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Sparkling start to the 2012 F1 season

Jenson Button couldn’t have said it better on his victorious car-to-pit radio transmission: “The car is beautiful and she is quick!!” And I’d like to add, dominant too! The MP4 27 is an evolution of its predecessor, the MP4 26, which had shown glimpses of its potential towards the end of last season. It is definitely the sleekest looking rocket on grid, and it showed beyond doubt today that it is also the quickest. After locking out the front row in qualifying, the two McLarens finished on the podium at Melbourne after Jenson Button led the 2012 Australian GP pretty much from start to finish.

It was a pretty smooth race for Button, as he took the lead through turn 1, owing to an indifferent start from Lewis Hamilton. The two McLarens looked completely in control through the first stint, opening up a comfortable gap from Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes. Button looked in control throughout, even as the running order went through its usual shakedown through the first pit-stop window, his only real challenge coming late in the race, when Vitaly Petrov’s smoking Caterham on the pit straight led the safety car to be called out. Even then, although his lead got slashed, Button found himself in the best possible place, having pitted just a lap earlier and leading the pack behind the safety car. As the safety car dashed into the pits on lap 41, it was sheer brilliance from Button on the restart that saw him open up a 2 second gap over the resurgent Vettel in P2, in just one lap. The rest was like a Sunday afternoon cruise, as Button brought his McLaren home ahead of Vettel and a battling Lewis Hamilton in P3, who just managed to hold off Mark Webber’s Red Bull. Today’s P4 is incidentally Webber’s best finish at home.

Lewis Hamilton must be wondering to himself what he must be doing wrong, as Button inveitably seems to get the last laugh on Sundays. Hamilton suffered from tyre degradation in his second stint which caused him to end up trailing Vettel’s Red Bull. Apart from the 3-way scrap for P2 after the restart, Hamilton’s race was a routine salvage run after losing the lead right at the beginning. He finished a strong 3rd, enabling McLaren to take an early lead in the constructor’s standings. Sebastian Vettel, starting from 5th made a good get away initially to pass Grosjean’s Lotus off the starting line. His duel with Michael Schumacher for what was P3 at the time was turning out to be an engrossing one until it was cut short by a gearbox failure on Schumacher’s Mercedes.

Fernando Alonso though, made the best of starts, and found himself battling for 5th position, almost throughout the 58 laps of the race. Initially with Rosberg and Webber, and later warding off an impressive Pastor Maldonado. While Maldonado had to endure a hearbreaking crash on the last lap, which robbed him and the Williams team of 8 precious points, he demonstrated that the Williams, with the new Renault engine is indeed a car to watch out for. The tussle between Toro Rosso, Sauber, Force India, Lotus and Williams in the midfield will certainly be one to watch out for this season. It was this tussle that provided the most drama on the last lap with Kobayashi, Raikkonen, Perez, Ricciardo, DiResta and Vergne delivered a grand stand finish, as all were gunning for the 6th position vacated by first Maldonado with his crash and then Rosberg slowing down with a problem on the very last lap.

It proved to be a day of ‘so near yet so far’ for a few of F1′s rookie drivers with Hulkenberg and Grosjean suffering accidents in the early going. Grosjean got his front suspension wrecked by Rosberg’s Mercedes on a close overtake. He had slipped back from P3 to P6 at the time, but was looking good for a strong race. Bruno Senna survived an incident at turn 1, only to get knocked out by a rash driving Felip Massa later in the race. Williams still would have looked much better if it wasn’t for Maldonado’s crash on the last lap.

The biggest gainers of today’s race though, were Sergio Perez, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, in that order. Perez, starting from the back of the grid, pulled off a 1-stop strategy to finish 8th in the end. He found himself in P2 at one point, with everyone else pitting. However, tyre degradation saw him drop back to P8 before his scheduled pit stop, and also saw him drop back in the later stages of the second stint. sauber had the right idea, but maybe a 2-stop strategy could have enhanced their chances. Raikkonen made a steady start to his season, the highlights of his race being the 6 positions made up on lap 1, an audacious pass on Nico Rosberg reminiscent of the old Ice Man, and the “oops” moment when Kobayashi passed him on the restart.

Fernando Alonso, I thought had the best race. Willing the Ferrari from P12 to P5, and at one point challenging a fresh-out-of-the-pits Vettel for track position is testament to the man’s greatness behihnd the wheel. It shows Felipe Massa’s scratchy struggle at the back of the order in a sharp contrast. With Massa’s contract running out this year, and Ferrari showing clear interest in Perez, it might very well be the Brazilian’s last drive for the Scarlet team. Kamui Kobayashi, too had a brilliant race. He was his impressive, aggressive self, coming alive at the restart, as he has so often in the past.

All in all, a very eventful start to the 2012 season has shown that the field is wide open with McLaren, Mercedes, RedBull all showing good pace. McLaren would look at maintaining their form, Mercedes would love to improve reliability in order to mix it with the top teams, while RedBull clearly are just a few tweaks away from regaining optimal trim, as shown by their race pace. Ferrari seem doubtful to challenge right at the top, but the midfiled battle is sure to heat up as we head to Malaysia for round 2 of the 2102 F1 season.

The points scorer’s for today’s race are as follows:

  1. Jenson Button – 25
  2. Sebastian Vettel – 20
  3. Lewis Hamilton – 15
  4. Mark Webber -12
  5. Fernando Alonso – 10
  6. Kamui Kobayashi – 8
  7. Kimi Raikkonen – 6
  8. Sergio Perez – 4
  9. Daniel Ricciardo – 2
  10. Paul DiResta – 1
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