Thoughts I have following the Australian Grand Prix

The opening race of every season is a much hyped affair but it seemed that this season’s Australian Grand Prix had a much greater level of expectation heaped on its shoulders. Maybe it was because this would be the first act in the sequel to the thrilling title battle in 2010, or maybe it was the changes implemented in an effort to improve the racing. One way or another it seemed that Melbourne was on the tip of everyone’s tongues this weekend.

As ever throughout 2011 will bring you some thoughts following each weekend of racing. In this week’s opening instalment the Drag Reduction System, Pirelli tyres will be focussed on as well as the performances of some of the teams and drivers from over the course of the weekend.

So without further ado I think that…..

The DRS showed some potential in Melbourne DRS was undoubtedly one of the most talked about changes for Formula 1 in 2011 throughout the winter. Since the system was originally discussed there has been a vocal group of fans that said this was an artificial method of creating overtaking and that it would remove the challenge of getting ahead of a competitor.

Melbourne showed that this is far from the case. Jenson Button perfectly illustrated that while it aided him to get close to Felipe Massa into the opening corner the system did not make it possible to easily drive past your opponent. It was clear that drivers were able to take advantage of the DRS and get closer to their rivals than in the past but that the overtaking moves we saw into turn one were still an act of skill and bravery.

The placing of the overtaking zone played its part in making it difficult to make a move. The final corner in Melbourne is a fast, understeer inducing right hander making it very difficult to stay close to the car in front before entering the fast opening chicane. As a result it is was very difficult to get onto the pit straight close enough to your rival to make a move. A truer test of the device will come in the next race in Sepang. The Malaysian venue has long straights leading into tight hairpins and will allow drivers to really show the effect of the device.

Melbourne was inconclusive as to just how easy the DRS will make overtaking but it is clear that while it aids the drivers attempt to make a move it does not guarantee a successful manoeuvre. If this is the case throughout the year the DRS can be deemed successful in assisting in overtaking but not making it so easy that the challenge is completely removed.

Racing will be greatly improved by the new Pirelli tyres The other talking point from winter testing was the effect that the new Pirelli tyres would have on proceedings. In testing it was apparent that the tyres were suffering from extreme durability issues but in Melbourne, on what is normally one of the most abrasive surfaces on the calendar, it was not durability that concerned the teams but rather getting the right temperature into the tyres.

The temperature issue was perfectly illustrated by Karun Chandhok, Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa all having incidents on out laps in the opening days. It was very surprising for the teams who had come to Melbourne having not experienced any such issues in testing but were more than prepared to make three, or even four, pitstops during the race.

As it was tyre wear was not the issue, by and large, that had been expected prior to the start. While some drivers, notably Mark Webber, struggled during the race the majority of drivers had minimal trouble with the Italian rubber. The fact that Sergio Perez made only a single pitstop en route to a seventh place finish, before being disqualified, showed that Pirelli have designed a capable tyre that will add huge variety to race strategy in 2011.

Divergent strategy returns to Formula 1! Strategy has always been a crucial element of success in Formula 1 and while last year saw races dominated by the field making just one pitstop Melbourne showed that this should be a thing of the past with the leading runners making two stops, the majority of runners making three stops and Perez the lone single stopper.

To see such divergent strategy is clearly encouraging for a year of great racing in Formula 1 and shows that Pirelli has done a great job at developing tyres to the specification required by the teams. Melbourne showed that there was a significant difference in performance from the prime and option tyres which could allow the development of a more intriguing strategic development.

The regulations at present state that drivers need to use both compounds of tyres but a change to the previous regulations where drivers needed to select the tyres for qualifying and the race could be much more interesting. By forcing drivers to select the prime or option tyres before qualifying situations could arise whereby drivers would need to make a decision to qualify at the front and be forced to make an additional stop or qualify in the midfield but avail of a single stop strategy.

This could be another strategic element for the FIA to investigate in future and at circuits where the DRS is at its most advantageous could offer an enthralling battle of different strategies.

It was an unfortunate end to a promising day for Sauber Last season there was a lot of doubt hanging over the Sauber squad. They had shown promising preseason testing form but when the teams arrived in Melbourne it was clear that the team was struggling and that low fuel runs in testing had given them the impression of being a lot faster than they actually were.

As a result when the team arrived at the opening race of this season there were the same doubts about their potential for the coming season. The performances of Perez and his teammate Kamui Kobayashi had looked to banish such thought and painted a picture of a promising year ahead for Sauber…until post race scrutineering.

