Monday 18 December 2017

F1: Vettel should be firing on all cylinders in Melbourne

After just one race, the F1 season is already full of intriguing sub-plots, writes David Kennedy

A s the dust settles around the Bahrain circuit, the teams have moved on to Melbourne to prepare for their second outing of the season, back in the bosom of a nation that embraces sport like no other.

Sebastian Vettel left an early stamp of sublime speed in the Bahrain sand which was usurped by Fernando Alonso, who made a dream debut for Ferrari. Was it a stolen victory by the Spaniard? No more than anyone who benefits from another's misfortune but it gives us a taste of things to come when these great drivers are firing on all cylinders and are spark-plug problem free.

Michael Schumacher acquitted himself admirably. What a result, finishing sixth after a three-year lay-off. His team-mate Nico Rosberg may have got the better of him in qualifying, finishing just ahead of him in the race, but it was the German who got the faster lap. He's up close and personal with all the young ones, ruffling their feathers and peacocking around the paddock in a parade of 'I'm back and ready for attack'.

Schumacher has admitted that the overnight success which was expected of him in some quarters was not inevitable. He's clearly in it for the long haul. When he said, "it is not the start which is important; it is the finish," he wasn't talking about the race, he was referring to the season.

Nor was it a case of 'Beware the Ides of March'. The soothsayers who predicted Schumacher's downfall also got it wrong. For this Caesar lived to fight another day, his reputation intact, a second stab at the ineluctable dream.

He and Ross Brawn of course have been partners before, at Ferrari, and with their collective genius and alchemy, it seems impossible to believe they won't be winners in 2010.

The unflappable Brawn -- who I had the pleasure to have as a mechanic in my Formula 3 days -- and the meticulous German, who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for supremacy, are a pairing like no other. Even years after their Ferrari exit, their legacy continues, and now Alonso is the lucky recipient of their collective graft. If their revised calculations mean a reversal of the volatile trajectory of Brawn in 2009 -- when Jenson Button started strong and finished weak -- they're are on course.

McLaren's Lewis Hamilton and Button are 1-0 in the battle of the team-mates. Current world champions versus former world champion. It's as intriguing as it is riveting; these two combatants with a scoreboard to fill which ultimately will decide who goes on to multiple titles or who is consigned to a life less ordinary. Hamilton has the edge and Button has the hump. You have to hand it to Ferrari, jettisoning Kimi Raikkonen and hiring Alonso has paid dividends, but keeping Felipe Massa, when lesser teams would have used the excuse of last year's injury as a get-out clause, was decent to say the least. In finishing runner-up, Massa proved he is back in business.

Alonso dedicated his win to president Montezemolo, the Ferrari boss, perhaps in part for also having the courage to believe in a driver who finished ninth in last year's championship. Of the start-ups teams, what a terrific result Lotus Racing achieved in their debut with Heikki Kovalainen and Jarno Trulli, finishing 15th and 17th respectively. It's the first time the Lotus name has been in F1 since 1994.

Clive Chapman, son of former Team Lotus boss Colin, presented his father's hat to the team with instructions that they should toss it in the air when they win their first race, as was Colin's trademark. Tony Fernandes is the new charismatic, entrepreneurial Malaysian owner of Lotus Racing, in much the same way as Chapman was the dynamic force behind Team Lotus. F1 needs characters like him.

No refuelling means lightning pit-stops. Any talk of a mandatory two stops to liven things up is premature. The drivers are just getting used to racing with full fuel loads, new driving styles and conserving tyres. This will bring a lot of clever thinking into play with drivers and engineers trying to out-strategise the opposition.

McLaren, along with Mercedes, Force India and Renault, have been ordered to rein in their diffuser dimensions before Melbourne next weekend. According to the FIA, they are outside the spirit of the rule book.

Give an engineer an inch and what do you get? Their own interpretation of the rulebook, which surprisingly produces more downforce. And who can blame them? Brawn GP started the trend last year, but the FIA is shaking its head in disapproval at the copycats. It's back to the drawing board for those teams.

Albert Park, Melbourne; happy days, sunny skies (hopefully) and a great weekend beckons. National hero Mark Webber will look to correct the deficit with team-mate Vettel. Unfortunately for the Aussie, a mistake in qualifying in Bahrain was enough to knock him back to sixth on the grid and out of contention; the eighth place finish was never on his agenda. Last year saw Button (Brawn), Barrichello (Brawn), Trulli (Toyota), Glock (Toyota), Alonso (Renault) and Rosberg (Williams) take the first six slots.

This of course was the scene of Hamilton's disqualification with McLaren being stripped of their constructors' points after he and his team 'misled' the race steward's about Trulli's overtaking sequence, which would have deprived the Italian of a podium. It was the start of a major slide in Hamilton's performance and it also saw Ron Dennis relinquish his role in McLaren F1.

But now we have Jean Todt as the new boss of the FIA replacing Max Mosley. All change at the top and no favourites or enemies tolerated. There is a new transparency with the way the FIA conducts its business which includes drawing its stewards from a group that includes former drivers such as Damon Hill and Alain Prost. Though maybe it is Schumacher who has reason to be nervous.

And in Melbourne, that star in the firmament, Sebastian Vettel, will return to avenge his rightful claim to the highest rung on the podium, hoping a spare part costing little more than a fiver doesn't deprive him of victory this time.

David Kennedy is Setanta's F1 analyst

Sunday Independent

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