Italian pace proves rivals have plenty to do before Sepang
Ferraris 193rd victory came courtesy of its debutant Finn Kimi Raikkonen, and he made it look oh so easy. As he started from the front, team mate Felipe Massa was at the back. The Brazilian had an electronic problem in his gearboxs management, and then Ferrari elected to change his engine and thus he moved further backwards.
While Kimi opted for the medium-medium-soft tyre choices, Massa was on a single-stop strategy and thus started on the softs as he was likely to get held up in traffic early on. This was indeed the case as he battled his way past the Red Bulls and Hondas, and after his stop on lap 29, on went the mediums. If all Raikkonen had to worry about was the lack of a radio and the odd lapse of concentration, he really didnt have much to worry about at all.
McLaren left Melbourne leading the world championship, with 14 points to Ferraris 13, but however much Ron Dennis might have bleated about the possible effect of BMWs strategy for fast-starting Nick Heidfeld the writing on the wall indicated that the Ferrari was a second a lap faster in race trim.
Raikkonen reeled off a string of fastest laps early on, his best being 1m 25.235s compared to Fernando Alonsos 1m 26.314s and Lewis Hamiltons 1m 26.351s. Even had the silver arrows had a clear run at the first corner, there was no way they would have challenged the red car for victory this day. On the positive side, the MP4-22s were reliable and quick enough to leave everyone else behind.
BMW Sauber should have garnered nine points for their afternoons efforts, but the gearbox failure that stopped Robert Kubica on the 36th lap accounted for four of them. Nevertheless, five points for Nick Heidfelds fourth place got the teams campaign off to a strong start even if Dennis accused them of showboating with Heidfelds low-fuel strategy. It paid off insofar as it got him well clear of all McLarens pursuers once things had settled down, and enabled him to take the risk of using his soft Bridgestones from the start, whereas most opted for medium-medium-soft in their three stints.
The fact that Heidfeld finished was a great relief following the teams gearbox problems from testing, but the gremlins struck Kubica and locked his transmission in fifth. In contrast to Heidfeld, Kubica had intended to use his soft tyres for a short final stint.
Fifth and 10th places for Renault came as a blow after their previous results in Melbourne, and the fastest laps indicated that on sheer pace they have been overtaken not just by Ferrari and McLaren, but also by BMW Sauber and Williams.
Like everyone bar Felipe Massa, Heidfeld, Alex Wurz in the Williams, Hondas Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen in the two Renaults ran medium-medium-soft tyres. Fisichella did well to resist the intense pressure from Massa in the closing stages, but Kovalainen admitted freely that there was little to remember and much to forget about a debut in which he made too many mistakes. There is plenty of work to do in this camp.
Nico Rosbergs performance in the Williams FW29 was a massive fillip for the team. He made some good moves, made the most of his chance to pass Ralf Schumacher and set the fifth-fastest lap to endorse the view that the new car is a lot quicker than last years. Its also much more reliable. Team mate Alex Wurz was unable to emulate him as he spent most of his race stuck in traffic, and later became the launch pad when Red Bulls David Coulthard misjudged his overtaking move in Turn Three and went right over the top of the FW29s nose.
Toyota have always said that they dont mind if they get beaten by a customer using their engine, and thats exactly what happened as Rosberg led Schumacher home. After their strong qualifying performance many suspected that the Toyotas might have been running light, but they werent. They didnt stop until the 24th and 25th laps. Unfortunately, they werent particularly quick, setting the 12th and 13th-fastest laps on the 1m 28s borderline. That put them behind Ferrari, McLaren, BMW Sauber, Renault, Williams and Red Bull.
Towards the end of the race there was also a potential reliability problem when Schumachers engine began to lose pneumatic pressure. Trulli also had a brake problem. Despite all that, Toyota had a lot more to crow about than Honda, who had an appalling weekend. They opted to start Button on medium tyres, then soft, then medium, and Barrichello on soft, medium and medium. It didnt make much difference. Button struggled with a big fuel load in the early going, and his RA107 then developed huge understeer. He asked for a front-wing adjustment, but because of a radio problem nobody responded. When he pitted again they did put plenty of wing on but it made no difference. To compound that he got a drive-through penalty for pit lane speeding.
Barrichello, meanwhile, smacked a wall early on while he was being held up by Button, and though he later got past his team mate he could not do better than 11th place. He set the 14th-fastest lap, Button the 17th, so Honda clearly have a lot of aerodynamic work to do in the coming months.
The race was also a disappointment for the Super Aguri team, whose qualifying promise of 10th and 11th places translated into only 12th and 16th places for Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson. The latters SA07 bogged down at the start, dropping him to the tail of the field and later leaving him vulnerable to attack by Adrian Sutils Spyker. He was launched into the air, and winded when the car landed. Despite suffering some back pain, and the car sustaining a reasonable amount of bodywork damage, he did achieve his aim of finishing a Formula One race. Sato, meanwhile, struggled with balance problems, but clung on to chase Barrichello home.
With Mark Webber seventh on the grid, Red Bull entertained hopes of a decent points haul but left with nothing. Webbers race began to go wrong with a sticking fuel filler cap during his first pit stop, after which he lost pace. He had an off-course moment as a result, and then spun in the pit lane while coming in for his second stop. While he at least finished, however, team mate David Coulthard aviated over Wurzs Williams after an ill-judged passing move in Turn Three on the 46th lap. Not a race for them to remember.
In the Toro Rosso camp Tonio Liuzzi lost a place to team mate Scott Speed after getting boxed in in the first corner, lost more time in early traffic, and had to wait until the final stages to get into his rhythm. At one stage he took nine seconds off Webber, and beat Button on his way to 14th. Speed had kept in front of the Italian until lap 29, despite worsening understeer. The cause of that identified itself that lap when two deflating front tyres dragged him into the gravel and out of the race.
Finally, Spyker had an up and down race. Adrian Sutil finished 17th on his debut but Christijan Albers, who had started from the pit lane in the spare car, retired on lap 10 when he went off the road into a gravel trap after missing his braking point. Sutil fell back after his clash with Davidson, and after a drive-through penalty for failing to observe blue flags, he blotted his copybook by crossing the white line at the exit of the pit lane, incurring a second penalty.
Schumacher or no Schumacher, Ferrari convincingly demonstrated that they remain the team to beat. A new chapter in our history has got off to a very good start, Jean Todt said. The chassis-engine package proved to be competitive, the team worked with dedicated professionalism and the drivers were impeccable. This all means that we can look forward to the rest of the championship with prudent optimism, even if we have seen there is some very strong and well prepared opposition and some very talented young drivers. We have not yet reached the desired level of reliability and we have to do a lot of work on this as well as on improving our performance. I was very happy to get two telephone calls, the first from Michael (Schumacher) as I was going up to the podium, which I handed to Kimi and the other from Luca di Montezemolo (Ferrari president) who was jumping for joy as if this was our first win in a decade. And indeed that is the feeling for us all!
Rivals have been warned.
By David Tremayne