Phenomenal field out to stop Vettel at the start
MELBOURNE - Reuters
AP PhotoWorld champion Sebastian Vettel is understandably favorite to open the Formula One season with a victory at the Australian Grand Prix this weekend but there are strong indications he will face a much tougher challenge than he did last year.
The German’s pole-to-flag victory by a formidable 22.2 seconds at Albert Park last year started a second season of dominance for Vettel and his Red Bull team that culminated in the retention of drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
The return to the grid of Kimi Raikkonen after a two-year sabbatical, however, has resulted in the tantalizing prospect of five former world champions, not to mention a string of young pretenders, fighting to deny Vettel a title hat-trick.
“This season looks like a stellar year for Formula One with six world champions. It’s unprecedented,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said. “The quality of the field is phenomenal. I think it’s going to be a really exciting season. We’re obviously determined to try and carry the momentum we’ve gathered over the last couple of years into this season, but we certainly don’t take anything for granted.”
Despite the millions of dollars invested in building the cars and the thousands of kilometers run in testing, no one really knows how the contenders will match up until the covers come off the tires for Saturday’s qualifying session.
Indications are, however, that McLaren, which boasts two of the former world champions in Britons Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, will be more competitive from the off than it was after a difficult winter last year.
The team has pedigree on the Melbourne street circuit too. Button, runner-up in the title race last year, won back-to-back in Melbourne in 2009 and 2010 with Hamilton winning in 2008.
“I actually feel more relaxed and ready for the new season than I think I’ve ever done,” said Hamilton, who was fifth in the championship last year.
“Everything has gone smoothly with the car - which is more than we can say for last year - and it just seems to be a responsive and reliable package.”
Raikkonen won in Melbourne in 2007 on his way to winning the title for Ferrari and looks to have eased seamlessly back into Formula One with Lotus, who ran as Renault up until last season.
The 32-year-old Finn left the sport after battling with his motivation and, from what he showed in testing, would seem to have a car which could offer him the chance to fight for podiums at least.
“He looks like he is driving very well, like he has never really been away,” said Horner. “So much will depend on the car for him, and that will probably affect his motivation.”
Ferrari’s former world champion Fernando Alonso, the 2006 winner in Australia, never needs any motivation but he and his teammate Felipe Massa look like facing an uphill battle to get on the podium in their radically overhauled 2012 car.
Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher won the last of his four Australian Grand Prix in 2004 and his Mercedes team is another that has great hopes after positive winter tests.
One contender who has never won a world title, nor a grand prix at Albert Park, is Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber and the Australian will be at least hoping to improve on his best finish of fifth in his home race.
“This will be my eleventh Australian GP and I can’t wait to get started,” said the 35-year-old, who finished third in the championship last year.
“It’s been an extremely intense few months for the whole team and it’s incredible when you count up how many sleep-deprived hours have gone in to preparing the car as best we can.”
MELBOURNE – Agence France-Presse
Michael Schumacher rolled back the years on Friday as he ended a day’s practice on top for the first time since returning from retirement in 2010, ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
The seven-time champion, 43, clocked a best lap of one minute and 29.183 seconds in his Mercedes in the final minute of a dramatic day’s action at rain-hit Albert Park.
The lap lifted him ahead of fellow German Nico Hulkenberg by one-tenth of a second, the Mercedes-powered Force India driver having been on top for most of a closely-fought final 10 minutes.
Two-time defending world champion Sebastian Vettel was left way down in 10th after many drivers switched to faster, soft tyres in the last minutes as the track finally dried.
It was the first time Schumacher had finished a practice day on top of the standings since he ended his retirement. He was quickest in morning practice at Belgium last year, before being overhauled in the later session.
“The car feels positive, we have an excellent machine. We all anticipate a dry weekend from here on, so we weren’t too bothered by the rain,” the delighted Schumacher said.”For me, this is a very good start and we are feeling pretty optimistic I have to say!”
Mercedes boss Ross Brawn said: “We’re in much better shape here now than 12 months ago and we’ve got a stronger bed of foundation. I think this performance proves what I mean!
“And it is wonderful for Michael of course!”
Schumacher had retired after the 2006 season after clocking up 91 victories in a record-breaking career.
Mexican Sergio Perez of Sauber was third quickest ahead of two-time champion Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi in the second Sauber.
Most of the leading drivers opted to jump on to soft tyres in the final minutes as the track dried, in conditions that led to the unexpected mix-up in the final result.
Britain’s Paul Di Resta took sixth in the second Force India and Brazilian Felipe Massa was seventh for Ferrari, ahead of Finland’s Heikki Kovalainen of Caterham and ninth-placed Nico Rosberg in the second Mercedes.
Red Bull’s Vettel was one spot ahead of his Australian teammate Mark Webber, who timed 11th.
The 2009 champion Jenson Button, who was fastest in the earlier opening session, wound up in 15th for McLaren ahead of British teammate Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 champion.