Buckle up, 2012 promises vintage F1 year

© John Leicester, AP, 19 March 2012
© AP Images

Although as ugly as carbuncles, this season's Formula 1 cars paradoxically look like they're going to deliver a vintage year of racing.

The longest ever F1 season, with 20 races planned, could prove to be one of the best, too -- at least judging from the first Grand Prix in Australia.

Jenson Button triumphed in style, leading from start to finish. That win makes the Brit favourite to be the new world champion of 2012, because in every year since 2007, the victor when the inaugural race was held Down Under also went on to win the driver's title, too.

But the beauty of this weekend was that the intense, close-fought nature of the race also suggested that, this year, history might not be much of a guide.

Here are five pointers it offered for the season:

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© AP Images

This year's Grid of Champions isn't an empty promise, a mere F1 marketing ploy. Having six former world champions racing together for the first time in the sport's history could have been a major anti-climax if they didn't have the wheels to match the hype.

But Button, Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher and defending champion Sebastian Vettel all seem to have decent or half-decent cars, close enough in their racing performance in Melbourne to hint that this year might be more suspenseful than last, when Vettel and his Red Bull dominated.

"We all think that this year is a very special year in Formula 1," Button said after his win on Sunday. "Having six world champions and so many competitive teams, it's good to see that Formula 1 is in a great place right now."

And Raikkonen has already provided the comedy highlight of 2012. After a couple of seasons out of F1 getting muddy in rally cars, the Finn showed he isn't race-rusty by placing seventh in his Lotus. But F1's 2007 champion does seem to have forgotten some of the rules. He looked like a rookie when he radioed his team to ask why track-side marshals were waving blue flags (used to tell slower cars they are being lapped and to make way).

"Blue flags are for cars behind, Kimi," came his engineer's patient reply. "They are not for you."

Or, as Homer Simpson would say: "D'oh!"

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© AP Images

Hamilton still has some growing up to do. Being overtaken by Button, his McLaren teammate, at the start clearly stung. So, too, did the stroke of poor luck that caused Hamilton to lose second place to Vettel.

But losing elegantly is a skill, too, and one Hamilton needs work on. While Button and Vettel sprayed and drank champagne, Hamilton looked disconsolate on the podium and in the post-race press conference. Come on, Lewis, finishing third in the opening race is a solid start to the season, not the end of the world, especially when you also proved you have one of the fastest cars.

Chin up!

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© AP Images

Vettel is a brave and thrilling driver. Red Bull's RB7 was so superior in 2011, winning 12 of the 19 races, that there were questions about how Vettel would fare if forced to drive a lesser car. Well, just fine, thanks. The RB8 doesn't look like it is glued to the track like last year's model and is clearly trickier to handle. But Vettel's overtake on lap 2 was masterful, muscling his fuel-heavy Red Bull round the outside of Nico Rosberg's Mercedes.

"One of those situations where you don't think too much about the pros or cons, you just go for it," Vettel said. "A great manoeuvre."

Make no mistake: the 24-year-old can drive. He didn't become F1's youngest double world champion by accident.

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© Ferrari

Felipe Massa looks less and less worthy of a seat in F1's most famous team.

Granted, the Ferrari looks as hard to control as a 5-year-old on a sugar rush. But Massa's teammate, Alonso, still managed to wrestle it into a weekend-saving fifth place. That made Massa's performance in the same car look even worse.

He was a full second slower than Alonso in qualifying. He never looked comfortable in the race, eating through his tyres and finally retiring after colliding with fellow Brazilian Bruno Senna of Williams.

Alonso outclassed his teammate last year, too, with 10 podium finishes to Massa's none.

Massa is not pulling his weight.

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Looks aren't everything, but they are something.

Congratulations to McLaren for the sleek front of its car. Ferrari and other teams win no beauty contests with the eyesores they are racing, with front beaks that have a bump in the middle like a boxer's broken nose.

As Button noted over the radio to McLaren engineers after he crossed the line in first place Sunday: "The car is beautiful and she's quick!"

As far as starts to a season go, not bad at all.




 

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