The 2012 Formula One season kicked off in Melbourne with six former world champions in the field. Lewis Hamilton blew away everyone else in qualifying except his teammate, Jenson Button, who slotted in at second place.
Newcomer Roman Grosjean, driving for Lotus Renault, stunned the crowd by qualifying third, ahead of seven-time champion Michael Schmacher in his Mercedes. The Red Bulls, who dominated the 2011 season, struggled to claim the 5th and 6th spots on the grid, with Mark Webber ahead of two-time World Champion Sebastien Vettel. Ferrari could manage no better than 12th and 16th on the grid.
After two years away from the sport, world champion Kimi Raikkonen could only qualify 18th in the 2nd Lotus, barely ahead of perennial back markers Caterham and Marussia and the woeful HRT squad.
Clearly, 2012 will see some different teams at the sharp end of the field.
When the lights went out, Button leapfrogged Hamilton to take the lead before turn one. He then kept the hammer down and ended the first lap two seconds ahead of Hamilton. Further back, Nico Rosberg stormed from 7th position to 4th before the second corner, passing Vettel, Webber and Schumacher in the process.
The Pirelli tires specified for the 2012 season are a finicky lot. If pushed too hard at the beginning of a stint, their performance drops off markedly. If not pushed hard enough, their performance also drops off. Jenson Button was masterful at managing his tires, but Hamilton, embarrassed by losing the start to his teammate, went thrashing around the course in pursuit. By so doing, he missed his tires’ sweet spot and fell back into the clutches of Sebastien Vettle
Sadly for Roman Grosjean, he had a coming together with Rosberg on the second lap as the Finn tried to claw his way forward. The conact ripped the right front wheel off the Lotus, ending Grosjean’s race. The rejuvenated Lotus chassis has shown great promise in winter testing and figures to be in the hunt for points at every race this year.
As the race unfolded, Fernando Alonso grabbed his evil-handling Ferrari by the scruff of the neck and dragged it forward to 5th position. His teammate, Felipe Massa, had a dreadful race that ended when he steered his race car rather clumsily into the side of Bruno Senna, which put him out of the race. There is speculation up and down the pit lane that Ferrari may have to replace Massa soon.
One of the names being offered up as Massa’s replacement is Sergio Perez, the young Mexican driver who is starting just his second season in the sport. Perez had a remarkable drive in his Sauber, bringing it forward from 17th on the grid to finish in 8th place while making just one pit stop. Such a stout performance will not go unnoticed by other team managers. The second Sauber, driven by Kamui Kobayashi, finished 6th, marking the first time the team has placed both cars in the points. The team is using Renault engines this season and the change seems to have given them new life.
Another driver who made the most of a bad situation was Raikkonen, who guided his Lotus from 18th on the grid to finish 7th overall. If he can regain his qualifying form, he will definitely be a factor in the races to come this year.
After the last round of pit stops, the race settled down, until Vitaly Petrov parked his Caterham on the front straight after his steering column came adrift in the car. It’s hard to imagine anything scarier than driving at speeds approaching 200 mph with defective steering! The ensuing safety car allowed Vettel to jump over Lewis Hamilton in the pits for second place, much to Lewis’ consternation.
Last year, many fans complained that the races were boring. If the race in Adelaide is any indication, however, 2012 will be a feast for the fans.
While four of the top five finishers in Melbourne were former world champions, four of the next five drivers are relative newcomers to the sport. These young guns are hungry and will not be content to run behind their more illustrious brethren for long. Which means 2012 could be one of the most exciting Grand Prix seasons in years.