only just scraped into the shootout.  After holding down ninth place from the restart, he cracked under pressure from Paul di Resta and took a detour into the gravel.  A move onto dries saw him fall further backwards and lacking the confidence seen in Melbourne.  With no specific problems, 15th place and nearly a lap down behind his race winning team-mate, alarm bells must be ringing now.  4/10

BRUNO SENNA

Having been outperformed by his team-mate in Australia, Bruno Senna had a point to prove in Sepang.  This he did, with a superb run to sixth place, easily his best ever career result.  Qualifying was a struggle, which saw the Brazilian back in 13th.  He then had off-camera incidents with Maldonado and Paul di Resta, which left him second last when the red flag came out.  Afterwards, he drove really well and will have enjoyed his pass right around the outside of Michael Schumacher.  He made light work of di Resta in the closing stages to secure Williams best finish in a long time.  Rubens who?  8/10

DANIEL RICCIARDO

Ricciardo reached the top five in FP2 on Friday but that was to be the highlight of a tough second outing for him at Toro Rosso.  Having wound up 15th in qualifying, he had a quiet afternoon which only livened up by becoming the first driver to pit for dries.  The move was brave and inspired and for that, Ricciardo deserved more than the 12th place he ended up with at the chequered flag.  7/10

PAUL DI RESTA

di Resta’s Friday was a nightmare so to finish seventh at the end of the race was a very creditable effort.  He lined up 14th following brake and handling issues throughout free practice, but he did have the measure of Nico Hulkenberg this weekend.  A clash with Bruno Senna before the red flag came out hindered his early progress but he recovered well and impressive tyre management had him in the points by the chequered flag for the second successive weekend.  7/10

VITALY PETROV

Last season, Vitaly Petrov attempted flying lessons in Sepang but he had an untroubled and excellent weekend.  Outqualified narrowly by Kovalainen, Petrov moved up following the Finn’s grid demotion.  In the race, he kept up with Kamui Kobayashi and held off Felipe Massa easily until the conditions dried up, which made him easy meat for the midfield.  16th at the end, but like Ricciardo, probably deserved a slightly better finish.  7/10

HEIKKI KOVALAINEN

Following a five place grid demotion, Kovalainen never featured and finished behind Timo Glock’s Marussia on merit.  A dismal weekend and one the Finn will be erasing from his memory very quickly.  5/10

TIMO GLOCK

Timo Glock is currently driving out of his skin and performing miracles in a car that at times, has the handling ability of a Morris Minor!  He qualified 21st, less than a second behind the Caterham team and split their cars in the race, only finishing a lap down.  At the moment, he is doing all that can be asked from him in difficult circumstances.  7/10

CHARLES PIC

Frenchman Charles Pic continues to stay out of the limelight, but is getting the mileage he needed so badly in winter testing.  Less than 0.5secs behind Glock in qualifying was a mighty effort and he survived the difficult conditions to take his first F1 finish, 20th and two laps down.  6/10

NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN

It was Karthikeyan’s first race since India last year and it certainly was dramatic.  He survived on intermediates in the worst conditions to rise as high as tenth, the highest a HRT driver has ever been.  He was the innocent party in the knock he received from Jenson Button and although lapping slowly, didn’t do much wrong when Sebastian Vettel moved across on him towards the end.  The stewards disagreed and handed him a time penalty afterwards.  However, it was a capable return to the cockpit.  6/10

PEDRO DE LA ROSA

de la Rosa was almost non-existent throughout the weekend, although he did start the race from the pitlane after a technical issue on the dummy grid.  Afterwards, he stayed out of trouble and made plenty of room for the frontrunners to lap him.  He finished last, promoted when Karthikeyan got a penalty for the Vettel incident in the stewards office.  5/10

