Race Weekend Central

Formula 1 Fridays: The Iceman Cometh And Other Reflections…

There are few things in the world of Formula One more likely to leave you with egg on your face than the pre-season preview predictions. However, like a siren’s song it becomes hard to resist not to draw a few conclusions following on from the first race of the season. And so the shell is cracked and the stove lit in preparation as we ponder a few of these lessons prior to this weekend and the oppressive heat of Malaysia…

Sebastian Vettel and the Red Bull team did not come up nearly as dominant as many expected in the F1 season opener but will that continue?

Red Bull not so dominant?

There was a shudder of fear after Friday’s two practice sessions prior to Australia as Red Bull stopped sand-bagging and showed their true pace. This was compounded after qualifying on Saturday as the team secured a dominant front-row lock out of the grid. The naysayers amongst us began to pull out the whipping branches and proclaimed that we may have another 1988 on our hands (where McLaren secured pole position and won 15 of the 16 races). However, come race day, there was a surprise in store as Vettel’s Red Bull lagged behind both Ferrari and Lotus in ultimate race pace, with Mark Webber’s sister car further back after a poor start. It seems that in short bursts the RBR machine has extreme speed, but chews it’s tires quicker than some of the other cars. Good news for the rest of the teams, and the sport as a whole……until they get it sorted.

Wherefore art thou McLaren…….

For a dyed in the wool fan of the Woking team, it was another “facepalm” weekend as their experimental car performed perhaps worse than even they were expecting. With rumors abound that the team are already considering using last year’s car as an emergency measure, things are not well at all within the McLaren camp. We’ll look at this in more detail in next week’s column, but it has to be said, for a team with their pedigree and resources, another failing season playing development catch-up could be pretty catastrophic….and right now they’re making Lewis Hamilton look clever……

Where did Kimi come from??

There’s a wonderful Finnish expression – Ei kannata mennä merta edemmäs kalaan (try saying that after a couple of vodkas….) which literally translates as “One should go no further than the sea to fish.” Kimi Raikkonen has long been the very embodiment of this and is the master of not doing too much – be that in press interviews, around the paddock or, indeed, in his driving. Although great to watch, Kimi’s racecraft is currently up at Alonso levels – he just never looks like he’s about to crash (in contrast to a Lewis Hamilton who drives like his pants are on fire). This ability, alongside the Lotus’s knack of conserving these brittle tires, meant that in no uncertain terms, Kimi actually won this race quite easily once the strategies had played out. Make no mistake though, the Lotus is a seriously quick car right now – in race trim it averaged 0.5 sec per lap over the much vaunted Red Bull. If the Enstone based team can keep up in the development race, Kimi has become far, far more than just a dark horse for the championship. He could be a favorite. Malaysia will, of course, tell us a bit more.

Lovely to see Felipe Massa back

There’s no doubt that following his horrific accident in 2009 (Massa was hit in the head by a suspension spring that had fallen from Rubens Barrichello’s car) Felipe Massa had a serious downturn in form and many questions were being asked (not least within Ferrari) about whether or not he was the right man to continue partnering Fernando Alonso in the team. Through various twists of fate however, the hugely popular Massa was kept on, and towards the end of last season some of his old speed seemed to be re-emerging. Thankfully this seems to have continued into the early part of this season and Massa kept his senior partner Alonso more than honest all weekend, indeed out-qualifying him for the race. He’ll never be allowed to beat Alonso, such is the nature of the Ferrari team, but they’ll be delighted that he’s in the form to take more points away from their rivals than previously.

Tough times for the rookies

It was a pretty tough race for any of the band of rookies to really get noticed in – Caterham and Marussia traded blows as ever at the rear of the field, and the cars of Gutierrez and Bottas, though the pair drove well, never really gave them a chance to genuinely shine in this race. That honor fell to the returning Adrian Sutil who despite being out of a drive last year, returned and even led the race for a while.

Malaysia will be a different beast

As we mentioned at the beginning of the column, only the foolhardy (and Frontstretch columnists) try and draw firm conclusions after one race of the season. Australia isn’t a “middle of the bell-curve” track at all, and as a street circuit is more akin to the likes of the Montreal race than those on purpose built tracks. It was also unseasonably cold and wet for Melbourne, which may have had an adverse effect on tire wear, whilst favoring the set-up of specific teams. On the flip side, Malaysia will be muggy and almost unbearably hot, with the ever present possibility of monsoon rainstorms. The Sepang track does however contain long straights with high speeds – not something that historically the Red Bulls have excelled in. I’d go for a Ferrari victory this weekend.

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