In a new series, before each race, I will look back at the race from last year, and talk about what we can expect this year. I would have done this for Bahrain, but I hadn’t thought of it then!
Button and Barrichello celebrate their historic 1-2
At no point over the winter of 2008/2009 did anyone at the Honda garage in Brackley think they would even be reasonably competitive in 2009, never even be able to compete. But, thanks to a bit of Ross Brawn magic, the team was saved, and their car made its testing debut three weeks before the season opener in Australia. Their pace shocked the paddock, as the Ferraris appeared quick – right up to the point where the Brawn went out on track. Richard Branson clearly saw something in the cars, and rushed to get his Virgin group sponsorship hastily applied on the cars, two days before the race. In qualifying, the Brawns took the front row, and the real surprise was when the fuel weights were revealed, and they were certainly not running light. As the cars lined up on the grid in Australia, with Button and Barrichello on the front row, the entire world knew they were in for something special.
It was, but not initially in the way they would have expected. Barrichello nearly stalled on the grid, and fell nearly 8 places before the first corner. He was far too quick to try and recover, and ended up in a collision with Mark Webber, which consequently took out Heikki Kovalainen, Adrian Sutil, and Nick Heidfeld. He remained in the midfield, but then ran into the back of Kimi Raikkonen a few laps later, whih damaged his front wing. This would be replaced at his first pit stop on Lap 18.
While all this was happening, Button was sailing away at the front, and pitted on Lap 19. However, unknown to him, Kazuki Nakajima crashed on that exact same lap, bringing out the safety car. Button had timed his pit stop to perfection, but still saw his 47.7 second lead reduced to nothing, until the safety car pitted on Lap 24. After this, he started to make a lead for himself again. Further back, it became apparent that there were problems with the tyres. The super-softs wore out after only 9 or 10 laps, which severely affected the Ferraris who took them on their first stint, and the medium tyres were impossible to put heat into.
Kubica crashes after colliding with Vettel
This problem came to a climax on Lap 55. Vettel, in 2nd, was struggling with the graining super-softs, while Kubica in 3rd was flying on the medium tyres. Into Turn 2, and when Kubica tried to go round the outside, Vettel understeered into the BMW Sauber, and both cars collided. They both managed to keep going, with broken front wings, but not for long. Both drivers crashed within a few corners, because of chronic understeer from their damaged front wings. While Kubica was out on the spot, Vettel attempted to keep going on three wheels. His thinking behind this was that there were only a few laps left, and since the safety car would be out again for their crash, nobody would be able to overtake him, and he could keep 2nd place. He kept going for a few laps, but eventually gave up with two laps to go, and parked his car. The stewards were unimpressed with these actions, and handed him a 10-place grid penalty for Malaysia.
Meanwhile, under the safety car, there was even more action. In 3rd place, Jarno Trulli was struggling to keep his tyres warm under safety car conditions, locked a wheel, and ran onto the grass. While that happened, Lewis Hamilton moved up past him. For the next half a lap or so, both drivers talked to their teams on the radio, about whether Hamilton had to give the place back or not. McLaren decided to play it safe, and ordered Hamilton to give the place back to Trulli. While Trulli was initially confused, he soon took the place back, and finished 3rd. But, more was to follow after the race. McLaren, after the race, told the stewards that Hamilton had not been instructed to let Trulli past, and Jarno had gone past of his own accord. This penalty after the race meant Trulli was demoted to 12th, and Hamilton took 3rd. But, this was to turn into a large controversy before Malaysia.
After all of his incidents, Rubens Barrichello was incredibly lucky to be in 2nd place. His team-mate Button was slightly luck not to have been caught by Kubica in the closing stages, but his crash left the coast clear for a Brawn GP 1-2. This was the first time that a debut team had scored a 1-2 finish in their first race since Mercedes-Benz in 1954 with Juan Manuel Fangio and Karl Kling. Behind this duo, it was Trulli (yet to be penalised), Hamilton, Glock, Alonso, Rosberg, and debutant Sebastien Buemi for Toro Rosso. Neither Ferrari finished, as Massa had a mechanical problem, while Raikkonen spun and retired afterwards.
