Jenson Button took his first victory for McLaren with a fantastic drive and an inspired tyre strategy in an action-packed Australian Grand Prix.
After many critics complained about the lack of on-track entertainment in the previous event in Bahrain, the race in Albert Park delivered in terms of intense battles and overtaking, all thanks to the rain!
The reigning world champion’s bold early switch from intermediates to slicks paid off, with the race that began in damp conditions. Even though Jenson tapped the former champion Fernando Alonso into a spin at the first corner which also damaged Michael Schumacher’s front wing, he was able to recover from this and benefitted Sebastian Vettel’s brake failure to take the chequered flag in style.
Renault’s Robert Kubica finished in a superb second position, holding off the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. While Nico Rosberg grabbing fifth for Mercedes after a late tangle between Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren and Mark Webber’s Red Bull.
In a direct contrast to the processional race in Sakhir, Melbourne provided thrills and spills, with the race commencing on a damp track.
As the 22-car the field approached Turn 1 for the first time, contact between the slow-starting Alonso and Button sent the Ferrari spinning into Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes, breaking the front wing, with Hamilton taking avoiding action with a trip across the grass.
But a far bigger accident occurred at Turn 6. Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi arrived at the corner missing a front wing and lacking downforce, speared into the wall before sledging back across the track and violently collecting both Sebastien Buemi’s Toro Rosso and Nico Hulkenberg’s Williams mid-corner. That shunt promoted a safety car.
Even though Red Bull Racing took the front row slot, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa made a superb getaway from fifth to split Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber on the opening lap. But the normal formation was resumed two laps after the restart. As the home favourite slipped pass the Brazilian into Turn 6.
The McLarens had ended up sixth and seventh once the first corner chaos unfolded, with Button in front until Hamilton dived past him into Turn 3 on lap six. Jenson then took a risk to pit for dry Bridgestone which initially looked like it was the wrong decision as he skittered over the gravel at Turn 3 on his out lap – but fastest sector times around the rest of the lap proved Button’s gamble was wise.
Soon the whole field took notice of Button’s purple sector times and although the two Red Bulls stayed out longer expecting more rain, both Vettel and Webber pitted for a fresh set of Bridgestone.
That pit-stop went well for Vettel as he rejoined the circuit in front of the all-form Button, who had vaulted to second position thanks to his inspired early tyre switch, but for Webber who pitted until lap ten, it was too late… As Kubica and Rosberg went passed followed by Massa as the Australian exited the pits.
Sebastian soon started to edge away from his rival Jenson, while Kubica and Rosberg dropping back from the two leaders. Behind them, we had an epic racing scenario, mostly involving drivers trying to get around Massa.
Webber surged down the inside of the Ferrari into Turn 1 on lap 15, with Hamilton immediately following the Red Bull through and then attacking Webber into Turn 3 – where both went wide, with the Australian going right over the gravel. That allowed Felipe back ahead of Lewis, while by the time Mark regained the asphalt the charging Fernando had also gone through, the Bahrain winner making an aggressive fightback following his first lap spin.
Six laps later Hamilton successfully passed Massa for fifth into Turn 1, despite the Ferrari’s best defensive efforts, with Alonso trying to do likewise into Turn 3, only to run wide on the still-damp extremes of the track and lose a place to Webber again!
Once free of Massa, Hamilton charged straight onto the gearbox of Rosberg’s Silver Arrows and took fourth with an incredible pass around the outside into the sixth gear Turn 11. That cost the McLaren momentum onto the next straight and Rosberg looked set to repass him into Turn 13 – but had to back off due to yellow flags as moments earlier race leader Vettel had slid into the gravel as his Red Bull suffered a brake failure.
Poor Sebastian. Yet again, he was driving well but to record another DNF is a major disappointment. Better reliability is needed if Red Bull Racing wants to win the championship.
With Vettel out of the race, Button found himself in the lead by six seconds over Kubica with Hamilton determined to get by.
By half-distance many drivers were struggling with tyre degradation on the soft compound once the track dried and for Hamilton, Rosberg and Webber, the trio made the decision to pit for a fresh set rubber.
