Melbourne's Albert Park circuit

Melbourne brought it all back. Last weekend was what F1 is all about. After Bahrain’s turgid race, I had been gloomy about the prospects for an entertaining season in 2010. But blimey, what a race. It was so good I watched it twice.

Sebastian Vettel took pole and led from some terrific on-track drama before agonisingly sustaining a wheel failure mid-race –his second pole/non-finish in the first two races.

Jenson Button had put himself in place to inherit the victory with an inspired pit stop decision, although his McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton had to rue his fate in finishing sixth after a bump with Mark Webber’s Red Bull.

The day was fantastically full of chop and change, drama, strategic calculation and miscalculation, charisma and surprise, mainly brought about by the wet. I was kept glued to the screen for the whole race.

Here’s the weekend as it unfolded.

Paul di Resta

Qualifying

First off it was notable to see the talented young Scot Paul di Resta drive Adrian Sutil’s car in first practice and put it 11th place above Michael Schumacher, Webber and Rubens Barrichello.

Di Resta is an up and coming star who, if he lands an F1 race seat in the next few years, should make a splash. He beat a young Hamilton in a karting championship and beat Vettel to the F3 championship in 2006.

The Red Bulls again looked fast at Albert Park, and qualified pole and P2. The Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were piling on the grid pressure in third and fifth.

First corner

Melbourne's Albert Park circuit

Melbourne lived up to its reputation as having four seasons in a day. Sunday brought drizzle and a damp but drying track. The mixed conditions threw an extra dimension of unpredictability to a race that needed no shaking up, electrified as it was by plenteous overtaking and wheel to wheel fights.

Alonso gave us the first corner drama, nudging into Button and spinning, dropping down the field badly. He had his work cut out to claw his way back.

Schumacher also fell back in the incident. Through the race the lower teams did well to keep Schumacher back. Pedro de la Rosa, Lucas di Grassi and Jaime Alguesuari were all able to retain their leads over the German for respectable periods.

If Schumacher’s form doesn’t improve in the next few races, his comeback will be in danger of becoming a damp squib. Ross Brawn and Mercedes need to provide him a car that can win races.

Pit stops

Button made a very discerning early pit stop to swap his intermediates for some dry slicks. The track wasn’t quite dry enough and his McLaren slid off at the next corner, but in time his quick decision paid off.

He precipitated a swarm of pitting cars on the next lap. His maverick call proved to be a canny one- getting him up the pack to fourth, which became second. I was on the edge of my seat.

At this stage Renault’s Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg for Mercedes did well to get into third and fourth respectively. Kubica is full of promise and Rosberg is responding exponentially to having a seven-time world champion as his teammate and rival.

Massa didn’t appear to have the grip on his back tyres and had a few wobbles. At one point Rob Smedley, Massa’s race engineer actually came on the radio to give him some driving tips.

Adrian Sutil retired on lap 14, an unlucky day for the German who finishes far fewer races than his potential demands.

Webber

Mark Webber will be disappointed by his performance at his home circuit. Early on he suffered from staying out longer on his tyres than the rest of the pack after the Button-led pit.

Under pressure from Hamilton on lap 16, Webber went wide and off into the gravel just after they had both got past Massa. The Brazilian and Hamilton then got through. But that turned out to be the least of Webber’s woes.

He went on a mission to catch up, setting fastest lap times left, right and centre. Massa made an error on lap 22 and Hamilton took advantage to come up close on him, charging past on the straight.

Behind them moments later, Webber mugged Alonso to come between the Spaniard and the Ferrari of Massa.

Hamilton moved on Rosberg, going head to head in a courageous bid round the outside of the Mercedes on turns 11 and 12. It showed us again the Brit’s audacious genius at overtaking.

Front runner

Vettel seemed to have the race wrapped up, but on lap 26 he was in the gravel with a loss of torque drive between the front left axle and its wheel. The frontrunner out, Button was bumped into first place, with Hamilton in third and putting pressure on Kubica for second. The grip on the McLarens looked fantastic.

Out in front, Button’s smooth style paid dividends. He was the only man out there who could keep his tyres in good condition, as last year.

Fresh tyres

McLaren gambled by pitting Hamilton for tyres on lap 35. He came out into fifth ahead of a Webber/Rosberg fight, but was then on stuck. This pit turned out to be the wrong call, as the Ferraris made do without a second stop and kept ahead of the McLaren.

All the same, Hamilton was catching up to Massa and Alonso. As Ferrari sent them warning messages, Alonso’s Spanish accent came over the radio; ‘I don’t want to know!’

Webber put Hamilton under serious pressure, momentarily getting past the Brit before he recovered the position. These scraps made the day for me.

Once Hamilton caught up to Alonso he struggled to get past his rival who was still on worn tyres. Hamilton thought his own tyres had gone, but it was more likely the turbulence.

Webber was all over Hamilton, with Rosberg cruising up behind Webber. Hamilton was as ever patient and predatory.

It all went wrong on lap 57. As Hamilton made way for Alonso to turn, Webber charged too fast into the corner and knocked Hamilton into a spin. Both left the track, letting Rosberg through. Webber fared the worst, dropping down to a final ninth from an initial grid position of second.

Finish

In a bizarre moment John Travolta waved the chequered flag for the whooping Button. Vitantonio Liuzzi did well to bring his Force India home in seventh, with Barrichello gaining Williams three points for eighth. Schumacher had sneaked by de la Rosa into tenth to get one point.

Mercedes aren’t yet as competitive as I hoped they’d be, but they had a presence in the race. With Schumacher bogged down in midfield, it was Rosberg’s day as he finished fifth.

There was some immense commentary from the BBC in Melbourne. Martin Brundle said that Karun Chandhok had ‘under-steer like a cross channel ferry’ at one point.

Kubica, Button, Massa

On the button

Jenson Button had personally made the call to come in early for dry slicks and it won him the race. Afterwards Lewis Hamilton was bitter about team strategy giving him a two stop, and Mark Webber taking him out.

McLaren face a tough task to balance these two fairly. For his part, Hamilton will have to learn to be more gracious in disappointment. If he wants to be the alpha driver for McLaren, he must learn to shoulder blame and curb the temptation to publicly criticise his team.

So on Palm Sunday Button won his first GP of 2010, entering the city with palm branches laid at his feet, so to speak. It remains to be seen in Malaysia what will happen to the champ this Easter weekend. Passion is guaranteed.

Advertisements