Australia Flashback 2008 - McLaren stake claim on season 26 Mar 2009
After all the controversy of 2007, the 07-08 winter break had been comparatively quiet. But while off-track reconciliation was certainly in the air between defending champions Ferrari and arch rivals McLaren, testing had suggested that both teams would still be tussling at the top of the heap when the season got underway.
As for their rivals, there had been fraught times for the formerly-Honda funded Super Aguri team as they waited for news of a buyer, and though their short-term future was secured just days before the Melbourne race, the team had managed next to no testing. BMW Sauber, Toyota, and occasionally Renault, however, had all tested well. And as the paddock made their way to Albert Park for the Australian Grand Prix, everything was in place for a knock-out 2008.
On the Friday Ferrari and McLaren were pretty evenly matched, with defending champion Kimi Raikkonen setting the fastest lap in the morning and Lewis Hamilton topping the afternoon timesheets. Despite his pace Raikkonen wasnt in high spirits, the Finn perhaps somehow aware that things were about to go downhill. Hamilton, by contrast, was confident, as was new team mate Heikki Kovalainen, fourth fastest. Red Bull too enjoyed a productive day thanks to second-placed Mark Webber, but Toyota struggled with tyre graining and Renaults Fernando Alonso bemoaned the stability of the R28 under braking.
Saturday practice was dominated by the BMW Saubers of Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld, with Alonso, Red Bulls David Coulthard and Williams Nico Rosberg all close behind. Ferraris Felipe Massa was only 11th, ahead of Hamilton, 12th, and Raikkonen, 14th, but their unconvincing form wasnt expected to last.
Hamiltons certainly didnt, the British driver grabbing pole to launch his 2009 campaign in the best way possible. Kubica was equally impressive in second, just ahead of Kovalainen. But for Ferrari it was a day to forget, with Raikkonen (16th) sidelined after fuel pump problems and Massa scrap on to the second row. Making up the top 10 were Heidfeld in fifth, ahead of Toyotas Jarno Trulli, Rosberg, Coulthard, Timo Glock and Toro Rossos Sebastian Vettel. Glock subsequently dropped 10 places after receiving two penalties, thereby lifting Hondas Rubens Barrichello into P10.
As the first race since the FIAs ban on traction control, the start was expected to be nail biting, but few forecast that the drama would be sustained to the finish line, with just six cars making it to the chequered flag and three teams on the podium.
As predicted, there was incident at the first corner, resulting in a safety-car period and retirement for Hondas Jenson Button, Force Indias Giancarlo Fisichella, Webber, Super Aguris Anthony Davidson and Vettel. But there was much more excitement to come, even though up front, eventual winner Hamilton was for the most part oblivious to the carnage behind. After his podium celebrations had died down he would later describe his MP4-24 as phenomenal.
After their poor qualifying, Ferrari found they were right in the middle of the action. Massa spun on the first lap and later collided with Coulthard before retiring with a blown engine. Raikkonen initially took advantage of a second safety car, but then went off the road trying to pass Kovalainen, and while running in seventh his F2008 ground to a halt with three laps to go. With both Ferrari engines succumbing, sporting director Luca Baldisserri labelled the race disastrous. The only solace was that the disqualification of seventh-placed Barrichello for exiting the pit under a red light meant Raikkonen was classified eighth and hence scored a solitary point.
For excellent qualifier Kubica there was misery too, after he retired with collision damage. It was left to team mate Heidfeld to show just what the F1.08 could do, taking an excellent second behind Hamilton. Third place was taken by Rosberg after a storming race for Williams, whose other runner Kazuki Nakajima finished sixth.
Nelson Piquets less-than-inspiring debut in the Renault ended in retirement, but team mate Alonso got the most out of the R29 to score fourth. Kovalainen finished less than a second down on the Spaniard, but could have taken second behind Hamilton had a heavy accident for Toyotas Glock not caused a third safety-car period, forcing the Finn to pit when the field had closed up.
While Kovalainen suffered from an ill-timed pit stop, another driver was able to capitalise. Debutant Sebastien Bourdais took on more fuel and tyres at just the right moment and moved up the field for Toro Rosso. And though his (Ferrari) engine subsequently gave up on the 56th lap, he was classified seventh.
With just the six runners remaining, it had been a race of extreme attrition. At the final reckoning Toro Rossos double DNF was matched by five other teams - Ferrari, Toyota, Red Bull, Force India and Super Aguri. Of those left standing, BMW Sauber, Williams and Renault had much to celebrate, but the Melbourne weekend belonged to McLaren.
Pole position, first and fifth places, the two fastest laps and 14 championship points represented a good, if not quite perfect start to the season. And after simultaneously silencing their critics and building a formidable title lead, the British team couldnt wait to journey to Malaysia.