The 2011 Australian Grand Prix was due to represent a first step into F1’s brave new world.  Pirelli returned to the sport after a 20 year absence, tasked with designing tyres that would fall to pieces if you so much as looked at them the wrong way.  KERS, the energy recovery system used to give a power boost for 6.6 seconds each lap, made a comeback after an underwhelming debut in 2009.  Both moves were designed to aid overtaking, as was the introduction of the Drag Reduction System or DRS, a moveable rear wing designed to reduce drag (no, really), increasing the top speed of any driver running within a second of the car ahead.

The expectation was that we’d see much more on-track action and a raft of shock results.  The reality was that we nearly did.  For the majority, though, the first race of the new season was about a slightly different way of achieving the usual result.

The front row of the grid was occupied by a pair of world champions, 2008 winner Lewis Hamilton lining up behind reigning king Sebastian Vettel.  While Vettel made a scorching getaway from pole, Hamilton fluffed his lines, too much wheelspin leaving him vulnerable to attack from the second Red Bull of Mark Webber.  By turn 1, Lewis had boosted his way back into P2, thus answering one of the big questions of the weekend.  McLaren’s KERS was working fine, but Red Bull’s wasn’t working at all.  Behind the leading trio, Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso went toe-to-toe and ran wide, inviting Vitaly Petrov and Felipe Massa by.

In the middle of the first corner action, Michael Schumacher was bottled up behind Alonso’s slow Ferrari, thus losing all of the ground gained through one of his now standard lightning getaways.  Despite that, Schumi was still just inside the top 10 as the field streamed into turn 3, just inside the top 10 being the perfect place from which to be harpooned by a Toro Rosso.  Jaime Alguersuari was the assailant, pitting for a new nose as his victim trailed around with a right-rear puncture.  Just behind them, a Williams went sailing into the boondocks, Rubens Barrichello attempting to pass half the world via an outside lane that disappeared long before he ever arrived there.

At the front of the race, a pattern began to develop.  Vettel led as he pleased for the first 10 laps, building a lead of around 4 seconds over Hamilton.  Both men were leaving Webber behind, while the Australian had built a sizeable gap back to Petrov, having far and away his most impressive weekend for Renault.  Behind them, getting further behind with every passing second, were Massa and Button, the pair engaged in a ferocious tussle for 5th place.

Having spied an opportunity to profit at no cost off the start, Felipe was now running some way off the leading pace, to the increasing frustration of Jenson.  The Englishman could very clearly go much faster if given the chance but, no matter how creative his lines became, was equally clearly stuck behind a very wide Ferrari.  Massa’s defence of P5 was stout and robust but perfectly fair, with Button always close enough to use his DRS in the designated zone but never close enough to overtake once he’d done so.  Matters were resolved in the Brazilian’s favour on lap 10, when Button mounted an attack around the outside of the quick turn 10/11 chicane, ran out of road and gained the position by taking a short cut.

Had he then slowed down to let Massa regain the position, he would have been free to fight on.  When a few seconds had passed without any sign of the McLaren moving over, Massa forced the issue by firstly letting his team mate Alonso go by too, then by making a pit stop, making it impossible for Jenson to give the place back.  A drive-through pit lane penalty for the 2009 world champion was the inevitable result.

Webber, his rear tyres shot, had already made the first scheduled pit visit of the season, followed on lap 14 by Vettel.  Hamilton had reduced the gap to 1.5 seconds and stayed out, hoping to put in some fast laps while Vettel was bringing his new tyres up to temperature.  Last year, Lewis would probably have taken the lead.  This year, his Pirellis fell off a cliff just as Sebastian’s came on song, the gap increasing to 7 seconds as the pit stops cycled through.

Petrov and Alonso were about to engage in a battle for 4th which would swiftly swallow up Webber and become a battle for 3rd.  While one Red Bull was running away with it, the other was tearing through tyres while moving at a fairly sedate pace, to the vexation of its pilot.  To make matters worse for Mark, it was rapidly becoming clear that while he’d be making 3 pit stops, the Russian behind him had only made plans for 2.  This was exactly what we wanted to see, knowing that there was more than one way to skin this particular cat and that the best strategy wouldn’t become clear until the final laps, but it hadn’t yet produced any great amount of overtaking on the track.  Was there a solution?

The independent thought alarm was sounding in the cockpit of car number 11.  The problem with the DRS was that for this race, the FIA had put the overtaking zone in the wrong place.  They’d used the start-finish straight, which is the longest straight at Albert Park but is preceded by a fast right hander where the cars can’t follow each other closely, a result of the turbulent air F1 cars produce at speed.  DRS was helping drivers to close up on the car ahead but from too far back to make an overtaking move possible.  Having presumably worked this out, Rubens Barrichello hit upon an idea.  At turn 3 on the opening lap, Rubinho had made a stunningly bad job of overtaking around the outside, but on lap 21 he made a brilliant three-wide pass on the inside of Kamui Kobayashi as both men lapped the broken Mercedes of Schumacher.  Since passing at turn 3 was clearly possible, what would happen if you were to replicate that late-braking lap 1 effort but try the inside line instead?

