Australian Grand Prix Review: Raikkonen rules the Pirelli’s
Iceman is back – not only behind the wheels but also on the team radio – “I told you the car is good”. The lovable Finn, Kimi Raikkonen, kick-started his by campaign winning the season-opener at Albert Park. He claimed the 2013 Australian Grand Prix, nailing a two-stop strategy. This was the Iceman’s second victory in the last four races for Lotus after his win in Abu Dhabi last year. Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso finished second ahead of the defending champion Vettel. The race was never short on action that made for an engrossing race.
Rains had spiced up FP3 and qualifying as the race control was forced to conduct Q2 and Q3 on Sunday morning. The weather Gods finally cut some slack for Albert Park today as Vettel and Webber secured a Red Bull one-two early this morning. The Ferraris were right on their tail with Massa out qualifying Alonso for P4, Alonso himself on P5. Mercedes driver Hamilton found himself separating the pairs claiming the second row for P3.
Light drizzle was expected during the race but never really caught on. Very few drops of rain were seen at times but were not enough to bring out the full wets. This meant most of the teams opting for a 3 stop strategy. Majority of the field started the race on Supersoft slick compounds barring Adrian Sutil and 3 other back-markers who chose to begin on mediums. Nico Hulkenberg was a pre-race casualty as he picked up a fuel system problem and did not start the race sighting safety reasons. As the cars ventured out for the formation lap, the big questions were: How long are the Supersofts going to last and more importantly, who will come up on top after turn 1.
As the five red lights went off, the Australian Grand Prix was a go. Seb Vettel cruised away from pole as positions started shuffling behind him. Webber failed to impress at home yet again as he got bogged down getting off the box, dropping into seventh place. Massa blitzed past Webber while Alonso got the better of Hamilton at turn 3. Grosjean lost quite a few places and was down to eleventh. The Mid-field had its share of action, with Perez trying hard to get past Vergne and Di Resta. Up ahead, Raikkonen, with a better straight line speed, continued to pile pressure on Hamilton. All the cars had a clean start with no contacts or piling up of cars at turns 1 and 3.
Button was the first to pit for mediums at the end of lap 4 as other drivers followed. At the end of lap 9, everyone in the top ten had pitted, except the two Mercedes and Sutil. Vettel continued to post fastest laps while the Ferraris were reeling behind him. He maintained the upper hand after pitting first stretching the gap between him and Massa. It was lap 13 and Hamilton had not pitted yet, having using the same tyres as qualifying. The Mercs eventually pitted both their drivers within a span of two laps. As Rosberg exited after his stop, Button was all over the back of his W04 but failed make a move on a warmer set of tyres, clearly indicating the lack of pace on the McLarens. At the end of lap 19, it was obvious that except Mercedes and Sutil for Force India, the rest of the field was looking at a three pit-stop strategy. Webber was the first to pit twice, going in during the 19th lap. It was anybody’s game at this moment with 4.4s covering the top 5 drivers. The teams maintained one eye on the weather as messages about the weather conditions continued to pour in on from the pit-wall. Drivers were warned about light drizzles on various turns but none of the warnings saw light.
Ferrari pitted Alonso on lap 21 and he came out with a clean track ahead of him. This helped him recover a lot of lost time as he put his foot on the pedal, hitting the apex hard consistently. Red Bull’s strategy of jumping Sutil in the pits did not materialize as Force India managed to turn the car around in quick time, putting Sutil in front of Vettel yet again. As both the drivers exited, a flying Alonso leaped ahead of Vettel and also caught up Sutil at the end of turn 1. His teammate, meanwhile, was now leading the pack, having apparently decided to switch to a two stop strategy. On the 23rd lap, Vettel decided to get a move on driving past Sutil on turn three from a long way back and Massa jumped into the pits having reverted to three stops. The first retirement came on the 25th lap as Maldonado’s bad luck continued as he pushed too hard, lost control on turn 1 and drove straight into the gravel trap.
