Australian GP hails more competitive season

Tuesday, 20 March 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Joshua Nicholas

After a four-month hiatus, last weekend’s Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix marked the beginning of a new season, and the first look at a few new rules and a few new cars.

Last year, F1 fans were bored to tears as Red Bull Racing rolled off pole after pole, and win after win. From beginning to end, Red Bull completely dominated the season, starting in Melbourne with a win by Sebastian Vettel, and finishing in Brazil with a win by Mark Webber.

Red Bull had pole position in 18 out of the 19 races, and won 12 of the 19. Vettel, who won the driver’s championship, had 45% more points than his next closest rival, and Red Bull, who won the constructors championship, had 30% more points than its closest rival.  

There are many aspects to Red Bull’s dominance in previous seasons, but undoubtedly one of them was technical. Among other things, Red Bull championed the “blown diffuser,” a system where engine mapping and exhaust positioning was used to direct exhaust gases to the back of the car, where they provided more down-force. However, starting this season, The Federation Internationale de Automobile (FIA) has outlawed blown diffusers as part of a host of new rules.

Other new rules include the ability for lapped cars to “un-lap” themselves while behind a safety car, a maximum height for the nose of the cars, and the option to use all allocated tyres whenever a team wishes during the weekend.

While intended to stop slower cars being “in the way” when restarting behind a safety car, the ability for cars to “catch-up” behind safety cars will be a significant advantage for those at the back of the grid.

Having a maximum height for the front nose significantly impacts how much air can be channelled to the back of the car, where more than 40% of the car’s down-force is created, and has impacted the aerodynamically concentrated Red Bull in particular. Finally, the ability to use any tyres at any time will give teams more options when coming up with strategies, as well as more practice with various compounds.

But the rules are not the only new aspect challenging Red Bull’s dominance. The other cars have caught up. The two McLaren’s were the fastest in Friday’s first free practice, and Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes and Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India were fasted in the second.

In qualifying, the two McLarens, a Mercedes and a Lotus all qualified faster than the two Red Bulls (who were fifth and sixth). In an interview before the race, Vettel admitted: “It will be difficult, and I think the cars will be fairly similar, in that the gaps will be closer than they have been.”

Vettel’s prediction proved correct, as the top four finishers in Sunday’s race were separated by less than 5 seconds. Jenson Button (McLaren) was able to overtake fellow McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton in the first corner and then capitalised on a good strategy and a lucky safety car to carry the day. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) finished second and Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) finished third.

Fernando Alonzo (Ferrari) was able to make up for a disappointing qualifying to finish fifth, and Kimi Raikonnen (Lotus) came back from a two-year absence to achieve a remarkable seventh. The two local drivers, Mark Webber (Red Bull) and Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso), finished in the top ten, fourth and ninth respectively. 

Seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) was forced to retire 11 laps in, when his Mercedes expired.

Since 2000, nine of the 12 winners of the first race of the season have gone on to become World Champion. While this does not in itself signify that Button will win a championship, when coupled with Red Bull’s hardship in the Australian GP, the setbacks suffered by Red Bull through rule changes and the steady progression of the other teams, it signifies a more competitive season ahead.