Joe-Pinions: Sports

18 Mar 2012 – Hamilton Cedes First Corner, First Battle to Button

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 18/03/2012

Lewis Hamilton looked like he was a new, refreshed man entering the season-opening Grand Prix of Australia.  Per most accounts he had spent the long cold winter off-season shrugging off the troubles of 2011.

As if to prove the reports of his newly rediscovered mojo, he took the pole position for the Australian Grand Prix by almost two-tenths of a second over his McLaren teammate, Jenson Button.  After the scintillating qualifying session, he looked and sounded like a new man indeed.

Gone was the grave, self-conscious, muted Lewis we saw all too often last year.  Instead, we saw a more enthusiastic, more visibly confident former 2008 F1 Drivers World Champion, looking forward to his season’s campaign.

Then the race started.

On Sunday, 18 March 2012, the five red lights winked out, and the roar of a grid full of 18000RPM V8 engines heralded the start of the Australian Grand Prix.  Lewis Hamilton shot out of his starting position, going up the gears, in prime position on the left side of the track on the racing line for the first right-hander of the 58-lap race.  I’m sure he believed in his heart of hearts that he would be first going into the first corner, especially given his pole position and the fact that he was starting on the clean side of the track.

Except Jenson Button had gotten an even better start than he did and had pulled alongside.

Hamilton had no choice but to cede the first corner to his fellow Brit and ex-World Champion teammate.

I was somewhat surprised to see Button, not Hamilton, pushing hard right from the beginning of the race, clearly trying to create a gap big enough to prevent being vulnerable to having a pursuer close enough to exploit a DRS advantage.  Why was this surprising?  Button is typically one of those drivers who is the easiest on his tires, while Hamilton is clearly more aggressive and tends to wear his tires out earlier and faster.  With Button in front and pushing hard, it looked to all the world that the McLaren teammates had switched roles.

Button’s tactics worked, creating – indeed, growing with each passing lap in the early going – a comfortable DRS-proof cushion between himself and Hamilton.  Hamilton, too, was pulling away from his closest pursuers, a testament to the early-season excellence of the McLaren chassis compared to the rest of the field.  But for Button to be staying in front of Hamilton without Lewis being able to respond, well, that was a bit of an eye-opener.

Since Button led on the track, he had strategic control of the race, even insofar as dictating when to call into the pits and change tires and who goes in first between the McLaren teammates.  Button made his pit stop, surrendering the lead to Hamilton at the conclusion of his in-lap, then wresting it away and increasing it impressively when Hamilton dove into the pits on the very next lap.

The race order at the front remained static despite the action throughout the rest of the field.  Fernando Alonso proved his worth, somehow getting his Ferrari up to P5 despite the obvious problems it seems to have.  2007 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen, returning after a couple of years away from F1, was also having a great race, hauling up his black and gold Lotus into the top 10 after starting a poor 18th.  Finally, two-time defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel had come up to third place after starting from P6 from the grid.

The McLarens were controlling the race from the front, Button around twenty seconds in front of Hamilton, when they both pitted on the same lap.  It looked like a master stroke that was brilliantly executed by the McLaren pit crew, keeping their two drivers in essentially the same track position relative to each other.  However, just as Hamilton was about to enter his pit box, Vitaly Petrov’s Caterham broke and stopped on the pit straight.  The race organizers deemed this a hazardous situation and dispatched the Safety Car for its first call of duty for the 2012 F1 season.

The Safety Car period scrambled McLaren’s tactics a little bit, since Vettel was able to pit and change tires during the Safety Car period and managed to climb one more spot.  Hamilton was probably annoyed and frustrated beyond description to find himself in P3 as the field followed the souped-up AMG Mercedes SL around beautiful Albert Park.

When the Safety Car returned to its station and the race restarted in full anger, Button repeated his early-race tactics and created a DRS-proof cushion between himself and Vettel.  As it did at the start of the race, Button’s tactics worked, and with Vettel’s attention occupied by a madly-pursuing Hamilton and Red Bull teammate Mark Webber now, the two-time World Champion dropped further and further away from the leader.

Thus the race ended with Button taking the first victory of the 2012 Formula 1 season.

Post-race, Hamilton looked absolutely shattered.  He seemed like a man who invested so much into this first race of the new season, as if this would set the tone for his year’s campaign.  Finishing third, despite an early-season car advantage over his rivals from Red Bull and Ferrari and Mercedes, was clearly not the result he wanted nor expected from the Australian Grand Prix.  He clearly believes – quite rightly, too, in my opinion – that he is a faster driver than Button.  But Button is hugely underestimated because of the lack of overt flash in his driving.  Maybe, just maybe, Lewis Hamilton had completely underestimated his teammate’s abilities, and this race was a rude wake-up call.  Button, remember, drives the same car as Hamilton; he therefore has the same car advantage over the rest of the field.  For Button to beat Hamilton in the same car must be a shocking truth that Lewis must now face up to.

As he said himself at a post-race interview, P3 is just “not a good enough standard.”

Lewis Hamilton looked broken, emotionally, psychologically, mentally, at the end of the race.  Whether his dejection is merely temporary – it is just the first race of twenty, after all, and there’s so much racing left to do – or is a further blow to his apparently fragile psyche is going to be a very interesting item to watch out for as the season rolls on.

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