The rear wings on the Sauber were found to be illegal and while the team have denied that there was any performance to be gained from the unit there was little doubt that their disqualification was merited. It was exceptionally unfortunate for the team but their performance should not be discounted because of this.

The fact that Perez made only one stop showed just how kind the Sauber is on its tyres and illustrates that the team could still have a very good year. While the disqualification will surely have an effect on morale in the team there is no doubt that they should be heartened by the potential of their new car.

The team will appeal the decision and could cite the example of the Ferrari bargeboards in the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix as an example where a manufacturing fault led to the failure to meet regulations.

Vitaly Petrov came of age in Melbourne I have been quite critical of Petrov in the past but his performance in Australia was outstanding and he was the driver of the day.

To take your first podium is always a significant event for any driver but to do it with the emotional pressure heaped on the Renault team following Kubica’s accident showed the developing maturity of Petrov. His performance in Australia was mistake free and showed that he has the talent to be a consistent points scorer this year.

The comprehensive manner in which he trounced teammate Nick Heidfeld was shocking. The German, who has enjoyed strong performances in Melbourne, struggled throughout the week and while it is only the opening race of the season it was clear that Petrov has gained the upper hand in the team. Heidfeld will need to have a particularly strong race in Malaysia if questions are not to be asked about his potential for the coming season. The German struggled for Sauber in the second half of last season and further performances like Australia could indicate that his days as a racer are nearing their conclusion.

Petrov on the other hand can look forward to heading to Malaysia confident of another strong showing. This was far from an inherited podium and after making a strong start to the race he was able to move clear of the Button/Massa battle and then to keep Alonso at bay at the flag. It was a superb performance from Petrov and will have done a lot to lift the spirits of his team.

Hispania are undeserving of a place on the grid The struggles of HRT in 2010 could be attributed to their application being made at the time of the “$40 million budget cap” and as a result the team was unprepared to spend the money needed to develop the car last season.

The fact that they came to Melbourne with a car that had not turned a wheel in testing showed, once again, that they are not capable of meeting the standards of quality expected in Formula 1. Consistently over the last year the team has embarrassed itself with their failure to develop the car but their performance in Melbourne should be the final straw for their future prospects.

The team has minimal sponsors and while last year’s budget constraints can be excused their failure to attract investment for this season shows that they are considerably out of their depth. The performance of Tonio Liuzzi in qualifying was impressive but ultimately when the team threw themselves at the mercy of race stewards to be given a dispensation to start the race there was little doubt that this would be accepted.

There is little reason to hope for their form to improve too much over the course of the year and it would be of little surprise, or in my opinion consequence, if they fail to make it through the year.

Virgin and Lotus need to find performance While Hispania’s struggles are well documented the performance of Virgin in Australia was exceptionally disappointing. Jerome D’Ambrosio qualified 22nd and barely made it inside the 107% cut off point. This came on the heels of a disastrous  Friday where qualifying looked likely to be exceptionally difficult.

Second seasons are always tougher than a team’s debut but Virgin, and ineed Lotus, the struggle in Melbourne was far beyond expectation.

Both teams have a strong driver line up and had expectations of much stronger seasons than 2010 but the fact is that in Melbourne they looked to be staring at another season of struggling to close the gap to the established teams.

Melbourne has always had a tendency to separate teams to a much greater extent than other tracks but the fact that Heikki Kovalainen qualified two seconds adrift of Nick Heidfeld, and nearly four seconds off the pace showed just how big a gulf still exists to the established teams. This could be a very long year for both camps.

McLaren are ready to challenge McLaren’s pace was one of the pleasant surprises of the weekend. Testing has been exceptionally difficult for the team but a change to a less complicated exhaust system has revolutionised their car.

The reliability gremlins of the winter are a thing of the past, both cars making it to the finish, and perhaps more importantly the car’s performance was also very competitive. While qualifying showed that Red Bull still has the fastest car on the grid the race showed that McLaren are not lagging too far adrift in terms of race pace.

Lewis Hamilton was very competitive with Vettel for the opening half of the race and even though the gap opened to 22s at the end it is worth remembering that Hamilton eased off at the end so as not to risk damaging the car further after the under tray came loose during the race.

The team has yet to gain a full understanding of their car and it is very early in its development because of the change of exhaust systems. As a result the silver cars should be exceptionally competitive throughout the year.

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