After months of anticipation the first race of 2009 was a contest to savour and a result to remember. Jenson Button may have led every lap but Sebastian Vettel kept him honest throughout the race – before a controversial late clash with Robert Kubica.
Rubens Barrichello completed Brawn GP’s joy by taking second place, while Lewis Hamilton took a surprise third place from 18th on the grid.
Kovalainen out at the start
The Brawn cars had mixed fortunes at the start – Button motored serenely down to the first corner while Barrichello got bogged down and was swamped by the chasing field.
That included Heikki Kovalainen, who tagged the back of the Brawn GP car, setting off a chain reaction which also claimed Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld. All bar Barrichello headed for the pits, and Kovalainen’s damage proved terminal.
The Ferraris, with KERS primed and super soft tyres, made lightning starts. Felipe Massa pounced on Robert Kubica off the line, and slotted past Nico Rosberg at turn three as well. Kimi Raikkonen followed him through top take up fifth behind Kubica, with Rosberg bumped back to sixth.
Button, meanwhile, had checked out – dropping Vettel by a massive 3.9s on the first lap. But Vettel, running with several laps’ less fuel, was able to keep Button’s lead down to around five seconds.
Ferraris hit trouble
The Ferraris quickly ran into the shortcomings of the super-soft tyres: graining and the accompanying huge drop-off in performance. Rosberg launched an attack on Raikkonen on lap nine, squeezing by at turn one, allowing the chasing Barrichello to pounce. Barrichello clipped Raikkonen’s car, causing more damage to the front wing of his BGP001, but took fifth place off the 2007 champion.
Wasting no time, the red cars brought their pit stops forward. Raikkonen headed for the pits on the next lap to switch to the more durable medium compound. Massa followed on lap 11, as did Lewis Hamilton, who had also started one the super-soft tyres.
Hamilton had steered clear of the mayhem at the start to run 11th by lap three. Exploiting the brief performance of the super soft tyres and using his KERS boost he moved up to ninth by lap six, passing Nelson Piquet Jnr. But with the life gone from his tyres he had struggled to make an impression on Kazuki Nakajima’s Williams.
The other early stoppers were Jarno Trulli (lap ten) and Kubica (lap 12). Trulli, who had started from the pits along with team mate Timo Glock following their qualifying infringement, passed Hamilton for 14th shortly after his stop.
This left Button and Vettel at the front with Rosberg 27.3s behind thanks to spending so long stuck behind the struggling Massa. Behind him were Barrichello, Nakajima, Piquet, Sebastien Buemi and Giancalo Fisichella.
Nakajima triggers safety car
Vettel and Rosberg were the next to pit on lap 16, Rosberg losing time with a sticking front left wheel nut. Button responded by setting a new fastest lap of the race in anticipation of his first pit stop.
But on lap 18 Nakajima lost control of his FW31 on the kerb at the exit of turn four, and hit the barriers hard. The safety car was summoned while marshals retrieved the wrecked Williams.
Under last year’s rules this would have pole-axed Button’s chances, leaving him unable to pit for several laps. Thankfully, the ‘pit lane closure rules’ were wisely dropped over the winter, and Button was able to take his pit stop as normal before queueing up behind the safety car. This took rather a long time, however, and the interruption dragged on even longer as the lapped cars were allowed to re-take their positions.
Button led Vettel at the restart, both putting off their stints on super soft tyres until the final phase of the race. Then came the trio that had already used the green-striped tyres: Massa, Kubica and Raikkonen.
Piquet tried to pass Rosberg for sixth on the outside of turn one at the restart, but was caught out by his cold brakes and tyres, and spun into retirement. Team mate Fernando Alonso, meanwhile, took 12th place off Glock, who had also just been passed by Hamilton.
Massa made an early return to the pits on lap 31, having fuelled aggressively short at his first stop in a bid to get back to the front. After taking on enough fuel to reach the finish the Brazilian driver fell towards the back of the pack from where he struggled to mount a recovery.
On lap 45 Massa’s F60 slowed and his race was over. This was a double blow for Ferrari – two laps earlier Raikkonen had crashed into the barriers on the exit of turn 13. The constructors’ champions start their title defence with no points after one race.
Vettel and Kubica crash
Kubica’s pace late in the race suggested Ferrari’s gamble of starting on the super soft tyres might have paid off had they gone the distance. Vettel made his final pit stop on lap 45, and Button came in two laps later, losing vital time as the team had to switch between refuelling hoses.The leading pair were now both on the super soft tyres and Kubica, on mediums, was catching them rapidly.
The stage was set for a grandstand finish with the leading trio covered by just a few seconds. On lap 56 Kubica pounced on Vettel at turn three and the pair collided. Vettel was surprisingly apologetic afterwards for incident in which both drivers could have given each other a bit more space. Instead both lost their front wings, and crashed separately at turn five. Vettel tried to keep his three-wheeled car going, but eventually pulled up. He was handed a grid penalty for the next race at Malaysia for the crash, and a $50,000 fine for driving around the track on three wheels.
This remarkable turn of events robbed us of a nail-biting chase to the flag, and brought the final curtain down on the whole race. The safety car was sent out to recover the wreckage and there was no time to get the race running again.
Hamilton inherits third
Meanwhile, unseen by the TV cameras, Trulli went off the track, losing what was now third place to Hamilton. Trulli then re-passed Hamilton after the safety car had arrived on track, and was later handed a 25-second penalty by the stewards which demoted him from third to 12th.
Trulli’s form at Melbourne was quite atypical: out-qualified by his much heavier team mate, but in superb form on race day, he deserved much more from the weekend. He later claimed Hamilton had slowed and he had no choice but to pass the McLaren.
Hamilton inherited third place against all expectations, and was the highest-placed KERS-equipped finisher. Glock took fourth after deftly passing Alonso around the outside of turn four on lap 51, having practised the move on Buemi two laps earlier.
Rosberg was sixth, a disappointment after his qualifying form, having lost time at crucial moments with his pit stop problem, the clash with Piquet, and being passed by Massa on lap one.
Buemi took seventh place on his debut, an ominous sign for team mate Bourdais, who finished eighth. Adrian Sutil was ninth after a spirited battle with team mate Fisichella. The Italian was 11th behind Heidfeld and no doubt rued missing his pit box when he pitted during the first safety car period, losing a lot of time.
Webber was a suitably unlucky 13th after another miserable home race, and Vettel, Kubica and Raikkonen were all classified behind him despite having stopped.
But this was a Grand Prix with a feel-good result. For two long months it looked as though Honda’s feverish work on its RA109 would reap no reward. But, re-born as the Mercedes-powered BGP 001, Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello scored an historic result that would have been totally unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
That said, their margin of victory was nothing like as great as the pre-race form suggested. The signs are very good that we could be in for a close, competitive and exciting championship. Roll on Malaysia next weekend!