Melbourne debrief: A Tale of Three Buttons

March 29, 2009

An inspiring start to a new Grand Prix season, where first race intrigue revolved around on-track racing, tactical intrigue and unpredictability to the last rather than the usual Melbourne-brand bumper car excitement.  This, too, was thrown in for good measure, making for a memorable and hugely encouraging start to the new-look Formula 1.  The pity, perhaps, is that the last-minute cameo of Albert Park’s traditional accidents deprived us of what could have been a very intriguing battle for the victory in the final laps.

However, Kubica and Vettel’s coming together was simply a racing incident, which have happened and will happen so long as cars race one another.  The real pity in all of this is that after such a positive beginning to a season, there are still so many unknowns.  Uncertainty over the legality of the winning car’s diffuser.  Uncertainty, too, surrounding the rear ends of the Toyota and Williams cars who featured so prominently in the race weekend.  Finally, uncertainty over 3rd place, as Toyota look set to appeal against Jarno Trulli being given a 25-second penalty for passing Lewis Hamilton under yellow flags, dropping him from the podium to 12th place after a spirited drive.  For all the joy, colour and excitement we witnessed today, it’s difficult to ever remember the sport being so united and yet so fractious at the same time.  The FIA needs to quickly resolve all these appeals, counter-appeals and grey areas, because it looks like the action has returned to the track and people need to remember to keep it there.

The day belonged to the Buttons.  Jenson Button won the race in a car I fully expect to be cleared as legal to race in the week after the Malaysian GP next weekend.  It was a controlled and measured performance of the sort of authority we often all suspected Button was capable of producing, if only he could get his hands on a good enough car.  The diffuser issue, temporarily pushed to the back of people’s minds, is most likely not the panacea of performance of the remarkable Brawn GP001 car, but once it is resolved, a levelling of the playing field will probably see the team begin to show their ring-rustiness.  As such, a performance like this one may prove to be the very best example of making hay while the sun shines, or yet prove to be the curtain raiser to a remarkable season of achievement.  Either way, it will rejuvenate Button’s career and standing in the paddock, he finally having proved beyond doubt that he can get the job done.

The second major button of the weekend was the KERS boost button.  Eddie Jordan was deeply sceptical about the introduction of the system in the BBC’s pre-race build up, and up to the moment the lights went out it was very much something which looked as though it could be taken or left.  Once the race was in swing though, it immediately proved its worth.  As well as providing an extra area of driving skill and tactical invention – watching the different drivers use their 6.7 seconds of boost per lap in different ways was, for me, a fascinating addition – it also spiced up the on-track action.  Being stuck behind a driver now no longer needs necessarily ruin your afternoon’s work.  Get on the push-to-pass button and get proactive… changing both the complexion of your own race and also the race as a spectacle seen from the outside.  There was certainly as much on-track excitement as I can ever remember there being at Albert Park, at least on a dry day. For all the changes the FIA have made in the 15 years I have been following the sport to “spice up the show”, these seem to be the first ones which have even vaguely looked like they might work.  Hats off.

Our third and final Button is Sebastien Buemi in the Toro Rosso.  Question marks hanging over his 20-year old head before the start, he delivered a fiesty yet mature drive which ultimately netted him 2 valuable points in a car which is probably not always going to be as lucky with other people’s mistakes as it was today.  He reminded me of Jenson Button’s first Grand Prix start, also at Melbourne, 9 years ago.  Whilst there have been more impressive debut in the meantime – Lewis Hamilton’s of course springs to mind – it’s undeniable that Buemi has put down a marker to suggest he may do more than just make up the round twenty.

Australia team-by-team

McLaren Mercedes

Pre-season testing, often so unreliable, proved crushingly accurate for McLaren.  The MP4/24 is as lacking in grip as it appeared and the team has a lot of work still to do… 2 seconds or more is a lot to find, even for a team of McLaren’s quality and experience.  Nevertheless, raceday was more encouraging and they will be delighted to have scored 6 points today.  Heikki Kovalainen’s struggle was ended in a mercy killing on lap one, as he got involved in the wake of Rubens Barrichello’s chaotic start.  Lewis Hamilton, however, demonstrated his true championship class.  His drive, both aggressive and measured, may well be his finest in Formula 1 yet.

