THE RAIN did its best to hide the undeniable truth — F1 may have to surrender to Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel for the fourth year in succession. A Melbourne storm ensured the final two qualifying sessions for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix were postponed until early this morning, but a clear picture has already emerged of what lies ahead.
“This has the hallmarks of 2011 all over again,” said one paddock doom-monger, referring to the evident superiority of Vettel’s car. Two years ago, the German and his team set new records of domination that destroyed the competitive tension and turned the season into a long victory parade.
The concern arising from Vettel’s pace in the new Red Bull RB9 as it skated its way around the parkland track on the city’s outskirts this weekend was that the expectation of close competition that had been suggested by winter testing was nothing more than an illusion. Vettel, already a three-time champion, may well be on course to do it all over again. His toughest competition is likely to come from Mark Webber, his teammate, who is determined to give him a fight, not least here at the Australian’s home race, an event he has never won in 11 years of trying. It would mean the world to him and the passionate home spectators to finally succeed.
Regardless of how the race turned out, Fridays practice times provided us with a good idea of what we can expect to see. Red Bull were at the front and the only close bunching was between the chasing pack comprising the Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus teams. From Jenson Button’s perspective, it was particularly galling because his poor-handling and grip less McLaren proved to be as much as two seconds off the pace – an eternity in F1.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said the Englishman with an air resignation. “We lack downforce and the ride quality of the car is awful. It’s going to take a while to solve. “Barring a remarkable sequence of events, Button winner of three of the past four Australian Grands Prix, looked unlikely to be adding to the score this time around.
“A lot of stuff we tested we haven’t got on the car because it doesn’t work for us the way the car is. Being out on the track with the others and knowing we’re running the same sort of fuel levels we can finally see after winter testing that we are not in a great position. The timesheets tell the story and its not happy reading for anyone in the team. There’s no finger pointing but we have to move forward together and find a solution because where we are at the moment is not the right place for McLaren Button said.
The Teams decision to pursue a new design based on an unconventional front suspension layout appears to have backfired at least in the short term as the technical staff struggle to understand the cars wayward behaviour. As Button and his new teammate, Sergio Perez, fought to get the best from a car that bucked a wild path around the bumpy track, there were other looming headaches for the team with confirmation that Vodafone, their title sponsor for six years, will not be renewing beyond the end of this season. This potentially blows a £30m hole in the team’s budget and lends further credence to the theory that the recruitment of Perez a Mexican backed by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and his Telmex company as a replacement for Lewis Hamilton was made with at least one eye on McLaren’s financial future. Rumours continue to link Honda with McLaren in an engine partnership, though not until 2015 at the earliest.
Meanwhile, Hamiltion’s controversial move from McLaren to Mercedes looks to be particularly well timed, as around Albert Park his new car proved to be quick, well balanced and a vast improvement on the cars provided to Micheal Schumacher by his team during the previous three years. Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg look likely to be vying strongly for the status of best of the rest after Redbull. In that same mix is Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen. Alonso has been repeating his assertion that his team are in much stronger competitive shape that they were 12 months ago, when he was in a situation similar to that now faced by Button with a car that he could not even qualify in the top 10. But the Spaniard went on to be a title contender right up until the final race in Brazil, even though that battle was intimately won by Vettel. Fourth consecutive championship by Vettel and Red Bull this year would see parallels being made with Schumacher’s domination of the sport in the early 2000s. But Button, for one, does not see it that way. “It’s different to when Michael was winning his titles” he says. “These days it’s a lot more competitive that the early 2000’s there’s a lot more talent, more great drivers in great cars and more great racing. Seb won the title last year and deserved it. He and Red Bull did the best job but I don’t think it would necessarily be so negative for the sport if he won it again just as long as the racing remains good”.
If Red Bull retain the form shown during the opening laps of the season here, the prospects for competitive racing in 2013 lie with Webber taking the fight to his teammate, Hamilton somehow dragging performances from his car and with some rapid catching up from Ferrari, Mercedes, Lotus and McLaren. It’s not impossible”, Button says. “Look at where Ferrari were this time last year.”
Fortunately, Button is a glass half-full individual, but even he knows it’s going to take a lot more than optimism to keep Vettel from being crowned champion again.