On lap 23, we had our answer.  Barrichello sent one up the inside of Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes from long distance, clouted the German’s sidepod and caused damage to the cooling system which would lead to the Silver Arrow’s retirement later that lap.  Often in these circumstances a writer will say that it happened “before you could say Jack Robinson,” or something similar, but in this case the gap between Barrichello’s move and the eventual contact was more than long enough to say, “Rubens, this is very, very clearly going to be a crash of some sort.”  Barrichello maintains that he was in fact defending against Kobayashi and only hit Rosberg because the German’s hard tyres had much less grip, leading him to brake earlier.  For the uninitiated, this is the racing driver’s equivalent of “my dog ate my homework.”

Rosberg joined his team mate in retirement, Alguersuari’s earlier assault having caused terminal damage to Schumi’s floor and rear suspension.  Pastor Maldonado and Heikki Kovalainen were on the sidelines with an undisclosed technical glitch and a water leak respectively, while Timo Glock was in for running repairs at Virgin Racing but would eventually rejoin, too far behind to be classified as a finisher.  Running repairs weren’t an option at McLaren after the floor of Hamilton’s car detached itself, the resultant loss of downforce sending Lewis scooting straight on in a shower of sparks at turn 1.  Any lingering hopes of a challenge for victory vanished instantly, though Hamilton’s pace was enough to keep him safe from the chasing pack.

The remaining interest in the race, one which never quite made it beyond the city limits of Intrigue and into the nearby town of Entertainment, surrounded 3 men and their tyres.  Petrov had kept to his 2 stop plan and ran 3rd in the late going, throwing the efforts of 14th placed Nick Heidfeld into sharp focus.  The best finish of his career beckoned, but the black and gold car was being caught at an indecent rate by Alonso’s freshly-tyred, 3-stopping Ferrari.  Further back, Sergio Perez had his Sauber well inside the points.  On the fragile, gripless Pirelli tyres, Perez had made a single stop.  He hadn’t planned to – the intention was to stop twice – but having had to drop back to preserve his tyres while running behind Button, the Mexican found that his lap times were staying consistent enough for long enough to avoid an extra pit stop.

He made it home in 7th, just ahead of Kobayashi in the other Sauber, and did so going at a remarkable pace, doubtless hurried along by his race engineer’s helpful advice.  Perez has one of those engineers who dispense such handy hints as, “Try to pass Button.  Try to pass Button,” as if this thought had never once occurred to the man behind the wheel.  Sergio was one of a pair of impressive rookies, Paul di Resta having kept the experienced Adrian Sutil honest throughout a solid run to P12 for Force India.

Alonso began taking chunks out of Petrov’s advantage in the battle for 3rd, but the Renault driver’s calm approach to last year’s final race in Abu Dhabi has clearly extended into this season.  Vitaly upped his pace again in the final laps, the time saved by avoiding a 3rd stop proving just enough to overcome the advantage of fresh rubber.   The first Russian to make a world championship start came home with a second in hand on his pursuer after a classy, mature performance, becoming the proudest podium finisher you’ll ever see.

Ahead of him, Hamilton took a lonely P2, but a lonely P2 is a dream come true for driver and team after their nightmarish pre-season.  Button’s recovery from that earlier drive-through took him back past Massa legally and into 6th, illustrating that MP4/26 now has genuine pace, for this weekend at least.  Genuine pace, however, wasn’t enough to stop the one-man show at the front.  For the Australian crowd, the wrong Red Bull driver finished 5th, but neither Webber, Hamilton nor anyone else had an answer for the raw pace of the reigning world champion.  2011 started just as 2010 ended, with Sebastian Vettel’s message to the opposition being sent out loud and clear: catch me if you can.

Race Results

1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), 1h29:30.259
2. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), +22.297
3. Vitaly Petrov (Renault), +30.560
4. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), +31.772
5. Mark Webber (Red Bull), +38.171
6. Jenson Button (McLaren), +54.304
7. Sergio Perez (Sauber), +1:05.845
8. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber), +1:16.872
9. Felipe Massa (Ferrari), +1:25.186
10. Sebastien Buemi (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1 lap

11. Adrian Sutil (Force India), +1 lap
12. Paul di Resta (Force India), +1 lap
13. Jaime Alguersuari (Scuderia Toro Rosso), +1 lap
14. Nick Heidfeld (Renault), +1 lap
15. Jarno Trulli (Lotus), +2 laps
16. Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin), +4 laps

Not classified:

Timo Glock (Virgin), +9 laps, running at finish
Rubens Barrichello (Williams), +10 laps, mechanical
Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), +36 laps, cooling
Heikki Kovalainen (Lotus), +39 laps, water leak
Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), +39 laps, accident damage
Pastor Maldonado (Williams), +49 laps, mechanical

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