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GP Week : Issue 109
F1 AUSTRALIA >> 23 There’s a characteristic of Albert Park that I can’t quite put my finger on but is encapsulated by the early moments of practice on Friday each year, when the leaves are swirling in the turbulence of the cars and a dewy, wet-grass scent fills the air. The track surface shimmers as a shadowy grey; the cars flick from bump to bump, barely touching the road, it seems. everything appears on-the-edge: dust plumes upwards whenever a driver catches the grass. Into Turn One the apex is as elusive as the late-autumn Melbourne sun. Perhaps it’s because we’ve become used to seeing them during the winter at Valencia or Barcelona or Jerez, where the tyres – even the new Pirellis – seem glued to the road, the car trajectories line- locked into a groove that seems intractable. The naked eye in those places sees little difference between a Toro Rosso, a Force India or a Lotus Renault: only the engine note (or a timing beam) distinguishes a quick lap from a slow. In Melbourne, though, the differences are graphic. Everything at Albert Park is on tip- toes and a rhythm is hard to find. The cars move around a lot more, struggling for grip on the dormant surface, and the drivers search hard to find that happy medium between manipulating the car and reacting to the car – that happy medium that spells speed, that is, because it’s as easy to be manipulative (and slow) as it is to be reactive (and error-prone). So it is a testy partner with which to dance, Albert Park: just ask Mark Webber, who arrived in Melbourne with the best chance yet of winning at home, by which I mean: the seat of a fantastic racing car (Adrian Newey’s new RBR7-Renault); no winter injuries; and a poor Australian race in 2010 from which to learn. From the start, though, Webber appeared to be in a completely different world to that of his team-mate, the new World Champion, Sebastian Vettel. Mark looked quick in isolation – solid, fast, precise – braking late, slicing the car in to his rotation point, accelerating hard. There was nothing untidy or unruly about his driving; it was from every angle great to watch. Breathtaking, even. Then along would come Seb – and it was as if he had less grip. His car moved around a lot more – moved around with the contours of the circuit; the back jinked as he released the brakes; he made more, tiny mid-corner corrections than did Mark; and you could hear the throttle note rising and falling as he teased the car through the minimum speed zone. In a nutshell, you began to realize, it was this: Mark was telling the RBR7 where he wanted it to go and was driving just under, and occasionally on, a limit that he approached from past experience (from the previous corners and the previous laps) with heavy, definite cockpit movements; Seb, by contrast, was letting the circuit dictate the pace with every passing minute and was manipulating his car accordingly with graceful finesse and shock-absorbance through his feet, hands and arms. The “teasing” throttle enabled him to push a fraction too hard and then to back away a little, to let the car breathe on another small bump or another undulation; Mark would commit to a throttle opening or steering angle and then fight the moment when the car decided to look elsewhere. The fight by Mark was in the main spectacularly-won – but by then Seb had moved on. Mark’s overall precision at Albert Park lost out to Sebastian’s deft touch. Which is why Albert Park is becoming to my mind one of the most revealing of all Grand Prix circuits. There are no ‘great’ corners in amongst the gum trees; there are no classic rises or dips. Yet the very finessey, very supple, drivers will always be quick at Albert Park, just as drivers like Webber will be super-fast at circuits like Silverstone, Barcelona or Monaco and drivers like Massa will fly at Istanbul. Lewis Hamilton nosed ahead of Jenson Button in Melbourne; Fernando Alonso upstaged Felipe Massa; and I think we can definitely raise our hats to the likes of Vitaly Petrov, Sergio Perez, and Paul di Resta, all of whom over-achieved in a variety of different ways. All of this was subtle; telemetry information is never accurately going to describe the ways that Vettel and Webber drive the Albert Park lap; and ‘analysing the data’ post-race will produce no answers, other than whether the two cars are identical or not. After that, they’ll then fall into the bottomless pit of ‘tyre analysis’ – an art that is still as black as the treads that wear when it comes actually to understanding the way a tyre works, and reacts to input, in dynamic states. Thus Seb Vettel won Melbourne by maximising the fastest car in the race. His pole-winning margin of 0.778sec was the largest since Michael Schumacher’s lap in Hungary, 2005, and at no stage of Sunday afternoon was he troubled. Melbourne also gave him his first F1 winning hat-trick. For its part, Christian Horner’s Red Bull Racing was superb, for Adrian Newey has engineered another gem again by walking where other have feared to think, let alone to tread: his solution to the single - diffuser rule was to exploit the 5cm of useable air flow at both extreme edges of the rear floor, crafting around this dynamic a labyrinth of exhausts that required entirely new Renault engine mapping over the winter. The detail on the RBR7 is mouth-watering; the effectiveness of the car is devastating. Newey reluctantly adopted KERS in the RBR7’s design brief, if only to give his cars parity with the opposition off the start-line, but then he decided not to use it at all in Melbourne after some slight niggles on Friday. It is a measure of Newey’s raw feel for racing that he was prepared to make this ‘gamble’: on the one hand he would be saying goodbye to some free power without losing any weight; on the other, he was giving the drivers and the mechanics one major item less about which to worry and also significantly improving his chances