After a winter off-season extended by the cancellation of the Bahrain Grand Prix, Formula One finally returned on a windy autumn afternoon in Melbourne. Four months without a Grand Prix, it would have been a fun race even if it weren’t fun. But it was fun. Warning: spoilers.
It’s easy to be the first Grand Prix of the year. The track can be Tilke-dull. The racing can be more processional than a royal funeral. The established order can change or not change. And it will not matter at all because the first Grand Prix of the year generally coincides with the coming of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and it finally puts an end to all the rumors, testing, guesswork, more testing, promising concepts, hopeless concepts, and increasingly desperate PR events that make up the winter off-season. The racing cars are back! They make volumes of noise! Fernando Alonso is still mean and sulking! It’s such a relief, really.
What the 2011 Australian Grand Prix felt most like was a day in school after a really, really long summer vacation. There were several moments in the race which felt like the restlessness of a schoolboy after an endless July followed by an endless August of wild rumpus, videogames, books, no schedules, or whatever it is that schoolboys and off-season multimillionaire racing drivers do these days. Jenson Button, for instance, was completely unlike his suave, Prostian self, attacking Felipe Massa’s Ferrari after a lousy start like a 20-year-old hothead for laps on end (above).
His McLaren team was a fine partner in schoolboyness, failing to extract him from his unpleasant situation, until yet another aggressive move put him off the track, where he completed his pass of the Ferrari, realized that he’d have to let Massa regain his track position, but by this time Massa’s teammate Fernando Alonso was also breathing down his neck, so he waited. Then both Ferraris were taken into the pits for new tires, leaving the steward no option but to slap Button with a drive-through penalty, a painful sight in the long, 40 mph pitlane of Albert Park. The 2009 world champion finished the race sixth in a drive that was good enough for fourth or even third, and to make things at least a little right he passed Massa for real in the vaning laps of the race. His teammate Lewis Hamilton, apt pupil even on this first day, finished second, driving like Button drives on his good days.
What are McLarens doing passing Ferraris anyway? The lacklustre performance of the radical but unreliable McLaren MP4-26 was completely turned around with a new exhaust system delivered before the race, in crates upon crates of stuff shipped across the world from Woking, placing the McLarens at the head of the pack, and pushing Ferrari back into third
to fourth best. Fernando Alonso wasn’t too happy. He finished fourth, Massa
Make that not quite the head of the pack. For the head of the pack is Sebastian Vettel, driving the third iteration of Adrian Newey’s Red Bull, the RB7, and the reigning world champion followed an incredible pole position of 0.8 seconds ahead of everyone else with a drive that was in a league of its own. He bolted off the line, led by 2.5 seconds at the end of the first lap, and drove the Red Bull home as if out on a Sunday afternoon drive. Meanwhile, his teammate Mark Webber suffered in his home Grand Prix yet again, qualifying third and finishing a sad fifth in what looks like a world championship car already.
Adrian Newey has apparently unlocked the secret of this year’s rules, which the wonderful Craig Scarborough has illustrated for us in a post last December, but it was a dusty corner of the rulebook which spoiled the magnificent race of 21-year-old Mexican rookie Sergio Pérez Mendoza—born in 19-OMFG-90!—who drove his Sauber to an incredible seventh place in the brutal field of 2011, making do with one lone pitstop in a race where, running on brand-new and intentionally fragile Pirelli P Zeros, everyone else made two and many drivers made three. His teammate, overtaking overlord Kamui Kobayashi, finished eighth in a great display from Sauber, only to be disqualified after the race for not complying with Articles 3.10.1 and 3.10.2 of the F1 Technical Regulations, which demand wing parts that do not have “a local concave radius of curvature smaller than 100mm”. Surely that was why Pérez beat ⅔ in his first Grand Prix. On the upside, this means that Force India’s fellow rookie Paul di Resta, cousin of two-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, finished in the points.
And what of Michael Schumacher, driving his beautiful Mercedes? He suffered a puncture, damaged his car, and had to retire after 19 laps. Two laps later, his teammate Nico Rosberg was punted off the track by Rubens Barrichello’s Williams, in yet another display of post-vacation schoolboy restlessness. A headache of a Sunday for Mercedes team principal Ross Brawn, quite unlike two years ago, when he showed up here with his eponymous racing team, rescued from the ruins of Honda’s withdrawal from F1, and saw his drivers Button and Barrichello finish 1–2 in what would become a commanding championship year for Brawn GP. Which is now Mercedes. Formula One is a historian’s wet dream with oysters.
The race marked the debut of the driver adjustable rear wing, which works like this: if a driver is within one second of the driver ahead of him at a particular point on the track, he can press a button marked WING on his $50,000 steering wheel, which moves a flap on his rear wing to reduce drag, allowing him to build up greater speed for an attempted overtake. It would be a cool idea if it wasn’t so ridiculously artificial in execution. The movable part of the wing can only be activated if the incredibly narrow set of circumstances above hold true. It feels less like motor racing than like a power-up scheme in a videogame.
The other technology debut—actually, make that re-debut—this year is the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), which has already had a less-than-stellar year in 2009. Perhaps it is a telling sign that the system is far from perfect that Sebastian Vettel’s scorching drive was achieved without a trace of KERS in his car. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner explained after the race that chief designer Adrian Newey had refused to compromise on the aerodynamics of the car, which had left very little space for the overheating-prone KERS system, and that Red Bull are still trying to figure out how to fit it in the car. Based on Vettel’s drive, it doesn’t look like they’re in desperate need of a fix, although they plan to have it ready by the next race. Score one for genius and aerodynamics over committee-driven technological gimmickery.
Albert Park is no Spa, Suzuka, or Interlagos, so it may have been a dull race if not for all the anticipation, and for Vitaly Petrov, who put the very clever new Renault on the podium—F1’s first Russian up there—showing the incredible improvement both he and Renault have made over the winter, fading his Putin boy pay driver image, and making everyone wonder what the injured Robert Kubica could have done with the team’s other car, driven to 12th place by
the monumentally uninspiring Nick Heidfeld, and that was after both Saubers were disqualified.
It looks like we’ll have another stellar year. In the race for second place, that is. Because, frankly, it’s very hard to see how anyone can possibly catch Sebastian Vettel in the RB7. Then again, this is Formula One, evolving with the speed of cyanobacteria on gamma rays, so by the time the second race of the season kicks off under the thunderclouds of Malaysia, we may see a revised pecking order. Michael Schumacher may kick ass. Fernando Alonso may overtake Vitaly Petrov. So stay tuned.
Australia | Malaysia | China | Turkey | Spain | Monaco | Canada | Europe | Britain | Germany | Hungary | Belgium | Italy | Singapore | Japan | South Korea | India | Abu Dhabi | Brazil
Photography by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images, Mark Thompson/Getty Images, Clive Mason/Getty Images, Paul Gilham/Getty Images. Gallery curated by Natalie Polgar. Illustration by Peter Orosz.