Well I didn’t get a chance to post my thoughts on the Australian Grand Prix. The Malaysian Grand Prix came around so quickly. It’s a bit much to have back-to-back races straight after the off season — like being thrown in at the deep end. Anyway, it’s a good opportunity now for me to get my thoughts together about the first two rounds of the season.
The first thing to point out is the apparent unpredictability of the season. Even though both races turned out to be relatively easy for the winners, each of them struggled in the other Grand Prix. Both podiums were occupied by three different teams, and no driver has been on the podium for both races.
It is probably fair to say that most people expected Ferrari to dominate at Melbourne — myself included. Ferrari looked to have the upper hand during winter testing and stand to benefit from McLaren’s turmoil over the winter. How wrong the predictions turned out to be though.
Both Ferrari drivers looked embarrassingly out of their depth without driver aids — Massa in particular. With Räikkönen it is probably fair to say that rather than being caught out by the new rules, the Finn simply had one of his occasional off days laden with uncharacteristic mistakes.
But the icing on the cake was Ferrari’s slew of reliability problems. Räikkönen slowed to a halt during qualifying with a fuel pressure problem and his race was cut short by an engine problem. Other problems cropped up during practice in Malaysia. Moreover, Ferrari-equipped Toro Rosso and Force India cars have had some engine-related problems in both races as well. All-in-all, it was Ferrari’s worst start to the season for around a decade and a half. So much for the pre-season predictions!
It hasn’t been plain sailing for McLaren though. I have covered the qualifying incident before, so I won’t repeat it. Australia was quite a breeze for them — the perfect way to return after the torrid events of 2007. But they didn’t have the luck or the speed in Malaysia.
Hamilton in particular was scruffy during qualifying and he carried some strange tyre wear issues into the race. A disastrous pit stop cost time in itself and probably caused aerodynamic problems for the rest of the race as the front rim shield was moving with the wheel instead of staying stationery as intended. This begs the question though — was Hamilton running with a moving aerodynamic device, therefore driving illegally?
Kovalainen has had a solid start to the season, cementing his reputation as a reliable and fast driver. He can probably be happier with his first two races than most drivers.
So, McLaren were strong in Australia and Ferrari had the upper hand in Malaysia. This is pointing towards a repeat of last season where the championship was close but few of the actual races were. The fortunes of the two teams may yo-yo according to how the cars suit the circuit.
It also looks as though the pre-race predictions that there was going to be a tight midfield were on the mark. It is difficult to see a clear ranking of the teams from 3rd downwards.
My first impression is that BMW are very strong. Those pre-season balance issues are clearly a thing of the past, which is wonderful to see. I love to see BMW doing well, and I have to say that going by the first two races it even looks as though, with a bit of luck, they could get their first win this season.
Both drivers have impressed. Robert Kubica has been particularly strong in qualifying. A poor strategy certainly cost him in Australia, and according to Piotr in the comments here it was reported that Kubica had a throttle problem. That went largely unnoticed in the British media from what I saw. He certainly made amends in Malaysia with a near flawless drive to second.
Heidfeld was stunning in Australia but bad luck hampered him in Malaysia. Who knows where he could have qualified if he didn’t have to pick his way past so many slow moving cars. Luck didn’t improve for him during the race and I feel we really didn’t see his full potential at all during the weekend. And he still finished 6th! Not bad going.
A tale of two races for Williams. Nico Rosberg did a fantastic job to finish 3rd in Australia, and Nakajima collected points as well. It looked as though Williams were back near the top where they belong.
But Malaysia was little short of a disaster from start to finish for Williams. Rosberg’s race was compromised by a needless incident with Glock on lap 1. Meanwhile, Nakajima’s race was obviously awful. Despite a relatively promising period towards the middle of the race, a puncture put paid to his race in the end.
We can’t forget Nakajima’s coming-together with Kubica in Australia. It is the kind of mistake you expect rookies to make. But if he is still doing that sort of thing by the end of the season, it will become unacceptable. We shall wait and see. Pre-season I cited Nakajima as my dark horse of the season, but he has done little to demonstrate that I was right.