Total scores after 2 events: Fernando Alonso 17, Jenson Button 17, Lewis Hamilton 16, Sergio Perez 16, Pastor Maldonado 15, Sebastian Vettel 15, Kimi Raikkonen 15, Mark Webber 15, Michael Schumacher 14, Romain Grosjean 14, Daniel Ricciardo 14, Jean-Eric Vergne 13, Bruno Senna 13, Timo Glock 13, Paul di Resta 13, Nico Hulkenberg 12, Nico Rosberg 12, Vitaly Petrov 12, Kamui Kobayashi 11, Charles Pic 11, Heikki Kovalainen 10, Felipe Massa 6, Narain Karthikeyan 6, Pedro de la Rosa 5

Awesome Alonso causes real shock in Malaysia thriller

2012 PETRONAS MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX RACE REPORT

Sergio Perez celebrates his superb result in Malaysia (Yahoo)

FERRARI returned to the top of the podium against the odds in the Malaysian Grand Prix today.  Fernando Alonso drove an awesome race in very changeable conditions to take an unlikely victory, taking advantage of superb pitwork and awful pitstops from McLaren that put them in the driving seat.  The drive of the day though came from Sergio Perez.  The Mexican drove a blinding race to finish second, achieving Sauber’s best ever result as an independent constructor.  Alonso is now the surprising leader in the drivers standings, as Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Mercedes GP had a day to forget.

Cooler conditions and grey skies overhead threw all planned strategies out of the window as the build-up to the lights going out came closer.  With rain in the air, all drivers started on intermediate tyres, apart from Pedro de la Rosa.  The Spaniard would begin from the pitlane after an issue firing up his car on the dummy grid.  When the lights went out, the two McLaren’s charged away from the rest of the field, with Lewis Hamilton protecting the inside line from Button to maintain track position, unlike last Sunday in Melbourne.  Into turn three, Michael Schumacher was tagged by the fast-starting Romain Grosjean in the Lotus which saw both cars spin around.  The unrepentant Frenchman blamed his rival, telling Reuters: “I was there, I was careful and unfortunately Schumacher hit me in turn four and I spun.”  At the end of a very tricky first lap, Hamilton led Button, Mark Webber, Vettel, Alonso and Nico Rosberg.  Meantime, Perez’s stunning day started with an inspired decision to pit for extreme wets at the end of the first lap.  This moved him upto into third place by the time everyone else made the same switch.

Grosjean became an early casualty again, when he spun off on the fourth lap entering turn six.  Soon afterwards, a bolt of lightning hit the circuit and the Safety Car was dispatched as conditions worsened.  Button saying over the team radio; “The last sector is like a lake.”  On lap nine, Charlie Whiting sensibly got the track officials to throw the red flag, suspending the race pending a Safety Car restart.  Following a 50 minute delay, the cars left the grid with Hamilton leading Button, Perez, Webber, Alonso and Vettel.  Following four slow laps, conditions eased up on lap 13 for the green light to resume racing.  Some drivers, including Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen came straight in for intermediate tyres.  On the restart, Alonso caught Webber napping into the first corner and vaulted into third position, as Button had also pitted after the restart for fresh rubber.

Button's misjudgement cost him dear (Autosport)

Two laps later, Perez inherited the lead as Hamilton came in.  However, a delay on the rear jack, combined with having to wait whilst Felipe Massa came into his box saw the McLaren costly lose track position to both Alonso and Button.  Perez’s gamble of staying out an extra lap saw him have the lead on merit, but only briefly as better traction off turn two on lap 16 gave Alonso first position.  Traditionally, Jenson Button thrives in these conditions but a lap earlier, he made a clumsy error of judgement and tagged the Hispania of Narain Karthikeyan in turn nine.  No blame could be attached to the Indian driver, as they were battling for position at the time.  Another horrible McLaren pitstop whilst his front wing was changed effectively took the Melbourne winner out of serious contention for points.

