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Friday, 6 April 2012

Formula 1 - Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix 2012

Malaysian GP - Turns 1 & 2
OK, so I haven't reported on the first two races of the 2012 Formula 1 season yet. That's not because I didn't watch them, it's just sort of ended up that way. If you want a full report, you'll have to read this one (Rd.1) and this one (Rd.2) on the official Formula 1 website. Results tables are here and here, and F1Fanatic's very interesting Stats & Facts pages for each race are here and here. Perhaps I shouldn't be linking you to more helpful sites, but I can at least give my opinion, which you won't find anywhere else! I promise I'll report on China properly. For now though, here's extended highlights of the first two races. Well, you know how it is these days...

Australia: The first race already feels like it was a long time ago. It was great to see McLaren lock out the front row after they'd really closed the gap to Red Bull at the end of last season, with Lewis Hamilton showing the world he's still got it and setting the Pole Position time well before the end of Q3. Alas, Jenson Button - the first of Hamilton's team mates to beat him in the driver's championship - started on the right and beat him into the first corner. As a few cars piled into eachother the Mercedes cars got off to a lightning start, which when matched with their high top speed made them seem like the team to look out for, as they got ahead of the surprisingly far-back Red Bulls. Ferrari, with their bold new car, were in the middle of nowhere, although Fernando Alonso managed to outperform his car and haul it up the field as the race progressed.

Then unfortunately, two of the midfield teams that had put a car surprisingly high - Lotus GP's Romain Grosjean and Williams's Pastor Maldonado, who qualified 3rd and 8th respectively - came together very early on in the race, which broke Grosjean's steering and put him out, a major disappointment for the returning Frenchman who had surprised everybody in the very strong-looking Lotus E20. It was thus up to Kimi Räikkönen to try and score some points for the Enstone-based team, and in the end The Iceman managed to climb up from 17th place to 7th by the chequered flag! Sure, 7th isn't 3rd, but still.

Pastor Maldonado would end up getting karmic retribution though, in the cruellest way possible. On form to earn more points in the first race than Williams as a whole scored in the entire 2011 season, he was chasing Fernando Alonso for 5th position, getting closer and closer, when on the last lap he made a mistake at turn 6 and speared off into the wall. While some dislike Pastor for buying his way into a seat, I really felt for him. While we want the heroes of the sport to maintain their status as such, it's always great to see middling teams and/or drivers have a surprising finish - Minardi scoring a point, for instance - so it was very sad to see him lose it so close to the end...

Lewis Hamilton lost a place to a resurgent Sebastian Vettel in the pits during a Safety Car period caused by Vitaly Petrov's Caterham (which used to be Lotus, but not the Lotus that Petrov raced for last year - they're the ones who are still called Lotus, but aren't actually affiliated with Lotus anymore) stopped on the pit straight with a technical error. This meant that the pole-sitter finished in 3rd place, while his team mate held off Vettel to win the race for the third time in four years. This left Lewis feeling dejected on the podium, as he felt he should've won.

Malaysia: Rain. That was the key element of the second race of the season. But then, that's kind of what you get for holding the Malaysian Grand Prix during the rainy season. Remember 2009? Yeah...

This time pole-sitter Hamilton kept his lead at the start, but it was Romain Grosjean who surprised everyone, again, by snatching 3rd place... again, the difference being that he started the race 6th and overtook both Red Bulls and Michael Schumacher by the end of the spiralling first turns. Meanwhile, Mark Webber decided to do what team mate SebVet did the race before and drive right round the outside of Schumacher, managing Grosjean as well before turn 3. It was then that several people got past the Mercedes and the Lotus, as they connected in the slippery conditions, spinning the septuple World Champion 360° and putting the Frenchman way back. Would Grosjean recover? No. On lap 4 he succumbed to the rain and slid off into the gravel, meaning that for the second race in a row, he started brilliantly and retired all too early (well, as if there's ever a "right" time to retire)...

