The lights have gone out, the bullshit has stopped and the 2012 Formula 1 season is now well underway. After two races, the order of the pack is slowly emerging albeit with a few surprises.
New to the field enter Jean-Eric Vergne for Toro Rosso, Romain Grosjean for Lotus and Charles Pic for Marussia Racing. Vitaly Petrov moves to the Caterham team after the ejection of Jarno Trulli (leaving no Italian drivers on the grid for a long time), Daniel Ricciardo gets a full-time seat alongside Vergne at Torro Rosso, Bruno Senna replaces countryman Rubens Barrichello at Williams and Nico Hulkenberg joins Paul Di Resta at Sahara Force India. The HRT team gives Narain Karthikeyan a full-time race seat alongside F1 veteran, Pedro de la Rosa and Kimi Raikonnen leads the way at Lotus after a two year hiatus from Formula 1. Driver line-ups at the top teams remain unchanged.
The biggest rule change for the year is the ban on off-throttle blown diffusers. A massive performance gain in 2011 which showed Red Bull conquering all in the RB7 after the technology was deep rooted in the car's design. This year though, it's gone, and all the teams anxiously try to find performance gains in other areas of the car. Testing predictably gave nothing away and although McLaren looked strong, everyone seemed to be holding back their pace.
Come Australia and the confusion lingered up and down the paddock as to who had the advantage. From FP1, it was clear that McLaren, Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus had some performance. Ferrari on the other hand seemed to be struggling with their agressively designed F2012 with it's pull rod front suspension. Lewis Hamilton, after having an eventful 2011 put the MP4-27 on pole with Jenson a close second. Jenson went on the take the race by passing Lewis at the start and the rest is history. To add insult to injury, Hamilton got pushed further back to 3rd after a safety car incident leap frogged Double World Champion, Sebastian Vettel to second place. A great start to the season for McLaren though and with the Red Bulls taking second and fourth place, the usual suspects seemed to be the most competitive come race day. Albert Park however, is a temporary race track and a street circuit so it was difficult to judge just how competitive the teams were. Heading out to the purpose built Sepang Circuit in Malaysia a week later hoped to eradicate these uncertainties.
The Malaysian Grand Prix hoped to be a a true test with long straights and fast corners. The McLarens locked out the front row for the second time (Lewis on pole), Michael Schumacher impressed in the Mercedes to get third on the grid just ahead of the Red Bulls of Webber and Vettel. The weather had been glorious all weekend until about half an hour before the race when the dark clouds slowly approached. "Rain Expected" is what the radars reported. The race started as normal on the Intermediate tyres with Hamilton beating Button to the first corner until the safety car was called out as the rain started hammering it down. 9 laps in and the race was red flagged for about an hour. To cut a long story short, Button hit Karthikeyan and lost his front wing, pitted and never got back into the race (no points), similarly Vettel clipped Karthikeyan's front wing after overtaking him and got a puncture (no points), Lewis again got pushed back to third place after a double-shuffle pit stop by the Ferraris and Fernando Alonso drove to an unexpecting win to take the lead in the Drivers' Championship.
The driver of the day was Sergio Perez whose tyre management and strategy calls from Sauber got him his maiden F1 podium (which so could of been his maiden F1 victory had he not spun after catching up Alonso). Conversely, the biggest underperformer for the second race running was Felipe Massa who struggled to drag the Ferrari to 15th place. Rumour mills went into overdrive after the race for Perez to replace Massa as early as China but these were shot down by Stefano Domenicali and Sauber. Massa needs to up his game though. A driver in a top team who hasn't even managed a podium since 2010 is almost embarrassing.
Next up, back-to-back races in China and Bahrain. Can Hamilton finally get that win that the McLaren car is capable of? Can Vettel mount a serious challenge for the Drivers' Championship because at the moment, it looks like Mark Webber is getting on better with the RB8? Was the win in Malaysia just due to the conditions for Alonso and Ferrari? What is going on at Mercedes. They seem to have the qualifying pace with that super duper magical DRS that Red Bull and Ferrari keep moaning about but go backwards in the race? It's all to come.
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