Sunday 18 March at 21:40 :
While matters out front were, for the most part, quite stable and as a result rather boring, the season-opener in Melbourne by no means lacked excitement. The start was a tremendous affair, with Heidfeld passing Alonso into turn one, while Kubica challenged a racy Hamilton – almost successfully. In a stroke of genius, Hamilton went wide and not only did the rookie successfully defend his position from Kubica, he also overtook his double world-champion team-mate!
As impressive as Heidfeld’s start was, his unique decision to start on the soft compound tyres proved unfortunate as he had to pit as early as lap 15, rejoining the track behind his team-mate. Raikkonen pitted next and suddenly a rookie found himself in the lead – in the form of the charging Lewis Hamilton.
The McLarens were next to pit and the Red Peril with the ice blue eyes was in the lead once more. While Raikkonen never really seemed to consistently push he snuck in absolutely scorching laps here and there – perhaps just to issue a warning to his nearest competition, or indeed perhaps in an effort to wake himself up. He seemingly got so bored in the latter stages of the race that he lost focus and locked a wheel – in his own words, he was “looking at something else”.
Massa, meanwhile, in a relatively quiet fashion, made his way to seventh place before he pitted for the first and only time on lap 29. Considering one of his two very long stints had to be driven on the softer compound tyres, his one-stop strategy was a calculated risk that certainly paid off. It also went some way to disproving the theories that Ferrari’s peculiar choice of wheelbase length would be very hard on the rear tyres. This, of course, did not save him from the embarrassing eventuality of being lapped by his team-mate. At least he un-lapped himself later during Raikkonen’s pit stop.
While Hamilton was impressing no end, the other rookies suffered. The much-vaunted Heikki Kovalainen seemed to have minor offs completely at random, while Adrian Sutil seemed colour blind, especially when blue flags were waived. Sutil, of course, caused other drama too, making hard contact with Davidson fairly early in the race, resulting in Davidson being taken to hospital after the race.
Alonso never looked even half-tempted to attack his rookie team-mate on track, instead biding his time until the second round of pit-stops. This strategy paid off handsomely as Hamilton was badly held up by Sato into the pit lane. To make matters worse, Alonso had the fuel to carry him two more laps. The end result? Alonso came out of the pits a fair distance ahead of Hamilton. The three leaders stopped pushing at this point, clearly settling for their positions and being unwilling to take any more chances – especially with engines that needed to complete another race weekend.
This was not the end of the excitement though. Webber had qualified some way ahead of team-mate Coulthard, but Coulthard was steadily closing the gap. In his bid to take 13th place, however, Coulthard made an uncharacteristic mistake and attempted to shoot up the inside of Alexander Wurz. Alex didn’t see the Scott coming and turned in, causing Coulthard to bolt right over the Williams, removing both drivers from the race. Kubica, meanwhile, had retired but Heidfeld maintained 4th position with a mature, steady, yet quick drive. Fisichella, while not blistering, at least stayed on the track (in radical contrast to his team-mate) and held fifth place. Rosberg too drove a more mature race than was his average last year, bringing his car home in 7th - behind Massa but, significantly, ahead of the leading Toyota. How many people described Williams as a “Toyota B-team” in winter testing?
Things to come?
So how much of what we saw today is a sign of things to come? Ferrari dominating? The figures certainly seem to suggest so. Kimi’s fastest lap was more than a second faster than Fernando’s – a not insignificant margin. This is only one race and one cannot judge from one race but it is clear that McLaren have a lot of work to do.
What about Kimi dominating his team-mate? The Finn’s fastest lap time was, after all, almost 2 full seconds faster than that of Massa’s. In itself this seems like a staggering figure, but let’s not forget that Massa never once carried little fuel at the same time as having decent tyres. His one-stop strategy proved effective over the race distance but it was never going to allow him to set blistering single-lap times. The jury’s out then.
And the Alonso-Hamilton battle? Despite Hamilton’s daring passing manoeuvre, there is no doubt that Alonso is, at least at this stage and likely for the rest of the season, the faster, better driver. Hamilton may beat him once or twice but over the season? No chance. One thing’s for sure though: The British press finally has someone other than Button to write about so all the expectations will now promptly be transferred straight to the shoulders of Ron Dennis’ latest protégé.
Will Fisichella continue to beat Kovalainen so comprehensively? He certainly will if Kovalainen fails to keep his car on the track. That is improbable though – Heikki’s performance in Melbourne was uncharacteristic of the Finn and is not likely to be repeated. Can he beat Fisi over the season? Let’s focus on keeping those tyres on the tar first, then we can talk about beating team-mates.
What about Rosberg? He was spectacular in last year’s opening race as well, only to disappoint for the rest of the season. It is likely that he has matured though – so look forward to more excellent performances from him this season. Also look forward to Williams beating their engine supplier over the course of the season.
One more season prediction: Webber will out-qualify Coulthard consistently but, while the Australian probably won’t spin in the pit lane in every race (we hope), he won’t often beat Coulthard to the finish line.
Edu de Jager
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