For a while, Alonso threatened to runaway completely from the rest of the field, but as his intermediate tyres started to lose grip, Perez continued to hassle him with the gap dropping to less than a second.  The Sauber was the fastest car on the circuit, proven by his string of fastest laps.  Further back, a dry line began to appear and Daniel Ricciardo’s smart move onto slick tyres saw another mad dash for the right rubber, with little change to the significant positions.  Once again Mercedes showed no race pace whatsoever, evidently showed when Rosberg lost three positions to Vettel, Raikkonen and Webber in two laps.  He finished out of the points, whilst Schumacher benefited from a late engine failure on Pastor Maldonado’s luckless Williams to score a fortunate point.

For once, Vettel was out of luck too, as he collected an instant left-rear puncture whilst lapping Karthikeyan with eight laps remaining.  The German’s choice of sign language wasn’t appropriate, but understandable as he lost a certain fourth place.  The damage to his tyre destroyed the rear brake duct on his Red Bull, which led to the team almost retiring him on the final lap.  In the media pen afterwards, Vettel didn’t hold back on his words to BBC’s Lee McKenzie; “To lose the points like that is extremely frustrating.  It’s like on the normal roads, you have some idiots driving around and it seems like we have one driving here.”

Just as Perez prepared himself for a possible attack on Alonso, he made his only error of the afternoon by running wide in turn 14 and onto the damp run-off area.  The mistake cost him five seconds, but didn’t affect his confidence as he continued to hunt down Alonso in the final few metres.  Remarkably, the Spaniard held on for his third success in Malaysia, his 28th career victory but Perez’s second place brought team principal Peter Sauber to tears.  Without the BMW involvement, it beats Sauber’s best ever result, achieved by Jean Alesi at the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix.  Hamilton had a lonely run to third infront of Webber, Raikkonen and Bruno Senna’s Williams.  Paul di Resta, Jean-Eric Vergne, Nico Hulkenberg and Schumacher completed the points scoring.  Massa had another day to forget, finishing 15th after spending half his race battling Vitaly Petrov’s inferior Caterham.  Alonso was honest enough in his assessment of things in the post-race press conference; “The win is an unexpected surprise, we were not competitive in Australia or here and the goal for the first few races was to score as many points as possible.  It’s an unbelievable result and a great job from the team.”

Today, Fernando Alonso reminded us just why he is a former double world champion whilst Sergio Perez deserves to share the headlines for his incredible drive.  He gave us a glimpse of a promising future, possibly very soon as Alonso’s team-mate.  The teams head home for a three week break, before resuming in China on April 13-15.

2012 PETRONAS MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX FINAL RACE RESULT

POS DRIVER TEAM LAPS TIME/DNF REASON
1 FERNANDO ALONSO FERRARI 56 2hr 44min 51secs
2 SERGIO PEREZ SAUBER FERRARI 56 +2.2secs
3 LEWIS HAMILTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 56 +14.5secs
4 MARK WEBBER RED BULL RACING RENAULT 56 +17.6secs
5 KIMI RAIKKONEN LOTUS RENAULT 56 +29.4secs
6 BRUNO SENNA WILLIAMS RENAULT 56 +37.6secs
7 PAUL DI RESTA FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 56 +44.4secs
8 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE STR FERRARI 56 +46.9secs
9 NICO HULKENBERG FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 56 +47.8secs
10 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER MERCEDES GP 56 +49.9secs
11 SEBASTIAN VETTEL RED BULL RACING RENAULT 56 +1min 15.5secs
12 DANIEL RICCIARDO STR FERRARI 56 +1min 16.8secs
13 NICO ROSBERG MERCEDES GP 56 +1min 18.5secs
14 JENSON BUTTON MCLAREN MERCEDES 56 +1min 19.7secs
15 FELIPE MASSA FERRARI 56 +1min 27.3secs
16 VITALY PETROV CATERHAM RENAULT 55 1 LAP
17 TIMO GLOCK MARUSSIA COSWORTH 55 1 LAP
18 HEIKKI KOVALAINEN CATERHAM RENAULT 55 1 LAP
19 PASTOR MALDONADO WILLIAMS RENAULT 54 ENGINE
20 CHARLES PIC MARUSSIA COSWORTH 54 2 LAPS
21 PEDRO DE LA ROSA HRT COSWORTH 54 2 LAPS
22 NARAIN KARTHIKEYAN HRT COSWORTH 54 2 LAPS
Retired KAMUI KOBAYASHI SAUBER FERRARI 46 BRAKES
Retired ROMAIN GROSJEAN LOTUS RENAULT 3 SPUN OFF