Mercedes’s reliability issues popped up again after the initial days at Jerez as Rosberg slowed down on the 27th lap and parked the car outside the track as the team cited electrical problems for the ouster. Meanwhile, Hamilton and Alonso were locked in a battle of their own around lap 31 as the two former world champions showed glimpses of why they are among the best drivers around. Alonso eventually got past, just as Hamilton dived into the pits. Raikkonen pitted during the 34th lap and came out behind Massa. The man of the hour, though, was Adrian Sutil, maintaining his position at P3 as he tried to keep Massa at bay even as his tyres started showing signs of graining having pitted just once. In fact, his lap times were not much off as compared to those of Alonso and Vettel ahead of him.
Massa, Vettel, Alonso pitted for the last time on 37th, 38th and 39th respectively and were now comfortably making their way through the back-markers and the midfield. Massa challenged Hamilton during the 40th lap and was allowed to pass as the Brit lacked the grip to put up a fight. The tail-end was steady with Bottas in 14th, followed by Gutierrez, Bianchi, Pic, Garde and Chilton.
Lap 42 saw Riccardo driving into the pits, only to be wheeled inside the garage as mechanical failure forced him to retire. Webber still had tricks up his sleeve, passing Di Resta on turn 9 to move on to 8th place. Hamilton was forced to stop for the third time as he realized he would not be able to nurse the tyres till the chequered flag. Raikkonen regained the lead during the 44th lap as he passed Sutil on the inside at Turn 11/12 and started getting away from the field.
Alonso, though, continued to light up the time sheets as he was the only driver constantly dipping under the 1:29s mark. Alonso blitzed past Sutil in the next lap, looking to challenge Raikkonen for the race lead. Sutil pitted for the second time on the 46th lap coming out behind Massa as his chances to claim a podium here went for a toss. With Raikkonen’s tyres wearing out, his pace appeared to have dropped during the 50th lap. Lap 51 saw another intriguing battle between the Brits Sutil and Hamilton for the 5th spot. With his worn out tyres, Sutil was unable to fend off Hamilton’s challenge and was a sitting duck for Webber who took advantage of the battle in front to close in for a challenge, taking P6. Perez, on his debut GP with McLaren, was asked to push hard to finish in the top ten, but could not deliver. Meanwhile, Raikkonen went on his merry ways, pulling the fastest lap of the race towards the fag end, indicating how brilliant in shape the E21 was. What followed was his first Australian GP win since 2007. It was also the first podium for Alonso at Australia since 2007. Vettel finished third from pole, having lost the lead to Alonso during the second round of pit-stops. Massa, Hamilton, Webber, Sutil, di Resta, Button and Grosjean rounded up the top ten places.
The Australian GP was a pitch-perfect start to the new season, with not a moment of predictability or the drudgery of cars following each other without an ounce of action. It gave us a picture about how leveled the field is and that a closely fought battle for the championship is certainly on the cards. The top five drivers looked in good nick while Sutil dropped in a pleasant surprise. A competitive, unpredictable first GP of 2013 has set up the mood for the rest of the season. Teams need to understand the tyres well before they can gamble with strategies. Lotus seem to have a clear advantage on that front with E21 inheriting the gentle touch of the E20. Red Bulls looked as if they lacked their qualifying pace and would need to sort out the mechanical problems with Webber’s car.
The Ferraris have a much improved car and with world class drivers like Alonso and Massa, they will put up a strong challenge for both drivers and constructors championship. Mercedes also showed bursts of raw speed and potential but need to be more consistent if they want to run the leaders close for the championship with a strong line-up in Rosberg and Hamilton. McLaren is clearly where Ferrari were at this time last year and the Woking team needs to work harder to give a car worthy of competition to Button and Perez if they are to gather some points. All in all, the next 4 days of work will decide which team has improved the most as we move on to the Malaysian GP next weekend. It’s goodbye till then.