Button celebrates after winning in Australia
Button’s historic victory was the 200th for a British driver. This 1-2 finish indicated the start of a glorious season for Brawn GP. But, the battle of Trulli and Hamilton was about to resurface again. The FIA soon found out that Hamilton and McLaren had lied to the stewards, and disqualified him from the race. Trulli was handed back his 3rd position. Before Malaysia, it would be announced that Dave Ryan, who influenced Hamilton to lie to the stewards, would be fired from McLaren, and Hamilton would hold a special press conference to apologise.
So, what can we expect for next week’s race in Australia? The team formerly known as Brawn – Mercedes – doesn’t appear to have the pace to win, although Nico Rosberg is gunning for a podium. Ferrari, despite their torrid record in the last 2 years in Australia, must be confident, after their 1-2 finish in Bahrain. McLaren will be looking to improve upon the last race, and hopefully get Button higher up the field this time. And Red Bull just have to pray that Renault have fixed their engine reliability woes.
The tyre compounds are the same as last year, with super-softs and mediums being the choice again. Last year’s difficulty of the super-softs graining and wearing too quickly looks to have mostly been solved by Bridgestone this year, but expect the medium to be the tyre of choice next weekend. Again, unless there is an incredibly quick rule change, expect a 1-stop strategy, with the medium tyres to be used first. Some teams may opt to use the super-softs first, but I think that this is a really bad idea. No matter how hard Bridgestone work, the super-softs will still wear quickly. The very heavy fuel loads at the start of the race will mean excessive wear on softer tyres within only about 10 laps. Therefore, my ideal strategy would be to use the medium tyres for about 40 (out of 58) laps, with the super-softs lasting for the last 18. If the mediums do not last 40 laps, which they might not, then expect a two-stop strategy, with mediums used first, then two stints on the super-soft tyres.
One mechanical difficulty this year will be brakes. Australia has always had a reputation for heavily worn brakes, thanks to its many hard-braking areas in various places around the track. Like the tyres, the full tank of fuel at the start will mean huge amounts of wear on the brakes in the first stint. Therefore, don’t be expecting to see full braking by the drivers in the first stint, unless the teams have developed more durable brakes. As the fuel burns away, you would expect to see track times to decrease rapidly, but don’t expect too much of it. By the time that the fuel will be low, I would expect the brakes to be shot by this point.
Another part of the car that will be prone to wear is the engine. According to Williams, two-thirds of the lap is spent at full throttle, so there will be a high degree of engine wear here. Expect to see the Ferraris use their first engine (practice and qualifying) in practice here in Australia, and then use their third engine for qualifying and the race. The second engine used in the Bahrain race will be used later in the season.
As for the drivers? Expect to see Nico Rosberg perform well here, as he has a good track record here. Australia 2008 is where he got his first podium, don’t forget. He would have done better than 7th last year, if his tyres had been up to scratch. Apart from him, Lewis Hamilton has always been able to get a good result here. In his first ever race in 2007, he overtook Fernando Alonso and Robert Kubica on the first corner, and did a fine job keeping that position after that. He dominated the first race in 2008, and in 2009 fought his way up from the back of the grid to 4th. His lying after the race may have spoiled it all, but he still has great form here.
The new teams will hardly expect to finish here, with the track’s car-breaker record. If anyone can do it, it’s Lotus, as both Trulli and Kovalainen have good experience of this track, and know how to handle it. But, their Hitco brakes will probably not be up to the challenge, although their Cosworth engine should perform well. Expect the same from Virgin and HRT, but their hydraulic problems will probably not be fixed fully in time.
So, before any of the cars take to the streets of Melbourne, my provisional winner would be Sebastian Vettel. Red Bull, thanks to their Renault engine, can carry 10kg less fuel than their rivals at the start, and this will be a huge advantage in the first stint, which may enable them to use the super-soft tyres at the start, if they wish. If the car is fast enough, expect Vettel to take the win, although I’m not so sure about pole position. As long as their engine holds up this time.