The news that Heikki Kovalainen had been handed a five-place grid penalty for this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix capped an already disappointing day for the Caterham F1 team.
Having failed to break out of the opening phase of qualifying at Albert Park, Kovalainen and new team-mate Vitaly Petrov would start the race from 18th and 19th on the grid, and then found themselves behind the slower Marussia of Timo Glock after the German found a quicker path through the chaos at turn one on the opening lap. With Kovalainen suffering problems with both his KERS and DRS in the early stages, Petrov was able to move ahead and was running a solid race until he suffered a steering problem that forced him to park up on the start-finish straight, inadvertently bringing out the safety car that benefited technical partner Red Bull.
“I was having a fantastic race and it's such a shame we had to retire the car," the Russian sighed, "Until that point, everything was going exactly to plan. The team did a great to job to help me pass Heikki in the first stop, and I was catching Senna and Massa ahead as the car felt really well balanced. I was managing the tyres well and we definitely showed the sort of pace that can bring rewards this season.
"So, while it's obviously not how we wanted the first race with my new team to go, we can take a lot of positives from this and move on to Malaysia where we know we can put in a strong performance.”
The two cars began the race on different tyre strategies, with Kovalainen on the softer options and Petrov on the primes, and were running to plan through the first stops until striking problems mid-race.
“We showed the sort of pace that we knew this car was capable of in pre-season testing," technical director Mark Smith claimed, as both Caterhams rivalled Force India, Williams and even Ferrari for lap times, "I am very encouraged by our performance in the race and we have a good platform to build on. It is clear that we can race with a number of cars in the midfield, so we will move on to Malaysia and make sure we have a strong weekend in front of the home fans."
While Petrov's DNF was related to his steering wheel, Kovalainen's retirement appeared to have been precipitated by a front track rod issue which was causing his car to pull to the left under braking. Rather than risk an accident with just days between races, the team opted to call the Finn in to retire - only for the veteran to marginally pass Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull under safety car conditions as he pitted.
“It seems like a front left suspension problem was causing the handling imbalance I'd felt for a few laps before we had to retire," Kovalainen commented, "Both stops went well, but then I felt the car starting to pull left under braking, so we brought it in to take a look. I'm sure we can fix both problems for next week and we have shown today what a step forward we've taken. The sort of times we were doing were clearly competitive. so it's not bad news, it's just one of those days.”