Conclusions from the 2013 Australian GP
Dissecting the main talking points from a cracking start to 2013
By Pete Gill. Last Updated: 18/03/13 10:33am
Cunning Lotus find a way to defeat the speed of Red Bull, while McLaren lose their way
Never judge a race by its qualifying cover
What a compelling, relief-filled contrast between the race foreseen after Red Bull had monopolised qualifying in the earliest hour of Sunday morning and the real thing six hours later when the World Champions were humbled by the neatest of tricks from Lotus.
The E21 may not be the fastest car on the grid - Kimi Raikkonen, lest nobody overlook, actually qualified 1.4 seconds adrift of Sebastian Vettel's pole-securing time - but its magical ability to sustain its tyres is a trick which made them far too quick for everyone else when push came to race.
On other days, in other conditions, it's a skill which won't be anything quite as effective. Raikkonen's burst from seventh off the line to fourth at the end of the first lap, aided by Mark Webber's all-too common reversal, was a critical turning point without which victory, regardless of the E21's kindness to its tyres, may not have been possible.
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Moreover, the capacity to keep the otherwise-flakey Pirellis in shape is an advantage only at its most powerful when - as in Melbourne - the optimum number of pit-stops is a marginal call and the opposition's race strategists can't make short, fast bursts add up to a winning formula. Finally, though the Lotus tended to excel in warmer climes last season, it remains to be seen whether the E21's tyre advantage is quite as apparent in Malaysia and beyond rather than merely in the autumnal cool of Melbourne.
Yet, for all those mitigations, nobody should be fooled into thinking the race-tilting impact Lotus' trick will exclusively be felt in the number of pit stops required. Not only did Raikkonen set the fastest lap of the grand prix on a 27-lap stint at the end of a race, but he did so, in the astonished words of Red Bull boss Christian Horner, "on a tyre that was older than we could have dreamed of going anywhere near."
From up the sleeves of their unnaturally-quick E21, Lotus have pulled a fast one alright.
There could be a pair of contrasts at the front
With Albert Park a notoriously unreliable indicator of the exact pecking order, cautions ought to still abound before any definitive pictures are painted of the 2013 state of play. But the frontrunning form book in Australia did throw up one fascinating quirk with the top four teams apparently equally split into two rival camps with Red Bull and Mercedes boasting the two fastest packages in qualifying whilst Lotus and Ferrari held sway in race trim.
Australia wasn't quite the story of the tortoise and the hare, but with Red Bull's sheer speed battered into submission by Lotus' clever cunning, it was certainly one of the most intriguing opening chapters read for many a year. Fascinating game on?
McLaren may have lost more than their star driver, technical director and main sponsor...
They may have also lost the plot entirely with their 2013 charger as well.
Where their competitors have evolved, McLaren have revolutionised, and what seemed bold at the time of the MP4-28's launch was made to look like a disastrous error of judgement on track this weekend and panic off it following the revelation from Sporting Director Sam Michael that the team took the decision to rip up the MP4-27's design philosophy around "June, July" last year.
Suddenly, with the memory of the team's mid-season slump in 2012 still rife, an entirely different perspective is applied to McLaren's revolution. Was it just bad timing which caused the team to give up on the MP4-27?
Bluntly: Would McLaren have made the decision to explore an entirely different design route if only the six barren weeks between Canada in early June and Germany at the close of July hadn't accounted for the team's worst period of the year?
If so, one other question: Is it too late to bring the MP4-27 out of retirement?
The astonishing tale of Jenson Button's false lap time
That McLaren only became fully aware of their new car's failings this weekend is, in part, a terrible indictment of the value and clarity of winter testing. Though aware they were adrift before their arrival at Melbourne, McLaren's shock was palpable on Friday when it became abundantly clear they were no longer on the same page - let alone the same pace - as the frontrunners. The honesty of Martin Whitmarsh as the McLaren boss faced up to his team's predicament was both impressive and jaw-droppingly frank.
Nonetheless, McLaren's problems remain essentially all of their own making and it emerged over the weekend that any misjudged confidence they had in the MP4-28's competitiveness from winter testing may have been sparked be an error so basic that it defies belief: namely, that the brilliant lap-time produced by Jenson Button at Jerez was the consequence of the team bolting on a new piece of suspension the wrong way round (but which had to be immediately removed because it made the MP4-28 sit too low on the road).
Mistakes happen, but it's vignette which reeks of a team in a wretched state of disarray.
On and off the track, Lewis Hamilton is in a far better place now
It's still far too early to declare Lewis Hamilton's decision to abandon McLaren for Mercedes vindicated - after all, a fifth-placed finish would have been considered a poor result for Lewis last season - but his critics will have been muted over the last five days. The thought is beginning to prosper that he may have got out of McLaren just in time.
Where Hamilton's former employers have fallen back, Mercedes leapt forward - although quite how far remains unclear. The W04 was there or thereabouts in Melbourne: good but not quite good enough to match Lotus' race-winning two-stop strategy, quick but not quite quick enough to beat the Red Bulls in qualifying. At first glance, 2013 still looks to have come a year too early for both them and Hamilton.
Then again, at least he's not in the McLaren.
A positive medium return for Sutil
Praise for Adrian Sutil's drive to seventh in the Force India has surely been overdone. Though an impressive comeback given that he lost drove in a race almost eighteen months previously, his surge to the front was mostly the result of running his tyre allocation in reverse order to the frontrunners.
The real mystery was why everyone else outside of the top ten didn't do the same and why Force India called him in for such a long final stint on the supersofts when his medium tyres appeared to still be in good shape.
With Sutil only spared being overtaken by team-mate Paul di Resta on instruction from the pitwall, a more deserving candidate for the award of driver of the day was surely Jules Bianchi - the driver Force India overlooked in favour of Sutil. The young Frenchman was excellent across the weekend and enjoyed what Marussia hailed as "a dream racing debut" as he took an impressive fight to the under-performing Williams'.
First impressions can be misleading. But he looks good. So does 2013.
Roll on Malaysia.