Narain Karthikeyan was given a 20 second time penalty for causing an avoidable accident

  DRIVERS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 FERNANDO ALONSO (FERRARI) 35
2 LEWIS HAMILTON (MCLAREN) 30
3 JENSON BUTTON (MCLAREN) 25
4 MARK WEBBER (RED BULL) 24
5 SERGIO PEREZ (SAUBER) 22
6 SEBASTIAN VETTEL (RED BULL) 18
7 KIMI RAIKKONEN (LOTUS) 16
8 BRUNO SENNA (WILLIAMS) 8
9 KAMUI KOBAYASHI (SAUBER) 8
10 PAUL DI RESTA (FORCE INDIA) 7
11 JEAN-ERIC VERGNE (TORO ROSSO) 4
12 DANIEL RICCIARDO (TORO ROSSO) 2
13 NICO HULKENBERG (FORCE INDIA) 2
14 MICHAEL SCHUMACHER (MERCEDES GP) 1

 

  CONSTRUCTORS CHAMPIONSHIP  
1 MCLAREN MERCEDES 55
2 RED BULL RACING RENAULT 42
3 FERRARI 35
4 SAUBER FERRARI 30
5 LOTUS RENAULT 16
6 FORCE INDIA MERCEDES 9
7 WILLIAMS RENAULT 8
8 SCUDERIA TORO ROSSO FERRARI 6
9 MERCEDES GP 1

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

History of the Malaysian Grand Prix

HERMANN Tilke’s first Formula One circuit was the challenging and demanding Sepang, home to the Malaysian Grand Prix.  In the 13 runnings of the race so far, there have been plenty of great stories in a place known for its humid heat temperatures and biblical thunderstorms!

The first event was held in 1999 and the inagural race came at a crucial time for the world championship battle that season.  Mika Hakkinen arrived in Kuala Lumpur with a slender two point advantage over Eddie Irvine.  What’s more, Michael Schumacher chose this race to return after his six race absence as he recovered from the broken leg he suffered at the British Grand Prix.  Schumacher returned in style, by qualifying a whole second faster than anyone else, then dictating the race so well, Irvine was almost too slow to beat him.  The Ulsterman got help from the normal Ferrari no.1, twice being allowed into the lead.  He used clever defensive tactics to keep an exhausted Hakkinen back in third place.  Just as Ferrari celebrated a magnificent 1-2, the team were thrown out after measurements from the scrutineers suggested the team were running illegal barge boards.  The fault was even admitted by technical director Ross Brawn and the championship was Hakkinen’s.  Conversly, Ferrari’s lodged an appeal, saying the measurement taken was from an angle, not a flat surface.  A week later, the FIA overturned the decision made by the stewards and Ferrari kept their victory.

The Schumacher family have had plenty of success down the years in Malaysia.  Ralf produced one of his most convincing displays in 2002 to lead home a Williams 1-2.  That day, his older brother clashed with Juan Pablo Montoya in the first corner and the Colombian was given a very harsh drive-through penalty.  At least he made some history in becoming the first ever recipient of one of these penalties!  Schumacher Snr won the final race in 2000, more remembered for the red wigs the team showered themselves on the podium with after wrapping up a second constructors title in a row.  The race also brought a sad end to Johnny Herbert’s career, as he sustained leg injuries in a nasty accident when his Jaguar rear suspension collapsed.  In 2001, the Ferrari team produced a stunning recovery from a synchronised gravel visit from both Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, then a 84-second pitstop in the midst of a traditional Malaysian monsoon.  The team’s decision to fit intermediates saw them ending up annihilathting their rivals once the Safety Car withdrew.

