It was worryingly close to the season start when HRT announced that Tonio Liuzzi had signed a contract with them for 2011. Sebastian Vettel signed a long-term contract with Red Bull, and Karun Chandhok became a reserve driver at Team Lotus. The circus headed across the sea to Australia, for the first race of the season. Back in England, as Team Lotus and Lotus Renault GP took to the track in F1, the court case between the two outfits over the use of the ‘Team Lotus’ name was about to go ahead.
On the 25th of March we got our first look at the post-testing cars, Pirelli tyres, and DRS. The Red Bulls were fastest in the first session, with Webber ahead of Vettel on home turf. Alonso was third, Rosberg fourth, Barrichello fifth and the two McLarens following. The fastest Renault was Petrov, with Massa slower and Heidfeld slower still. It still seemed the Williams had pace. In the second session it was the two McLarens fastest, and the top seven were separated by less than a second. Sauber’s new driver, Sergio Perez, impressed with his time. He was eighth-fastest, ahead of Barrichello and Rosberg. On the Saturday, Sauber’s pace continued to impress as Kobayashi got into the top ten again, and Petrov was fifth-fastest in the Renault. This time, Williams were nowhere to be seen. And then it was qualifying…
Taking pole position was Sebastian Vettel, with Lewis Hamilton second but much slower. Webber didn’t quite meet his teammate’s time and started third. Vitaly Petrov got into Q3, but teammate Nick Heidfeld had a dreadful qualifying, becoming the first ‘fall guy’ alongside the two Lotuses and Virgins. HRT, whose car was not ready in time, failed to qualify at all. It would be the only time the 107% rule would be applied in the season.
In the race, neither Williams nor Mercedes finished. The Williams both had mechanical issues, while Schumacher had a puncture and Rosberg was too damaged from an accident. Heikki Kovalainen had a water leak that caused the Team Lotus driver to retire as well.
Despite driving most of the race with damage on the floor of his car, Lewis Hamilton came home second behind Sebastian Vettel. Vitaly Petrov managed third to stun the crowd, coming ahead of Fernando Alonso. Jenson Button, however, had less luck. Stuck behind Felipe Massa, he struggled to overtake for a long time. Eventually he cut a corner, getting him in front but resulting in a drive-through penalty as he refused to give the position back. The Saubers also impressed, with rookie Perez managing a one-stop strategy to perfection and finishing just ahead of his teammate. But the car broke the FIA regulations and to the disappointment of everyone, the Saubers were disqualified. This allowed Force India rookie Paul di Resta to score points on his debut instead. Perez and di Resta looked set to be the star rookies of 2011.
With the Australian Grand Prix over, Vettel led the championship. But could he retain his title? Could Renault continue to challenge the top teams? And could Sauber come out leaders of the midfield?
[To be continued]