Ferrari

A schizophrenic beginning for Maranello.  The cars were quixotically fast in practice and qualifying, and looked as though a combination of long-run pace and a tactical gamble could pay off in the race.  However, last season’s gremlins both returned to haunt the team, Massa’s car failing him and Räikkönen dropping the car off the road whilst in hot pursuit of the top three.

BMW Sauber

It’s difficult to know what to make of the BMW effort.  Kubica could well have won outright  had he not gotten involved with Vettel late in the race.  However, this raceday performance, coupled with a very decent qualifying, seemed at odds with a very average weekend up to that point.  Nick Heidfeld was very anonymous all weekend, leaving major questionmarks remaining about BMW’s real pace.

Renault

Renault arrived in Australia quietly confident and will most likely leave under a cloud.  The car, which looks like a sharpened hippo, is needlessly ugly it seems as it his simply not yet competitive enough.  Fernando Alonso did his best with a car undiscernably a step forward from last season’s R28 and finished a fairly anonymous fifth.  Nelson Piquet tapped into his mount’s sense of deja vu, meanwhile, and had a torrid time which eventually ended in the gravel after braking problems.

Toyota

Up against it the whole weekend, Toyota left everyone in no doubt that on the circuit at least, they are a force to be reckoned with this year.  Embroiled in the diffuser row upon their arrival, the team subsequently got demoted to the back of the grid after qualifying for an illegal level of flexion in its rear wing.  This amended, both drivers demonstrated the car’s strength throughout the meeting, Trulli winning a podium before being demoted for a yellow flag infringement.  Even so, Glock’s 4th place show that the team may finally have taken a step up in ultimate competitiveness.

Toro Rosso Ferrari

The Toro Rosso is not a car which seems able to match it’s 2008 form, which doesn’t represent much of a surprise.  Poor in qualifying, the team nevertheless leave Melbourne with a very respectable 3 points from a 7th and an 8th place finish, Sebastiens Buemi and Bourdais showing a keen understanding that getting the car to the finish of the first race will often pay dividends which seemed to escape some of their rivals.

Red Bull Renault

The fastest car of the weekend without a controversial double-decker diffuser, Red Bull have – if the estimates of a half-second performance advantage are correct – produced perhaps the fastest car of 2009 thus far.  Once the contentious issue is resolved, expect them to be challenging for wins.  Sebastian Vettel will be the most likely candidate for these, seemingly having both the measure of Mark Webber in terms of pace whilst more than outstripping him in terms of luck.  One day, something will fall right for Webber.  At which point everyone will most likely moan about how lucky he is.

Williams Toyota

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend, the Williams car dominated the first practice days but fell back slightly at the most crucial time.  Still, Nico Rosberg demonstrated good pace in the race, hamstrung by a start hampered by Barrichello’s adventures.  However, a late-race dip in speed on the soft tyres cost him dearly, 6th place was the best he could do.  Kazuki Nakajima, however, was less impressive, finally spinning the car into the turn 5 wall.

Force India Mercedes

It’s hard to look past the fact that, on raw pace, Force India seem to be bringing up the rear so far, although glimpses of much more reliable midfield pace presented themselves during practice.  In a season where the difference between a point and being the last of the runners may be a second or less, Force India look like a team who should trouble the scorers this year.  In Australia, though, they just lacked that extra bit of urge, Sutil finishing 9th and Fisichella 11th, both nevertheless on the leader’s lap.

Brawn GP Mercedes

A dream start by all accounts.  Diffuser controversy aside, Brawn were quick all weekend and proved able to make the step up in ultimate pace at the right time.  What will most please the team, surely, will be the reliability and strength demonstrated by their under-tested car.  Jenson Button scored a well-deserved second Grand Prix win, whilst after an eventful race, Rubens Barrichello made it a Disney time 1-2 finish on the team’s first outing.  He was, however, probably lucky to escape censure for his first corner rough housing, or damage from that contact and a later nudge with Räikkönen’s Ferrari.

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