The Formula 1 circus, including the three new teams, reconvened in Melbourne, Australia, for the second of the four flyaway round to open the season.
One of the weekend’s earliest headlines was news that the Virgin Racing team had discovered a fairly embarrassing problem with their cars, that due to both cars’ failure went unnoticed in Bahrain.
The team realized that the fuel tanks they had built into the VR-01 chassis were too small to complete a race at normal speed, resulting in the team asking the FIA for permission to introduce a redesign. Despite being granted permission, the new chassis would not be ready until May 9th, nearly 6 weeks and three races later. They would have to run underpowered to have any hopes of running at the finish. Not what you want when you’re a young team looking for sponsorship money and results.
The weekend continued relatively free of controversy. In the first Friday practice session, all 6 new cars completed multiple laps, with the Lotus cars leading the freshmen teams and the HRT cars splitting the Virgin Racing entries.
The second session was a bit more hectic, being arbitrarily declared ‘wet’ due to a light rain at the circuit. Hispania’s testing issues once again reared their head with Bruno Senna failing to take the track and Karun Chandhok only completing an installation lap. Virgin Racing’s notoriously unreliable hydraulic systems forced Lucas di Grassi to stop on track without registering a time. The Lotus cars, however, managed to complete another session without any major difficulty.
Saturday’s pre-qualifying practice saw both HRT drivers fall victim once again to the recurring hydraulic problems, while the Virgin Racing team managed to at least get both cars on the time sheet, albeit a second slower than Lotus. The Freshmen class entered qualifying once again without any hope of advancing beyond the first knockout round.
Sebastian Vettel was quickest in all three knockout rounds, taking the pole with a time of 1:23.9. Once again, the Lotus cars of Kovalainen and Trulli topped the newbies, with Q1 times about 2 and a half seconds slower than Vitaly Petrov. Timo Glock, the faster Virgin driver, was around 5 tenths of a second slower than Trulli, with his teammate di Grassi 5 tenths slower still. The HRT cars were seperated by less than 2 tenths of a second and both were within two seconds of the Virgin Cars. Despite all 6 cars being eliminated, the lap times were evidence of clear progress towards the midfield.
All in all, the gap between pole speed and 24th was less than 7 seconds, with the new teams separated by less than two. Sure, the 6 backmarking cars had little chance of scoring points in the top 10, but already the massive gap seen in Bahrain was closing.
Come race day, Virgin elected to start both cars from pit lane, due to a fuel collector issue. During qualifying, this problem forced the team to run more fuel than normally necessary, potentially slowing the cars down. Also planning to start from the pits was the Lotus of Jarno Trulli, after yet another hydraulic issue. However, the issue could not be rectified in time, and Trulli failed to start.
Rain before the start led to the race being declared wet for the first time that season. Every driver opted to switch to intermediate tires. At the start, mayhem ensued with no fewer than 6 drivers involved in contact, eliminating Kobayashi, Hulkenberg, and Buemi from contention on the first lap. The safety car was promptly deployed.
Under full course caution, Bruno Senna retired on lap 4 when his Hispania’s hydraulics once again gave out. Between then and lap 26, Petrov, Sutil, and Vettel all retired, before Lucas di Grassi became the third new car out with yet another hydraulic failure.
Timo Glock carried the hopes of the Virgin Racing team for another fifteen laps, before his suspension gave way on lap 42. That left only Kovalainen and Chandhok as the two remaining new cars.
The last 14 laps remained relatively civil, and both Chandhok and Kovalainen were running at the finish. Heikki and his Lotus managed a respectable 13th place finish, two laps down, while the remaining Hispania in the hands of the rookie Chandhok crossed the line 5 laps and several minutes from winner Jenson Button.
Two races in, quicker in qualifying, two cars finish. Slow progress, but still progress. On to Malaysia for the 3rd round of the season.
