• Karun Chandhok's column

'A mix of predictability and unpredictability'

Karun Chandhok March 31, 2011
The race may have been difficult to read at times but there was no doubting who was on top © Getty Images
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The opening grand prix of the 2011 season threw up a mix of predictability and unpredictability to make an entertaining start for what should be an entertaining year in Formula One.

The most predictable part of the result was Seb Vettel's utter dominance of the weekend. Ten minutes from the end of final practice, the reigning world champion stamped his authority on the weekend with a time miles ahead of anyone else at that point. Suddenly it became very clear that the RB7 was significantly more than just 0.3 seconds ahead of the chasing pack and the faces in the design offices back at Woking, Maranello and Brackley would've started to cringe.

Through qualifying and the race Seb was just in a league of his own, driving with more confidence than ever before and combining it with a mature, measured drive in the race, managing his pace and tyres. It clearly shows he's ironed out some of those mistakes from last year and is well placed to follow in the footsteps of his more famous German colleague by taking his second world championship 12 months after his first. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself - there's still a long way to go in this season!

What was totally unpredictable was Mark Webber's lack of pace this weekend. I was really rooting for Mark to win his home grand prix. He's a great guy who's worked incredibly hard to get himself to where he is today and it really would've been a fairy tale start to the year. I'm sure he and his engineer Ciarron Pillbeam will be doing a lot of analysis into why they were so far away from the other side of the garage - it's certainly not normal for Mark to be so far away consistently and there were pockets of the race, especially when he was on the prime tyre, where his pace was confusingly far away from Seb and Lewis.

McLaren will go away from Australia pretty happy. It came here with general paddock expectations of being the 3rd or maybe 4th best team, but in the end they proved to be best of the rest behind Red Bull Racing. Lewis did a great lap in qualifying to get himself on the front row and drove a charging race in typical Lewis fashion to claim 18 points despite some damage when he ran off the road. Jenson's pace was also very strong and although the place that he lost to Massa on the opening lap compromised his afternoon in more ways than one, he'll go away from Melbourne pleased in the knowledge that he was at least as fast as Lewis and Mark all weekend which bodes well for the next few races.

Sergio Perez impressed on his debut with Sauber © Sutton Images

Fernando Alonso got squeezed off at the first corner resulting in the loss of a few positions, but then a typical charging, intelligent and relentless drive for the next 57 laps brought him into contention and secured some valuable points. Once again he reminded one and all of his value as one of the biggest assets in Ferrari's vault. The team has already admitted publically how it needs to look into why the gap to Red Bull Racing in particular but also McLaren was so big and I'm sure there will be some long nights of analysis ahead for the Italian giants. The gap in qualifying in particular will be a real concern.

The two stars of the race however were Vitaly Petrov and Sergio 'Checco' Perez. Vitaly has come into this season with huge pressure and, especially with the loss of Robert Kubica, there wasn't much expectation for the team. He delivered a superb performance all weekend, with a great qualifying lap and a very strong race, managing his tyres and making his two stop strategy work to beat the three-stopping Alonso and Webber despite their better pace at the end. It will be interesting to see how he's able to carry that form on for the rest of the season now.

Checco Perez did the seemingly impossible and ran a one-stop race, defying all the doom-mongers' predictions. He was very unlucky with traffic in Q3 but had matched Sauber team-mate Kamui Kobayashi all weekend until that point. Checco is a friend who I've known for a few years now and the one thing about him that I told people after quali on Saturday night was that he's a very intelligent guy with a good sense of what to do in the races. Sure enough, he managed the tyres and drove an outstanding race with pace that has confused the entire paddock, especially when at one point he unlapped himself from the race leader! The disqualification is a shame for him, but ultimately I think he's laid down a great marker for himself on debut anyway.

So what do we think at this early stage about the effect of the DRS and tyres? The DRS system certainly helped drivers come past each other more than before and without it looking too easy. I'm sure people will have differing opinions but thus far but, looking from the outside, I think it's worked quite well.

The teams will learn more about the tyres in the coming races © Getty Images
The tyres have certainly mixed things up - the top three made two pit stops, the next three did three stops and Perez finished seventh on the road with a one stopper. I was doing the commentary for Radio 5 Live and I think that as long as commentators and the broadcasters' strategists are able to follow the races and explain to the viewing public at home what is actually going on in terms of strategy, it makes for a good change and adds an element of unpredictability. This will inevitably settle down as the races go by and the teams learn more about the tyres, but it does create more opportunities for thinking outside the box like Sauber did a few times last year and indeed this weekend.

So all in all, an interesting start to the season. Melbourne's a bit of an oddball track to 100% gauge performance, with the lower grip surface and the street circuit layout - remember 2009 when Lewis and McLaren looked pretty competitive in Melbourne only to struggle thereafter until the second half of the year? Or 2006 when Jenson and Honda stuck it on pole but ultimately weren't a match for Fernando or Michael over the length of the season? It's worth holding on to some judgement of relative pace until we get to Sepang...