The grid had started on (green) Intermediate tyres, but before long they were rendered futile, with Sergio Pérez being the first to blink before they all started piling in for (blue) Full-Wets. After frantic pitting, the Mexican, only in his second season, had got all the way up to third place. The rain got so bad that the race only reached lap 9 before it was halted for 50 minutes (so I'm told, but because I had a lie-in and watched it on the BBC, I didn't have to sit through it :-P). At the restart, Jenson Button dived in for different tyres again, putting Pérez in second, with Fernando Alonso passing Mark Webber for 3rd place at the first turn. When Hamilton pitted for Intermediates, Sergio inherited the lead of the race on lap 14, after Lewis fell behind his team mate due to traffic issues in the pitlane (he got past Jenson half a lap later though, when the '09 champion collided with Narain Karthikeyan's HRT and lost half his front wing, forcing him to pit again). Getting out ahead of both McLarens thanks to Ferrari's lightning tyre changes was Fernando Alonso, putting him in second place.

Other stuff happened in the race, but really the focus was now on Pérez vs Alonso, Sauber - who are Ferrari's 'B-Team' in many ways - versus Scuderia Ferrari, a team who nobody expected to be legitimately leading the second race of the season. But then, nobody expected Sauber up there either! When Pérez pitted in for Inters, he narrowly ended up ahead of Alonso, but his lead was short-lived as the Spañard took a wide line into the second part of the first corner, straight-lined the exit and subsequently out-accelerated the Mexican, staying ahead for the rest of the race. It wasn't entirely that straightforward though - Pérez may have fallen back, but he was seriously on a charge to catch up after a brief taste of first place in an F1 race. While Vettel was busy cutting up Karthikeyan and getting a puncture for it - the fallout of which you're probably aware of - Pérez was setting fastest middle sector after fastest middle sector, even setting the fastest lap at one point, only to be beaten by Kimi Räikkönen (who finished 5th after starting 10th), who is the third-highest on the league table of fastest laps.

At any rate, Pérez got within spitting distance of Alonso, but on lap 50 of 56, his team told him "We need this position, we need this position", which is suspected by many to be a message from, ahem, Sauber's 'A-Team' of sorts, who would rather the cars finished in this order and not the other way around, but could easily have simply been concern after seeing what Pastor Maldonado did in Australia while chasing Alonso. On the same lap, at turn 14, Pérez got it wrong, running wide on the sweeping, tightening right-hander. A corner like that is like turn 1/2 at Suzuka, or indeed the two Degner turns (which have also been copied by the Sepang circuit), in that if you run onto the green stuff in the first part, there's nothing you can do about the second part. You'll just be thrown off to the left. Happily Sergio avoided the gravel, but he was now out of reach of the race lead, which was slightly disappointing. Nevertheless, he held it together and finished the race second place, becoming the first Mexican on the podium in 40 years with his first ever top-three finish.

It was great to see, and considering Fernando's team mate Felipe Massa was just nowhere this race, there's a lot of pressure for the Mexican to be promoted into the Brazilian's seat next year (or perhaps sooner according to some, but Ferrari aren't giving up on Felipe yet). I don't think anyone's going anywhere mid-season, but Sergio deserves all the credit he's getting for managing what he did in the madness of Malaysia. Known for being able to conserve tyres very well, he now has a solid car underneath him too, a car so good that Red Bull have already copied its exhaust system. In fact, the Sauber C31 is so good that Ferrari is reportedly copying the entire rear half of it for their B-Spec car, to be introduced at the only in-season testing session at Mugello. Considering the Sauber has a Ferrari engine and gearbox, that should be fairly straightforward. Will it help them get up to where they want to be? For Ferrari, 2nd place is the first of the losers, so clearly they're desperate to make their F2012 work. Fernando has already suggested a strengthening brace for their car, so there's no doubt the car will get better and better as the year progresses.

Despite Alonso now leading the championship, McLaren's strength in less chaotic races means that Ferrari are in danger of leaving their return to ultimate form too late. Let's see what unfolds in China next weekend, shall we? In the mean time, Happy Easter... by which I mean Happy Chocolate-Eating Day!

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