McLaren and Mercedes set early pace in Melbourne

As the 2012 F1 season gets under way in Melbourne, TOM WILKINSON reports on the good, the bad, and the downright ugly at the Australian grand prix.

Your guide to the twists and turns of the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne, Australia.

The long-awaited 2012 Formula 1 season is underway in Melbourne. The green light going on at the end of the pit lane signalled the start of first practice session of the 2012 season opener.
The session started with a wet circuit, the rain was falling lightly. To make matters worse, oil had been dropped at turns three and four from a previous support race. The first car out was Jean-Eric Vergne in the Toro Rosso on intermediate tyres.  Once the front runners emerged the times began to drop, but the session wasn’t filled with excitement at the start.
Once the track began to dry out, it got much busier. But with 30 minutes gone the HRT of Karthikeyan came to a halt on his first out lap. The team had only just passed their scrutineering test just minutes before the session began. They were not the only team to have problems in the session. Lotus had an issue with the steering column on the car of Kimi Raikkonen. It was adjusted in the garage and he went back out on track towards the end of the session. Felipe Massa ended the morning in the gravel trap at turn nine after a mistake under braking.
It was an interesting session, with plenty of drivers making mistakes. What I noticed was the lack of grip in many of the cars. The loss of the double diffuser seems to have really affected the grip. The cars sliding around much more, as Fernando Alonso found out on the final turn. Mid-corner the car was sliding and he almost dropped it on the curbs. The Ferrari looks in poor shape around this tight circuit. The Red Bull doesn’t look too good either, the back end sliding around a little and not particularly fast. McLaren and Mercedes look very strong this weekend, looking at the form in FP1. The session finished with Button 1st Hamilton 2nd with Schumacher 3rd   Alonso 4th Webber finished 5th with Vettel only 11th.
FP2 got underway with the rain falling and the track being very wet. A heavy rain storm arrived in Melbourne between the two sessions. The Pirelli extreme wet tyre was required at the start of this session with plenty of standing water on the circuit. The first car which ventured out on track was the Sauber of Sergio Perez.
It was half an hour before the faster cars came out on track and there were still plenty of mistakes being made. Kobayashi running very wide at turn one, he wouldn’t be the last to do that. The same corner caught Mark Webber out later in the session. It was Daniel Ricciardo who went sliding sideways through turns 11 and 12, but continued on his way. Jenson Button was the first of the front runners to emerge on track on the extreme wet tyre. Fernando Alonso ventured out soon after on the intermediate tyres. The times were soon dropping. After the first hour, the sun began to shine through and the circuit began to dry.
With the dry tyres on and the lap times falling, we now started to see the true pace of the 2012 Formula 1 field. Sebastian Vettel is not lightning quick, possibly down to traffic and perhaps a high fuel load also. The Lotus team showing good pace, but the stand out performance came from Mercedes and Michael Schumacher in particular, looking very good around Melbourne. Massa improved well in the Ferrari after his excursion this morning. The Sahara Force India was very high up the time sheets also with both Di Resta and Hulkenberg in good form as Hulkenberg is 2nd and Di Resta is 6th. The session finished with Michael Schumacher in 1st place to underline the performance of this year’s Mercedes.

My Predictions for Qualifying and the Race
McLaren or Mercedes look very strong and will have a good shot for pole position. Force India, I believe, could well be in the top 10 and could spring a surprise. Ferrari I think will start behind the Red Bulls on the grid and Lotus could be also featuring high up the pecking order. At the back of the field, I don’t believe HRT will be allowed to start the race on Sunday due to the shambles of today’s performance, around 10 seconds off the pace. Williams need good pace if they are to stay in touch with the mid field. Toro Rosso look in positive form and could be up around 10th place perhaps.
The race on Sunday is a difficult one to predict. The order is still unknown at this stage. Certain teams and cars look strong, but it will be very close. Look out for the Mercedes and the McLarens too. Never count out Red Bull even though the pace today wasn’t good. I would also note Force India. They could spring a serious surprise on Sunday. Toro Rosso could also be a surprise in the race.
In terms of tyres, we could see three pit stops due to degradation. Strategy will play a big part as always. With Albert Park being a tight, fast and twisty circuit, the Safety Car is a real possibility so watch out for that, particularly on the first lap. Tune in live and don’t miss what promises to be a very exciting, opening race.
You can of course follow me live on Twitter for all the on-track sessions. I’ll be tweeting Live from 2:45 on Saturday morning for FP3 and later on for Qualifying. On Sunday, join me for all the race build-up from 4:30am. You can read my reports on the race right here at wheelworldreviews.co.uk
Tweet me Live throughout the whole weekend for my thoughts and opinions. I want to hear yours too. @TomWilkinson89 – start your tweets with:  #TWF1

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