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Jenson Button on pole in Oz

Here we go again.

Jensen Button
Jenson Button (left) and Rubens Barrichello of Brawn

With Formula One changed almost out of recognition, a row broke out yesterday at Albert Park, where the Australian Grand Prix is kicking off the new season tomorrow.

Brawn (formerly Honda), Williams and Toyota occupied six of the top seven places in practice, allegedly because they are running double diffusers of contested legality which exploit a grey area in the rules.

The Brawn team now occupy both pole and second on the grid for the Sunday’s race. Button is firm favourite to take the chequered flag in the Grand Prix.

Last year’s champ, Lewis Hamilton hardly got a look in after his gear box had to be replaced and finished 18th on the grid. The other McLaren is 12th.

So, if Hamilton does poorly, we may yet have a British winner in Jenson Button, albeit in a German car.

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A breeze in Melbourne for Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton Lewis Hamilton got his Formula One world championship attempt off to a perfect start with an easy win in the Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne.

Hamilton dominated from pole position, with only seven cars finishing the 58-lap race. He won 5.4 seconds ahead of BMW Sauber’s Nick Heidfeld.

Nico Rosberg finished third for the Williams team.

It was a disastrous day for Ferrari with both Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa failing to finish the race, which was marred by some spectacular crashes.

Hamilton told the McLaren team on his radio, “Fantastic job. The car was incredible. Thanks very much.”

The British McLaren driver made a clean start from pole position. First corner problems also saw Ferraris’ Felipe Massa head for the pits as he lost out in a battle for third with Heikki Kovalainen.

Four other cars, including Jenson Button’s Honda and Anthony Davidson in the Super Aguri, were forced to retire.

But it was Hamilton’s day, and the season gets off to a familiar start — at least if last season’s opening races are anything to go by.

“It was a super race and I dominated it from the beginning,” Hamilton said later. “I was able to drive at a steady pace without feeling any pressure. The three safety car periods meant there was never a time to relax and the whole situation was a bit like Canada last year when I claimed my first victory. We constantly had to change our strategy and the strategists were on the ball throughout. The car was fantastic to drive and we must keep on pushing because Ferrari are a great team and will do a good job.”

The first three were :

1. Lewis Hamilton (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 58 laps one hour 34 minutes 50.616 seconds
2. Nick Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber +5.478 secs
3. Nico Rosberg (Ger) Williams-Toyota +8.163

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Raikkonen’s Big Worry

Speculation over who will become Ferrari’s number one driver continues, with the Raikkonen ranks swelling after his win in Australia but the Massa devotees still expecting there to be a fight when their boy gets a car that doesn’t break in qualifying.

Kimi

Raikkonen in Australia

But I think Massa will be the least of Kimi’s worries at the moment – more to the point is that his engine temperatures shot up in the last few laps of the Australian GP. No damage was caused but it does put a question mark over the engine’s ability to survive another GP.

He could play safe by taking an engine change and the ten-position penalty that goes with it, of course. Which might be the wiser option, given the inevitability of Kimi qualifying on pole in Malaysia. No driver likes to have to fight his way to the front from tenth position but that shouldn’t be too big a problem for the Finn – he’s used to doing the same in an uncompetitive McLaren, after all.

The downside of the tactic is that it increases the risk of someone defending his position too vigorously and pushing Raikkonen off the track. But that is part of racing and can happen even if you’re leading and lapping an inattentive back marker. And how much more risky is it to start a race with an engine that was beginning to give trouble at the end of the last one? So I would say that Kimi should take the engine change and give us an entertaining drive through the field.

What, you think that Massa might be the fly in the ointment of that strategy? Get real – Felipe has improved out of all recognition in the last year, it’s true, but he is still not in the same class as Raikkonen. The Finn will come past him like a train and he won’t need team orders to do it.

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Technical Rumblings from Melbourne

One race done and already the muttering about cheating has started. Ron Dennis has been hinting that Ferrari’s speed can be partly attributed to a flexible floor on the cars. Since the scrutineers had a good look at this during their inspection, it may be that Ron made sure that they heard a rumor.

Ron

McLaren boss, Ron Dennis

The point is that, if the floor moves downwards at speed, it can alter the under-car aerodynamics and lessen drag, thereby allowing more speed on the straights. That would show up on the speed traps but you could disguise it by increasing the wing angles, thus slowing the car to a believable speed on the straights but reaping the benefit of extra downforce in the corners. All of which would be illegal under the “no moveable aerodynamic devices” rule.

The scrutineers passed the cars in Melbourne but this does not necessarily mean that something underhand is not going on. Apparently, they test at the moment by looking only at upward flexing of the floor – but it would be downward pressure that would clear the matter up once and for all.

Naturally, a lot of people are saying that it’s just Ron looking for excuses for his own cars not being as fast as the Ferraris. But that presumes that he knew before the race that the McLarens would be beaten. It is far more likely that his concern is genuine, having noticed the complex arrangement for keeping the Ferrari’s floor in place at the front.

Probably, Ron hopes that the rumor will activate the FIA and they will have a quiet word in Ferrari’s ear to tell them to get rid of the system. That would be the most sensible way to proceed, avoiding any possibility of legal action and a continuing unseemly fight throughout the season. F1 has had enough of those, surely, with the mass damper fiasco fresh in everyone’s mind and the customer car row about to enter litigation.

This is the kind of thing that happens when the rules become so all-embracing and extensive, however. With the importance of aerodynamics and every constructor having wind tunnels, the cars get ever closer in design and performance increases become a matter of subtle and sometimes dubious tweaks. Since every designer is looking for ways to gain an advantage, it is no wonder that they work in areas that are not completely dictated by mandatory measurements.

And that means they push the boundaries of legality on occasion, thereby forcing the FIA to be even more stringent on what they will allow. It is an endless cycle of increasing complication that needs to be stopped before the rules become so limiting that there is no difference at all between the cars, apart from the color scheme and badge on the front. How do you do that?

Well, you could start by simplifying everything immediately; extend the flat bottom from nose to tail, for instance, and let the designers work out how they are going to cope with that. But it’s a long subject and I could best sum it up with the philosophy of “We need less regulation, not more.”

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