Sepang International Circuit played host to round 3, and as is tradition in Malaysia, the weekend was marked by heavy rainfall. In the first Friday practice session, all 6 freshman cars managed more than 15 laps, running within around 7 seconds of the leaders, and even Lotus’ local born test driver Fairuz Fauzy got seat time in Kovalainen’s car, turning 19 laps. The second session saw the new teams run over 20 laps in each car, with Senna, Trulli, and Kovalainen all managing more than 30. The reliability continued through the rain-delayed third session. By the end of Saturday’s practice, the three new teams were running within 6.4 seconds of the leaders, and turning consistent lap times. Compared to the chaotic sessions from the first two rounds, practice remained relatively calm, weather notwithstanding. Normally, I’d be writing about how some ridiculous thing happened in each session, but really, there’s no point because there really wasn’t anything too unusual about the three practice sessions.
And then qualifying happen.
Oh, damn, did it ever happen.
Things started out with McLaren and Ferrari holding both their drivers in the garage to wait for the track to dry out more, with the knowledge that more rain could be coming. The three new teams did the opposite, choosing to start running laps immediately. This paid off as the rain returned, catching McLaren and Ferrari out in the cold. Rather than looking at the top ten, let’s start from the bottom. The final three places were occupied by Virgin’s di Grassi, and both Hispania’s. None of them managed better than a 1:56. And in position 21… Felipe Massa. With a 1:53.3. In a Ferrari. Ahead of him? It’s not the other Virgin, nor a Lotus; it’s Lewis Hamilton, with a 1:53.05. Next up the order, it’s gotta be one of the freshmen, right? WRONG. It’s Fernando Alonso, in the other Ferrari. He only managed a 1:53.044. And no, I’m not actually reading the top 10. The man who won in Bahrain would start no higher than nineteenth. Ahead of him, in the final elimination spot, was the first of the Loti, with Jarno Trulli managing a respectable 1:52.884. Button, the man on the bubble, narrowly escaped knockout, but did not escape the clutches of the gravel trap, and would not be participating in the next round.
They say fortune favors the bold; in this case, fortune means slaying giants. Advancing to Q2 included the usual Red Bulls, Mercedeses, Williamses, Saubers, Toros Rosso, Renaults, Forces India, and two surprise guests. Yes, in only the third race of the season, Heikki Kovalainen, of Lotus, and Timo Glock, of Virgin, made it into the second round of qualifying. And there was very much rejoicing. Heikki Kovalainen achieved a solid 1:52.875, less than a tenth quicker than his teammate, while Timo Glock, in an amazing turn of events, pulled a 1:52.398. To put that in perspective, he ran quicker than Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes and was within a few tenths of Schumacher. Normality temporarily resumed for the second round, and due to Button’s beaching, the two advancing representatives of the new teams were relegated to the 8th row of the grid. However, both drivers still ran impressive lap times, with Glock hitting 1:52.520 and Kovalainen somehow managing a 1:52.270. And yes, these times were around 3 seconds slower than the Toros Rosso, and yes, neither one made Q3, but they had out-qualified 3 former world champions, and were ahead of both Ferraris and both McLarens. An unbelievable result!
Race day brought with it some much appreciated dry weather, but before the lights went out Pedro de la Rosa lost his engine. Only 23 cars would take the grid.
On lap 3, Trulli and Glock had a close encounter of the crunch kind, and poor Timo, despite his amazing run in qualifying, was out. Over the next ten laps, Kobayashi, Schumacher, and Liuzzi all fell victim to various mechanical issues. Then, things settled down, with 20 laps of clean racing before another mechanical issue. The cyborg from Vyborg, Vitaly Petrov, lost his gearbox, and couldn’t make it back to the Renault pits for them to find it again. Then, back to more clean racing.
The next of the newbies to drop was Heikki Kovalainen with, surprise surprise, hydraulic issues. This time, though, the Lotus team managed to coax some life into the car, and Heikki returned to the track, albeit 9 laps down. In a surprising turn of events, both Hispania cars were running at the finish, along with both Loti and the Virgin rookie di Grassi, who finished highest in 14th, 3 laps down. Following him were Chandhok and Senna, in 15th and 16th, in the first double-finish for Hispania. Not a tremendous achievement, but given their reliability record, still counts for something, even if they were 3 and 4 laps down respectively. Trulli was the final car classified, despite Heikki running at the finish. The Finn spent so much time getting the hydraulic issues sorted in pit lane that he failed to complete the required 90% of the race. Still, no mechanical-induced retirements for the new teams, and 5 out of 6 cars running at the end. A solid result.
And onward to Shanghai for round 4.