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Jenson Button leads Brawn 1-2 in Melbourne!

29 March 2009

The last time Jenson Button began from pole position – also co-incidentally in Melbourne – he had taken the chequered flag tenth. This time around he firmly made amends – by leading an incredible Brawn GP one-two ahead of team-mate Rubens Barrichello in the Australian Grand Prix, with Lewis Hamilton fourth.

The result was absolute vindication for the unrelenting hard work put in by all at the ex-Honda outfit over its winter of uncertainty and, moreover, a breath of fresh air for Formula 1. Not only is the top flight entering a brave new dawn, it also has a bold and entirely unexpected new order to go with it.

With the track and air temperature both dropping – in company with the sun – the 2009 curtain-raiser readied itself for action, with reigning world champion Hamilton having been relegated to last position on the grid for the second time over the course of the weekend following the Toyotas' decision to take the start from the pit-lane. Having dominated the race around Albert Park this time last year, the McLaren-Mercedes star was twelve months on almost in need of a pair of binoculars even to see the starting lights...

A textbook getaway for pole-sitter Button was unfortunately not matched by that of team-mate Barrichello alongside him, with the Brazilian's poor start causing a chain reaction further down the pack that would account for a number of runners. As drivers scattered to avoid the tardy Brawn, they approached turn one three-abreast, and as he attempted to regain ground Barrichello clattered into the side of the Red Bull Racing of Mark Webber, which in turn spun round the BMW-Sauber of Nick Heidfeld, with the incident collecting Heikki Kovalainen into the bargain.

The ensuing mêlée similarly implicated Renault's former double F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso and Force India ace Adrian Sutil – who had gone off-piste even on his formation lap on the way around to the grid – with Heidfeld touring back to the pits with a puncture, Webber and Sutil requiring front wing replacements and the luckless Kovalainen becoming the year's first retirement with front suspension damage.

A long stop for Webber following a delay to fit a new front wing left the home hero a lap down on the front of the field, where Button was already making good his escape, being chased – at a distance – by Sebastian Vettel, Felipe Massa, Robert Kubica, Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Rosberg, who had found himself unceremoniously bundled aside and out of third place at turn three on the opening tour. Barrichello – with slight damage to the front of his car – sat seventh.

Further back, the demoted Toyotas – who had both had to make wing modifications as a result of their qualifying penalty – were on a charge, as was Hamilton, who used his extra KERS power to perfection to make short work of assertively fighting his way past the Force India of Giancarlo Fisichella, Scuderia Toro Rosso new boy Sébastien Buemi and Renault's Nelsinho Piquet, having earlier come perilously close to colliding with the latter as the Brazilian out-braked himself into turn three.

Vettel finally began to peg the flying Button four laps in by setting the quickest lap of the race, as Rosberg and Barrichello were lining up the now struggling Raikkonen, with the Ferraris' super-soft tyres rapidly deteriorating. Perhaps in response to a radio hurry-up from his team, Rosberg artfully forced his way past the ailing scarlet machine into turn one, but when Barrichello attempted to follow suit just a couple of corners later into turn three, his hap-hazard race took another turn as he clumsily nerfed the F60 and lost a bit more of his front wing.

Nine laps into the grand prix, Button had a 3.7-second advantage at the front of the field over Vettel, with third-placed Massa a further twelve seconds in arrears again. Having dispensed with Raikkonen, Rosberg rapidly cruised up to the back of the sister Ferrari of Massa and Kubica's BMW, and with Barrichello coming along to play too there was suddenly a fraught, four-way scrap over P3.

Raikkonen and Massa were unsurprisingly the first of the front-runners to head for the pits eleven laps in to dispose of their unloved super-soft rubber, with Hamilton similarly making an early stop, followed by Kubica, with the released Rosberg immediately setting his personal fastest lap of the race.

That left impressive rookie Buemi seventh and Fisichella eighth, with ahead of the pair Kazuki Nakajima in the second Williams starting to apply pressure on Barrichello for fifth. Vettel pitted on lap 16 for a long-fuel, but third-placed Rosberg would lose out significantly with a delay on the left front of his car in his own stop, dropping back behind Massa, Kubica and – into turn three shortly after leaving the pit-lane – Raikkonen, the very drivers he had worked so hard to battle his way past in the first place.

Drama, however, lay just around the corner, as Nakajima dumped his Williams into the wall between turns three and four, scattering debris across the track and necessitating the first appearance in 2009 of the safety car. Barrichello and Button both managed to pit before the safety car took to the track, whilst there was a rather lighter cameo when Fisichella came in, the experienced Italian missing his pit box altogether and needing to be wheeled into the right place by his disgruntled Force India mechanics.

As the cars toured around in formation behind the safety car, Button led Vettel, Massa – who curiously endured a brace of damaging lock-ups – Kubica, Raikkonen, Rosberg, Piquet and Jarno Trulli in the points-scoring positions, with the major fear being for those drivers with KERS-equipped cars behind them on the re-start.