Malaysia was also the setting stone for a changing of the guard in 2003.  Then, a 21-year old fresher looking Fernando Alonso stunned the paddock by becoming the youngest ever poleman for Renault.  He went onto finish third on an aggressive strategy, becoming the first Spaniard on the Grand Prix podium since 1956.  The race was controlled by Kimi Raikkonen, with the 23-year old winning his first race for McLaren, a feat that left Ron Dennis close to tears.  That day gave us a glimpse of the exciting future that lay await for Formula One fans.  A year later, Jenson Button joined the elite when he made up for two agonising near misses in Malaysia previously and earnt his first F1 podium for BAR Honda.  For the record, the 2004 race was Schumacher’s third and final Malaysian success.

There were victories for Alonso in 2005 and 2007 for Renault and McLaren respectively and a Giancarlo Fisichella triumph in 2006, also for Renault.  In 2008, Raikkonen produced a convincing display to take the honours on the tenth anniversary of the event.  A Ferrari 1-2 was thrown away when Felipe Massa made an elementary error and spun into the gravel trap.  Raikkonen has had plenty of drama down the years in Sepang and more came his way in 2009.  Predicting a thunderstorm in this part of the world is always hard to do, but Ferrari attempted to do so and put Raikkonen on full wets on a bone dry track!  The thunderstorm held off for a long while, but when it rained, you know about it.  Fading daylight and the unrelanting rain meant the race was stopped and eventually abandoned, with half points being awarded.  Button won his second race in a row for Brawn GP.  On the same weekend, Lewis Hamilton was forced to face the media after being disqualified from the race in Melbourne for lying to race stewards.

Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel have turned the place into their own over the past two seasons, winning in 2010 and 2011.  Can they make it a hat-trick in 2012?  Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen have all tasted success in Sepang in the past – who knows what will happen in 2012, especially with the forecast for a wet weekend.

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    

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)

2012 Team Preview: Red Bull

THE TEAM TO BEAT

HAVING been seen as a laughing stock in its early days, people forget how far Red Bull Racing really has come.  The dark days of Jaguar seem a long time ago now.  Double champions for the past two seasons, the Milton Keynes based squad are aiming for a hat-trick of drivers and constructors titles.  Once again, they look the team to beat despite some uncharacteristic chinks in the armour in winter testing.

Last season had echoes of dominating seasons put on by McLaren in 1988 and Ferrari in 2002.  12 wins from 19 starts, starting from pole position in all but one race.  With a car that was the class of the field and incredible pitwork from the team, Red Bull Racing showed everyone the way in 2011.  This year, the team has all the main key personnel in place for another tremendous season.  Adrian Newey’s new car, the RB8 has hidden its one lap potential so far, but looks incredibly consistent over a race simulation distance.  However, reliability issues which wrecked the final day of pre-season testing in Barcelona means they head to Melbourne having not severely tested the new car with the additional front wing and rear exhaust they brought to the closing stages of the Spain test.

You will be hard pressed to find big odds on someone other than Sebastian Vettel as championship favourite.  The German looked right in the zone last season and has the opportunity to join a real elite group.  Only Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher have achieved three successive world championships.  Vettel has a great chance to match the feat in 2012 and has the all-round package.  As long as the car is reliable enough, it is difficult to see anyone past him again as champion.  However, I would be very surprised if he dominantes as much as he did in 2011.

By his standards, Mark Webber’s year was woeful.  He was horribly outpaced by Vettel all season, only beating his team-mate all weekend once.  The irony of that was Vettel’s home race at the Nurburgring.  However, his daring overtake on Fernando Alonso through Eau Rouge at Spa last season and finishing the year with victory in Brazil will have given the Aussie some much needed confidence going into the winter break.  If Webber can get a grip of qualifying and the Pirelli tyres again, he has what it takes to give the rest a fright, as we saw throughout 2010.  If not, he will be under pressure, especially with two hungry, young Toro Rosso drivers after his seat for the future.

Once again, Red Bull Racing look like the team to beat.  Who has the capabilities to beat them over a season?  If someone does, it will be a mighty effort.

