Button back on top down under
18 March 2012
Jenson Button claimed a third Australian Grand Prix victory at Albert Park after leading from start to finish in 2012 F1 world championship season opener.
Starting alongside McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton on the front row, the Briton appeared confident about his chances of winning, but knew that he'd have to get the jump on the polesitter. When Hamilton appeared to get wheelspin off the line, Button seized his chance, leading into the first corner as chaos broke out in his wake.
Even as the leading McLaren pulled away, the Red Bull of Mark Webber found itself pincered into the first turn as Nico Hulkenberg and Jean-Eric Vergne were squeezed by events around them. Webber's poor getaway - a trait the Australian appears to have brought over from 2011 - then impacted on others, with the second Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo, itself hardly rapid off the line, being baulked by Vergne's evasive action and becoming the victim of a locked-up Kamui Kobayashi. Contact from the Sauber unsettled the younger Australian, who then collected Bruno Senna, the Brazilian recovering from his own moment on the outside line.
Somehow, Webber emerged unscathed, but both Senna and Ricciardo required attention in the pits before rejoining at the back of the field, which was soon down to 21 cars as Hulkenberg was forced to call an early end to his Force India debut.
The other catalyst to the chaos was Nico Rosberg's lightning getaway from seventh, which saw him burst between the two Red Bulls and up into fourth, behind Mercedes team-mate Michael Schumacher, who had slotted in behind the McLarens. Ferrari, too, had enjoyed a decent run to T1, with Fernando Alonso up to twelfth and Felipe Massa to tenth, the Spaniard chasing Romain Grosjean, who had been squeezed out of third at the start, and Pastor Maldonado, who made a tidy getaway in the Williams. Perhaps the best start of the day, however, came from Sergio Perez, the Mexican having been relegated to the back of the field by a gearbox change after qualifying, but then gaining ten places back almost immediately as he carved through the tailenders.
The action continued into lap two, with Vettel again scotching suggestions that he can't overtake by pulling off a stunning move on Rosberg at turn ten. Maldonado, meanwhile, showed that he still had a little to learn as he misjudged a move on Grosjean which, despite the Frenchman giving the Williams room, left his Lotus with race-ending damage to its right-front corner.
If Hamilton had hoped to redress his poor start via DRS, he was again out of luck, as Button's lead entering lap four was already over the two-second margin needed to activate the rear wing, and the 2009 champion continued to pull away. It was a different story in the battle for third, however, as Vettel closed in on Schumacher. Despite the younger German making a mistake at turn one - which briefly encouraged Rosberg to take a look at repassing the Red Bull - he was quickly back on the tail of the seven-time world champion, appearing to force Schumacher into a similar error three laps later. In truth, the Mercedes was in trouble, and Schumacher slowed almost as soon as he regained the track, his W03 out of gears.
At around the same time, Felipe Massa became the first to stop for a routine tyre change, prompting a reshuffle in the midfield as others began to follow suit. Team-mate Alonso was in a couple of laps later, and his decision to fit the harder Pirellis appeared to lead the way, as both McLarens went the same way at their respective stops. Hamilton briefly took the lead while Button changed his rubber, but the #3 machine was back in front a lap later. Hamilton, however, found more misfortune, as his exit left him behind Perez, the Mexican running longer than most and providing a tough obstacle for the McLaren, who remained in its wake for four laps.
The pair moved up to second and third as Vettel stopped, the German taking on another set of the soft rubber, and order was restored when Hamilton finally got past the Sauber, albeit having handed Button a lead of more than ten seconds. Perez quickly tumbled down the order after that, still holding out for a one-stop strategy, while Vettel appeared to be the man on the move. At times, the German was lapping more than a second quicker than the two silver cars out front, and Button reporting a vibration would not have comforted the McLaren garage. The leader, however, adapted to his situation, stabilising his advantage over his pursuers - who had come together on track - at around nine seconds.
The order as the race passed through half distance still suggested the race was McLaren's to lose, despite Vettel's pursuit of Hamilton, while Alonso had somehow hauled the recalcitrant Ferrari into fourth, ahead of Rosberg, Webber, Maldonado - who had emerged undamaged from his moment with Grosjean - Kimi Raikkonen, up from 17th on the grid, and Kobayashi, who was enjoying a spirited tussle with the returning Finn.
Alonso triggered the second round of pit-stops among the leaders, with McLaren opting to service its two cars at the same. That briefly allowed Vettel into the lead, but more tellingly for the Woking team, Vitaly Petrov's Caterham ground to a halt on the start-finish straight, prompting the first appearance of the safety car. Vettel pitted immediately and, while Button was able to regain his lead, Hamilton's luck again failed him, as the Red Bull slotted in between the two McLarens. RBR suddenly looked in good stead, as Webber closed in behind Hamilton, with Maldonado now ahead of Alonso, Perez and Raikkonen, as Rosberg dropped back to ninth, in front of Kobayashi.
Having been made to wait for the lapped backmarkers to work their way around to the tail of the field, Button paced the restart perfectly, pulling away from Vettel as the Red Bull struggled to get its tyres up to temperature. Hamilton had a look at retaking second, but was unable to make a move stick as second, third and fourth ran together.
The order, at the front at least, remained the same to the flag, with Button pulling out a couple of seconds over his pursuers. At the same time, Hamilton dropped away from Vettel by almost the same amount, leaving the Briton to defend from Webber, the Australian keen to finally land a home race podium. He was to be denied by just 0.4secs as the top four came home well clear of the rest, but still improved on his previous best Melbourne finish.
While Ferrari team-mate Massa retired after a clash with Senna, Alonso survived to take a fifth place that looked unlikely after qualifying. The Spaniard had to withstand prolonged pressure from a fired-up Maldonado, only escaping when the Venezuelan made an error on the penultimate lap, putting a wheel over the kerbs and being fired into a tankslapper that resulted in heavy contact with the wall.
That incident appeared to precipitate late chaos among the lower half of the top ten, with Perez and Rosberg clashing on the last lap. That not only left the Mercedes hobbling home with a puncture and the Sauber unable to resist the subsequent challenge from Raikkonen and Kobayashi, but saw Vergne briefly promoted to a points position - only to lose out to both team-mate Ricciardo and Force India's Paul di Resta, who went from 13th to tenth on the run to the line. Vergne eventually claimed eleventh on his STR debut, with Rosberg classified twelfth ahead of Maldonado, the two Marussias - which made it home despite very little pre-season running - and Senna.
Button's victory was not only the first time he had won at the same circuit three times, but also ensured that Vettel would not feature at the top of the standings for the first time since Abu Dhabi in 2010. The Briton will also hope that a record established over the past six seasons, in which the Australian GP winner has gone on to take the title five times, holds fast.....