When the safety car peeled away again, Button and Vettel got the jump on the following pack, with a lock-up for the race leader very nearly allowing his pursuer to have a pop into turn one. Further back, Piquet lost it into the first corner and skated off deep into the gravel trap, very nearly taking Rosberg with him for good measure and causing the young German to drop down the order and outside of the points following his excellent early part of the race.

Further back, Hamilton went all the way around the outside of Timo Glock for eleventh place – not the first time during the grand prix that the British star had taken the long way round – as Button again began to scamper away at the front with half-distance approaching. Right at the back of the pack, meanwhile, Heidfeld and Webber were making no progress at all, still trailing the duelling Force Indias of Fisichella and Sutil.

Whilst Button continued to edge clear once more, all eyes were beginning to shift to the Ferraris, with Massa 5.5 seconds down on the lead in third position – but, perhaps crucially, having already used his softer compound rubber, a disadvantage the safety car had handily completely wiped out. The São Paulista was the first man to blink for the second time, with 27 laps left to run – seven laps earlier than either Kubica or Raikkonen were due to stop. Further back, Buemi was frustrating Rosberg's efforts to regain ground, with Hamilton behind barely able to keep with either of them.

Trulli was the next driver to stop from an excellent fifth in his 200th grand prix as, released from behind Massa, Kubica suddenly came alive and began to hunt down second-placed Vettel, setting a series of fastest laps as he chased his quarry. The key question now was who would have to run the super-soft tyres for the fewest laps in the race's closing stages – and who could manage them the best. Raikkonen, just over eleven seconds adrift of the lead in fourth, began to sense his opportunity.

Kubica pitted for the second time with 19 laps left to run – in company with Raikkonen – whilst Glock went for a spin in attempting to make his way past Alonso, very nearly tagging the Spaniard into the bargain. Up front, meanwhile, Button – 4.8 seconds to the good with 17 laps remaining – was continuing to trade punches with Vettel and Kubica behind him, as any one of five drivers remained firmly in contention for victory.

Crucially, Hamilton exited his pit-stop ahead of Massa, with the impressive and combative Buemi fancying a piece of the action as well into turn three, before Raikkonen went and spoiled Ferrari's day even further by spinning his car into the wall just 13 laps from home, dropping right the way down to 16th place in the process. With the Scuderia's grand prix rapidly unravelling, Vettel pitted for his complement of super-softs, and the young German had to drive very defensively on his 'out' lap to prevent Barrichello from getting past and compromising his race.

Things soon went from bad to worse for Ferrari as Massa suddenly slowed, beginning to echo Maranello's nightmare 2008 Melbourne outing when they had left Australia with nul points in the bag. Button, though, had worries of his own, as a sticking left-rear tyre and fuel hose problem at his final pit-stop saw him only narrowly preserve his lead over Vettel and the charging Kubica, as Massa climbed out of his car into retirement and Fisichella halted Trulli's progress in the last of the points-scoring positions.

Rosberg was now once again the man on a charge, setting the fastest lap of the race as Button endeavoured to get away from Vettel, with the Red Bull Racing a scant 1.5 seconds in his mirrors and ten laps remaining until the chequered flag. Behind third-placed Barrichello, Kubica – on the stronger of the two tyres – was only 4.5 seconds off the lead himself, as Glock pitted for a quick splash n' dash, losing out to Buemi on the exit. The Swiss ace would, however, relinquish the position again with a mistake into turn three.

Barrichello pitting with seven laps to go released Kubica to chase after Button and Vettel, the 36-year-old rejoining in fifth place just behind Rosberg as Glock went all the way around the outside of Alonso at turn four, much like he had done to Buemi on only the previous lap. Barrichello was back on the move again, too, steaming around the outside of Rosberg towards the end of the lap as the Williams' pace slipped away once more and he fell swiftly into the clutches of Trulli, who similarly found a way past around the outside of the increasingly grip-less and defenceless German.

With little ability to slow his car down, Rosberg next ceded to Hamilton as the laps ticked down at the front and the tension mounted. The bigger of the two battles now was between Vettel and Kubica, affording Button some much-appreciated breathing space. A slight mistake from Vettel into turn one enabled Kubica to get a run on him, and as Kubica went for the outside line into turn three, Vettel on the inside could not slow down in time and the pair touched, pushing the BMW into a half-spin and subsequently into the wall, and leaving both with major damage that brought out the safety car for the second time.

That double retirement elevated Barrichello to second place and Trulli to third – a perfect way for the Abbruzzese to celebrate his special milestone – with Hamilton fourth, Glock fifth and Alonso, Rosberg and the incredible Buemi completing the points-finishers, and with the race continuing until the penultimate corner under the safety car, that is precisely as it would stay.

The only team to have previously secured both pole position and victory on its F1 debut was Mercedes-Benz with the legendary Juan-Manuel Fangio in the French Grand Prix more than half a century ago back in 1954, and prior to this weekend, Jenson Button had never won from pole position. He has now.

Crash.net Driver of the Day: Jarno Trulli (19th – 3rd)

To see the race result in full, click here


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