Two in a row for Romain

Grosjean steps into his Lotus to begin another productive day (Yalla F1)

ROMAIN Grosjean continued where he left off yesterday, by setting the quickest time today in the final pre-season test.  Grosjean’s Lotus set a time of 1.22.614 in the dying stages, to pip Jean-Eric Vergne to top spot.  Sebastian Vettel was third fastest as Red Bull continue to keep a quiet profile, but still seem to be the bookmakers favourites for the season opener in Australia.  What’s more, the team will be flying more parts out from their factory in Milton Keynes to the test at the Circuit de Catalunya tomorrow.

Although Grosjean did the fastest time on the soft tyre like yesterday, his consistency on both short and long runs suggests that Lotus have fully overcome the chassis problems that led to their testing programme being drastically cut last week.  Vergne, a fellow Frenchman and 2012 F1 rookie, had to sit out the majority of the afternoon session after a Ferrari engine failure on his Toro Rosso late this morning.

The pace of the French stars left Vettel back in third, whilst Fernando Alonso had a better day for Ferrari today, ending up fourth and completing a trouble free race simulation run of over 60 laps.  A late burst on the super soft tyres pushed Heikki Kovalainen into a surprising fifth place.  The Finn seemed to have recovered after the stomach upset that meant he had to sit out yesterday.  Lewis Hamilton spent a lot of the day in the garage, as McLaren worked on his car.  Like Red Bull, they continue to fly out new development parts as testing nears its conclusion.  Nevertheless, he still managed over 60 laps and was ninth fastest.

There were six stoppages in an interrupted day, which saw fog delay the start of testing in Barcelona by half an hour.  Nico Hulkenberg lost the entire afternoon after stopping on track with a suspected gearbox problem on his Force India Mercedes, whilst Michael Schumacher brought the red flag out twice, with driver error and technical faults to blame.

DAY 2 BARCELONA TESTING RESULTS

1. Romain Grosjean (Lotus Renault) 1.22.614 – 124 laps

2. Jean-Eric Vergne (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 1.23.126 – 46 laps

3. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.23.361 – 85 laps

4. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1.23.447 – 125 laps

5. Heikki Kovalainen (Caterham Renault) 1.23.828 – 104 laps

6. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber Ferrari) 1.23.836 – 76 laps

7. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes) 1.23.893 – 33 laps

8. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes GP) 1.23.978 – 79 laps

9. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes) 1.24.111 – 65 laps

10. Bruno Senna (Williams Renault) 1.24.925 – 48 laps

11. Pastor Maldonado (Williams Renault) 1.25.801 – 20 laps

Vettel sends out decisive warning

THE second Formula One pre-season test started today in Barcelona and Sebastian Vettel means business.  The double world champion, aiming to become only the third driver to win three titles in a row dominated the opening day in Spain, outperforming his other main rivals.

Vettel looked sharp in the first day of Barcelona testing (BBC Sport)

Vettel took the fastest time this afternoon, after countryman Nico Hulkenberg made the early running this morning.  Hulkenberg, who lost time in the Jerez test through no fault of his own, looked comfortably at ease in a Force India that continues to set some consistent lap times.  His quickest today was a 1.23.440, only 0.2secs behind the formidable Red Bull/Vettel combination.  His total of 97 laps was useful mileage too.

Lewis Hamilton was third fastest, continuing McLaren’s quiet start to the winter programme, although their new car looks far better than the predecessor did at this stage last year.  We also got a view of the new Mercedes GP W03 today and it is likely that the team will use this test to establish reliability and durability on long runs, rather than outright pace.  This makes Michael Schumacher’s effort, sixth fastest and less than a second shy of Vettel’s benchmark of 1.23.265 all the more encouraging.

