Race analysis - Renaults dream start 07 Mar 2005
All through the winter the Renault R25 has been setting the pace, and the result of the Australian Grand Prix underlined that this form had not been deceptive.
There were times in practice when it seemed that arch-rival McLaren were going to get the upper hand, but qualifying went Giancarlo Fisichellas way as he took a comfortable pole position, and he never put a wheel wrong to win the race in style. Underlining both his and the cars quality, Fernando Alonso sped through the field to take a close third place.
This is the year in which Patrick Faure says Renault have to be in contention for the title, and in scooping 16 points, they got off to a great start.
You ignore Ferrari at your peril, and if Michael Schumacher seemed to have a disconnected race, Rubens Barrichello was in contention for a podium finish in the old F2004 M all through the race. He was so excited by his Bridgestones afterwards that he suggested they could have done another race. While that was a bit of hyperbole, it was something that held true for the Renaults Michelins, too. Stories of tyres exploding late in the race proved wide of the mark.
Barrichellos only real problem was with the brake balance, as the rears were locking badly from the 15th lap, and he said he was driving it like a kart in the closing laps. He also admitted that he was thinking about the heat of Malaysia and was trying to preserve his engine.
Curiously, Schumacher offered no real explanation for his relative lack of pace, and said there was no point in continuing after the incident with Heidfeld on lap 43. Cynics suggested that retiring was the best way of saving his engine, too.
It was Sir Frank Williams who suggested that Red Bull Racing might embarrass his team in Australia, and he was right on the money. Coulthards move on Webber in the first corner was the key factor in the Scots race, and thereafter he drove superbly to keep the Williams behind. Interestingly, he ran the harder Michelin, yet lost nothing to others on the softer option. His only problem was struggling with a relatively heavy initial fuel load, which put his performance into even greater perspective.
Christian Kliens lap times were nowhere near Coulthards, but he brought his RB1 home seventh to boost the teams score to seven points on its debut. That was as impressive as it was welcome, and this team seems likely to surprise again as the season progresses.
Though Mark Webber finished only fifth, this was probably as good a result as Williams could have expected in Australia. But, had Coulthard not pulled off that great move on Webber at the start, the Australian would surely have posed a stronger podium threat. Its reasonable to suggest that he could have finished at least third, given that he ran ahead of both Barrichello and Alonso early in the race, while trapped behind Coulthards Red Bull. Webber said he was trying to save his tyres and not lock the wheels when Coulthard took advantage in the first corner.
Heidfeld had a less happy time all weekend in the second FW27, and was not particularly amused by the incident with Schumacher that ended his race on lap 43. The team have some new aerodynamic parts in the pipeline for Malaysia, which they hope will push them closer to Renault.
McLaren had to be disappointed with their haul of four points for Montoyas sixth place and Raikkonens eighth. Like Renault, they too had set the winter testing pace, but they lucked out because of the weather in Saturday qualifying, and then Raikkonens car stalled at the first start. Both he and Montoya suffered errant barge boards during the race, the Finn having to have his removed (the right-hand one) during his second pit stop, and the Colombian suffering handling problems when his detached in the closing stages.
With Jarno Trulli starting from the front row, Toyota naturally had very high hopes for this race, so ninth place for the Italian and 12th for Ralf Schumacher was a massive let-down. Trulli suffered problems with a rear tyre in his second stint, while Schumacher had to make an extra pit stop because of a problem with his seat belts.
Sauber expected better than 10th and 13th after Jacques Villeneuves slot on the second row of the grid, but the French-Canadian made a poor start, was overtaken round the outside by Nick Heidfeld at the start, and as a result lost momentum on the run down to Turn Three, where Christian Klien also muscled by. That meant five places were lost in the first lap, and Villeneuve never looked like making them up again. He described his race as being very disappointing.
Since Felipe Massa was starting so far back, the team put him on a single-stop strategy, but that needed more retirements in the top bunch to work, and the reliability rate was surprisingly high so he could not do better than 10th in a difficult car.
The biggest disappointment of the race was the performance of BAR. Considering that Button started eighth, a lowly 11th place finish was a disaster. Part of the problem was being trapped behind Trulli and Villeneuve at times, but both drivers complained that their cars lacked pure grip.
Two Jordans started and two finished, so that was a source of satisfaction to Trevor Carlin and Colin Kolles as they learned the ropes of Formula One racing. Both Narain Karthikeyan and Tiago Monteiro performed well and had the satisfaction of proving the critics wrong who had made disparaging remarks about their lack of experience. The Indian had a trouble-free run, while the Portuguese was uncomfortable after a while due to the seat fitting and will make changes for Malaysia.
After the aggravation all weekend little was expected of Minardi in the race, but Patrick Friesacher brought his car home, albeit last. Christijan Albers, however, failed to finish after suffering transmission problems.
So, Renault and Michelin drew first blood, but Ferrari and Bridgestone proved that they are still a major threat. Red Bull surprised a lot of people, and Williams did better than expected. Others have a lot of work to do.
Roll on Malaysia!