Free at last! Let those racecars run! The winter was short, and even shorter what with personnel moves, technical adjustments, and shifting teams. Testing helped break the ice. But there’s nothing like actual points competition. And the season starts in Australia with a classic the-more-things-change the-more-they-stay-the-same setup.
On the change side, Red Bull Racing – for which two-time consecutive champion Sebastian Vettel ran the table in 2011 -- is relegated to Row 3 of the starting grid, with Ferrari qualifying P12 (Fernando Alonso) and P16 (Felipe Massa). At the same time, Lotus driver Romain Grosjean marked his return to the series by qualifying at P3.
P1 and P2? Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button respectively, backing up McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh’s offseason assertions that the team hadn’t missed the boat by eschewing the stepped-nose design for a more conventional (and lower profile) approach.
The Australian grid also marked the first time six former world champions lined up in the same race together. In addition to Vettel, Button, Hamilton, and Alonso, Michael Schumacher returned for Mercedes to take P4, and Kimi Raikkonen returned to F1 competition as Grosjean’s Lotus teammate.
Button pipped Hamilton for first at the start, while Nico Rosberg swept from P7 to 4th, slotting in behind teammate Schumi for an all Mercedes-powered front four heading into the first straight. Before Lap 2, however, Vettel overtook Rosberg for P4, and in the second lap Grosjean was taken out via contact with Pastor Maldonado (Williams).
Michael Schumacher retired with gearbox problems during Lap 11, moving Vettel up to P3, and when Alonso overtook Rosberg for fourth, suddenly things didn’t look all that different afterall, with McLaren, Red Bull, and Ferrari holding down the top 4 spots.
Vettel outpitted Hamilton on Lap 38 (of 58) to move into P2, and when Pastor Maldonado crashed out on the final lap of the race while hounding Alonso for P5, the final running order was secured as McLaren (Button), Red Bull (Vettel), McLaren (Hamilton), Red Bull (Webber), and Ferrari (Alonso).
Looking further back in the field, however, there was much hope for a wider variety of action in 2012. Grosjean and Maldonado both showed legs, while Sauber drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez moved P13 to P6 and P22 to P8 respectively. Raikkonen also acquitted himself well in his return, finishing 7th after starting P17, and setting the table for Renault and Sauber to be the primary challenges to 2011’s Big 3.
Driver standings - Top 10
25 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
18 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
15 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
12 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
10 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Ferrari
8 – Kamui Kobayashi (Japan) – Sauber-Ferrari
6 – Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) – Lotus-Renault
4 – Sergio Perez (Mexico) – Sauber-Ferrari
2 – Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) – STR-Ferrari
1- Paul di Resta (Scotland) – Force India-Mercedes
Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
40 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
30- RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
12 - Sauber-Ferrari – Kobayashi, Perez
10 - Ferrari - Alonso, Massa
6 – Lotus-Renault – Raikkonen, Romain Grosjean
2 – STR-Ferrari – Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne
1 – Force India-Mercedes – di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg
Next event: Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix – Kuala Lumpur - Mar. 23-25, 2012