However, it was a difficult day for both Caterham F1 and Lotus Renault.  Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen stopped out on track with a suspected track rod failure.  Kovalainen was only in his ninth lap of the day, but further checks seemed to hint that it wasn’t a day-ending problem and the Finn managed another half an hour of running at the end of the day.  Vitaly Petrov will make his debut in the car tomorrow.  Meanwhile, Lotus packed up at lunchtime after Romain Grosjean did just seven laps, and complained of chassis problems.  The team are flying back the car to factory headquarters as a precuationary measure tonight and also aim to run with Grosjean again tomorrow.  However, this major headache could have a knockback on their entire week programme at the Circuit de Catalunya.

Traditionally, the first F1 pre-season test is used for basic running, with the second one showing some form tips for the early season flyaways.  Although there is still three days of running left in Barcelona, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have sent out a decisive warning to the rest; “Catch us if you can!”

BARCELONA DAY 1 TESTING TIMES – THE TOP EIGHT

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.23.265 – 79 laps

2. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India Mercedes) 1.23.440 – 97 laps

3. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes) 1.23.590 – 114 laps

4. Daniel Ricciardo (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 1.23.618 – 76 laps

5. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1.24.100 – 75 laps

6. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes GP) 1.24.150 – 51 laps

7. Sergio Perez (Sauber Ferrari) 1.24.216 – 66 laps

8. Bruno Senna (Williams Renault) 1.25.711 – 97 laps

2011 Mercedes ends on a high

THE dynamic of the 2012 Mercedes GP and how quick it goes will be interesting when it is launched next week.  That is because for the second day running, the 2011 machine ended up top of the timesheets, this time in the hands of Nico Rosberg.

Rosberg made it two in a row for Mercedes (Motorsport.com)

Rosberg completed 118 laps, setting the fastest time of the week so far in Jerez, with a time of 1.17.613.  It dislodged GP2 champion Romain Grosjean from the top.  Grosjean, taking over from Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus Renault team was quickest this morning and certainly looked comfortable all day, as Lotus solid start to winter testing continued.

This was the day when some of the major players took to the track for the first time.  Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso all returned to action following the winter break and both Vettel and Hamilton stayed out of trouble, setting consistent times and getting good mileage under their belts.  The world champion was third fastest, only 0.2secs quicker than the Brit in his McLaren.  Alonso was down in seventh on another very quiet day for Ferrari.  His cause wasn’t helped by a hydraulic problem, which left the Spaniard in the garage for the first two hours this morning.  With vibes coming from within the media of Felipe Massa saying that a lot of work is required, the Scuderia already look on the backfoot.

It wasn’t quite as bad as Jules Bianchi, who spun his Force India into the barriers early this morning, seriously disrupting what had been an excellent week for the team so far.  Bianchi, who is reserve driver for the Silverstone based team told Sky Sports; “I made a small mistake on my second run.  The tyres were a bit cold and I spun into the gravel and touched the wall with the right rear wheel.  It was not a very big impact, but it caused some damage.  I’m very sorry because my mistake has cost the team a lot of time and effort.”  He would have to apologise to Nico Hulkenberg, who had been due to make his 2012 bow this afternoon, but was left to twiddle his thumbs, whilst the team flew out replacement parts from their UK base.  Hulkenberg has to wait until tomorrow now to make his first impact of the season.

One more day of this test remains and if the 2011 Mercedes, which let’s be honest, was a poor car has ended on a high, expectations will rise of a potential assault on the championship if these times are anything to go by.

TESTING TIMES – DAY 3 FROM JEREZ

1. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes GP) 1.17.613 – 118 laps

2. Romain Grosjean (Lotus Renault) 1.18.419 – 117 laps

3. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Racing Renault) 1.19.297 – 96 laps

4. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes) 1.19.464 – 80 laps

5. Jean-Eric Vergne (Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari) 1.19.734 – 79 laps

6. Sergio Perez (Sauber Ferrari) 1.19.770 – 48 laps

7. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 1.20.412 – 67 laps

8. Bruno Senna (Williams Renault) 1.21.293 – 125 laps

9. Gio Van der Garde (Caterham Renault) 1.23.324 – 74 laps

10. Jules Bianchi (Force India Mercedes) – NO TIME