Red Bull probably come next, and they look like they have the speed to regularly contend for decent points hauls. But the big question mark surrounding them is, as it was last year, reliability. You would have thought that sorting out their reliability problems would be their top priority, but if anything the problems have become much, much worse.
So the gearbox doesn’t — so far — appear to be causing too much grief. Instead, the Red Bull cars are afflicted with a plethora of silly little niggles. In particular, the Red Bull appears to be frighteningly fragile — to the extent that the stewards have been requiring explanations for the way that the car simply disintegrates if someone coughs on it.
Craig made a really good point that it seems to be a trait of Adrian Newey’s. A few years ago the McLarens were similarly fragile (and, incidentally, unreliable). Now Red Bull have the same affliction.
Besides plain old mechanical failures, the Red Bull has fallen to pieces in quite frightening ways. Firstly, there was the moment in FP2 in Malaysia where a simple trip over the kerbs absolutely wrecked David Coulthard’s suspension and sent him into a violent crash that eventually sent one of his wheels flying off. To have wheels flying about is a big no-no in safety terms, and it’s no wonder that the stewards were worried.
Then during the race, Mark Webber made a slightly aggressive entrance into the pitlane. That was enough to knock off his rear light. This is potentially another major problem were it to rain, which isn’t exactly out of the question in Sepang.
Then there was Coulthard’s coming-together with Felipe Massa in Australia. Normally you would expect Massa’s car to have the most damage, but Coulthard’s damage was major. The way the suspension fell apart then was really quite odd to my eyes.
Incidentally, on that incident, I take Coulthard’s side there. I am not DC’s biggest fan, but I really think Massa was far too ambitious to try that kind of move from that far back. It is true that Coulthard shut the door abruptly, but Massa shouldn’t have been there in the first place in my view.
Toro Rosso have the worst of all worlds when it comes to reliability. They have had their fair share of problems with last year’s car which they are still running. When they get their new car (essentially the same as Red Bull’s chassis), it will only pile on the problems. And they have that apparently unreliable Ferrari engine in the back.
Toro Rosso have had a good start to the season though. Starting the season with last year’s car has probably been an advantage to them. The trick is choosing the right time to switch to the new one.
Sébastien Bourdais impressed greatly in Australia before having that engine failure. He could buck the trend when it comes to drivers who have arrived in F1 from IRL / ChampCar who have tended to be out of their depth in F1. A needless spin in Malaysia has put a dampener on that prospect however.
Meanwhile, Vettel is further improving his reputation as F1’s new hot property. He’s looked great during some sessions, but it hasn’t come together for him during the races yet. No doubt he will soon be scoring points again for Toro Rosso.
The jury is still out on Toyota. We haven’t seen what Glock is capable of yet. But Trulli did really well in Malaysia. He set the fastest time in Q2, started 3rd on the grid and finished 4th. Not bad by Toyota standards. I wonder if he was on to something when he said that Toyota would be the surprise of the season.
Renault are disappointing. Alonso was lucky to get 4th in Australia. He won’t be able to get many points very easily this season. The Renault car just isn’t there. It’s possibly the 7th fastest car on the grid now — what a fast decline. Piquet had a bad Australian weekend, and a completely inconspicuous Malaysian weekend. He will have to up his game, but he has time to do that.
Honda are making some good progress. Not much else to point out except that they should, morally, have scored some points by now. They will do eventually, and they are looking much better than they did last year.
Just shows you what having a guy like Ross Brawn in charge can do. I have to say though, I found it deeply ironic that pitstop strategy genius Brawn’s first race in charge saw perhaps the most disastrous pitstop I have ever seen. Barrichello had to enter the pits while the pitlane was closed. Then his lollipop man lifted the lollipop too early, meaning that some mechanics were toppled over as Barrichello sped away. Then Barrichello ran through the red light at the end of the pitlane. Okay, so none of that was really Ross Brawn’s fault, but it was still quite funny.
Force India need to improve a bit more to fulfil their pre-season promise. At least they will not be permanent fixtures at the back of the grid.
That status goes to Super Aguri. But I suppose really they will feel luck simply to be there.
All-in-all, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. But the mixed-up nature of the results so far is very promising for a close Championship. I’m looking forward to Bahrain already!