Webber pitted on lap 31, and managed to get around Rosberg through Turns 2 and 3 as the Mercedes rejoined after its stop a lap later. Hamilton waited two laps longer and stayed ahead of the now-flying Webber, despite a scare at Turn 13 when he took to the grass but was able to muscle back in front of the Red Bull at Turn 14 as it too slid wide.
Button had no concerns about tyre wear and continued to pull away from the Sauber of Kubica, who now had both Ferraris hounding him, while half a minute behind Button, Hamilton, Webber and Rosberg made the most of their fresher tyres to take time advantage out of the leaders.
With eight laps left, Kubica, Massa, Alonso, Hamilton and Webber were running close together holding second to sixth positions, with Rosberg gaining on this train of cars as well. Hamilton’s tyres went off again in the Ferraris’ dirty air, but he still got alongside Alonso into Turn 13 two laps from the end. As Alonso kept Hamilton to the outside, Webber hit the back of the McLaren under braking, smashing the Red Bull’s front wing and spinning Hamilton through the gravel. The latter rejoined in sixth, with Webber falling to ninth spot.
This was a frustrating end for Lewis Hamilton’s trouble weekend and it was no surprise to hear the McLaren driver voicing his strong opinions after the chequered flag.
As for his team-mate Jenson Button, he stayed out of the mayhem – maintaining his tyres in perfect shape – to score his dream victory for the team. His margin over Kubica was a comfortable 12 seconds.
Although Adrian Sutil was an early retirement for Force India, team-mate Tonio Liuzzi managed to score again with seventh – passing Sauber’s Pedro de la Rosa earlier and then gaining another position when Rubens Barrichello decided to pit for new tyres and dropped from eighth to tenth. He then inherited seventh thanks to the Hamilton/Webber tangle.
As for Michael Schumacher, it was another sub-par performance for the seven-time world champion. It didn’t help that he was delayed in the first corner incident and he spent most of the other laps stuck behind Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso. Eventually he passed the young Spaniard and both were able to get pass the struggling de la Rosa, allowing Michael to at least salvage a point for Mercedes GP.
Heikki Kovalainen got to the finish for Lotus in P13, with Karun Chandhok also going the distance for Hispania in P14. A great achievement for the team considering the lack of testing. As for the other new team cars, Jarno Trulli didn’t make the start for Lotus due to hydraulic problems. Renault’s Vitaly Petrov was the other retirement, spinning into the gravel on lap nine.
So a fantastic result for Jenson Button and McLaren, but an even greater one for the sport’s reputation. After the heavy criticism following the season-opener Bahrain Grand Prix, the race in Melbourne provided many on-track action and incidents to entertain the fans. Perhaps the FIA should organise more racing events in the changeable weather conditions from now on?
Race results from Albert Park, 58 laps:
1. Button McLaren-Mercedes 1h33:36.531
2. Kubica Renault +12.034
3. Massa Ferrari +14.488
4. Alonso Ferrari +16.304
5. Rosberg Mercedes +16.683
6. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes +29.898
7. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes +59.847
8. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth +1:00.536
9. Webber Red Bull-Renault +1:07.319
10. Schumacher Mercedes +1:09.391
11. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari +1:11.301
12. De la Rosa Sauber-Ferrari +1:14.084
13. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth +2 laps
14. Chandhok HRT-Cosworth +4 laps
Glock Virgin-Cosworth 41 laps
Vettel Red Bull-Renault 26 laps
Di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 25 laps
Sutil Force India-Mercedes 12 laps
Petrov Renault 10 laps
Senna HRT-Cosworth 5 laps
Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 1 lap
Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1 lap
Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari 1 lap
Trulli Lotus-Cosworth 1 lap
World Championship standings, round 2:
1. Alonso 37
2. Massa 33
3. Button 31
4. Hamilton 23
5. Rosberg 20
6. Kubica 18
7. Vettel 12
8. Schumacher 9
9. Liuzzi 8
10. Webber 6
11. Barrichello 5
1. Ferrari 70
2. McLaren-Mercedes 54
3. Mercedes 29
4. Red Bull-Renault 18
5. Renault 18
6. Force India-Mercedes 8
7. Williams-Cosworth 5
NEXT RACE: Malaysian Grand Prix, Sepang. April 2-4.