• Karun Chandhok's ESPNF1 column

'When the flag drops, the bullshit stops'

Karun Chandhok March 22, 2012
The 2012 season kicked off in Melbourne with Jenson Button taking the victory © Getty Images
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The first race of the season is always a tense time for the teams. As the weekend edges towards qualifying, everyone starts to get an idea of whether the winter test times have been real or not. The weeks of talk about launch packages, updates, fuel loads, different test programs, race simulations all comes to an end in qualifying - as the saying goes, "when the flag drops, the bullshit stops!"

There are various things that need to be considered when reading into people's form at the first race. Melbourne's a slightly odd race in that it is a street circuit and the races can be a bit chaotic historically so it may not be the best form guide. Think back to 2009 for example where McLaren and Lewis looked set for a podium only to be in a pretty dire state for the next few races. On the flip side, more often than not, the people who have won the Australian GP in Albert Park since it's first race in 1996 have gone on to be world champion.

There were a few pleasantly surprised teams from the race this time around and a few teams disappointed with where they are at I'm sure. McLaren, Mercedes, Lotus and Williams will be very pleased with the pace they showed in Melbourne I reckon while Torro Rosso, Sauber and Force India will also be fairly satisfied. Ferrari look like the ones who would be most disappointed at the moment while Red Bull, Caterham and Marrussia are probably about where they expected to be.

Jenson's race on Sunday was simply superb - probably his most convincing win yet. When he has a car that allows him to get enough front tyre temperature and also has a stable rear end, he is sublime. If you think back to races like Melbourne 2004 or Nurburgring 2009 where he was in a very competitive car but struggled to get heat in the front tyres at the start or after safety car re-starts, he just dropped backwards. The Mclaren seems to be very good at getting the tyres up to their operating window very quickly and also not suffering too badly with degradation in the race.

Lewis Hamilton fell behind Sebastian Vettel under the safety car © Getty Images
The qualifying result with the two cars on the front row is testament to it, but also if you look at how quickly Jenson pulled out a three second lead over Seb Vettel on the final re-start while Lewis was pushing the reigning world champion is a sign of how perhaps McLaren are able to turn the tyre on quicker than the RBR cars. Lewis was unlucky with the safety car and also with the time he spent stuck behind Sergio Perez, but otherwise McLaren certainly look like they've started the season off with a car that is going to be a contender for the whole season which is great news for the championship battle.

Red Bull Racing won't be too disappointed with the result in the end. They had a bit of a scruffy Saturday with Seb spinning off in the final practice session and then both drivers not having great qualifying runs. To get second and forth from sixth and fifth on the grid respectively is a pretty good result considering they clearly don't have the car advantage that they enjoyed last year. Christian Horner, Adrian Newey, Ian Morgan and the team will know however that this could be their biggest challenge yet - in 2010 they were fast but mistakes were made, in 2011 they were near perfect with Seb, but this year they don't seem to have the speed advantage over McLaren to help overturn any errors made.

It's nice to see Mark Webber back on form and we could be in for an all time classic this year with all four drivers in great shape to fight for the world championship. RBR proved last year that despite DRS and the overtaking friendly Pirelli tyre strategies, the best way to win races is still to do it from the front by qualifying on pole and being strong on lap one. For 2012, it looks like they'll have to fight McLaren harder than ever for that crucial track position.

Mercedes and Lotus should be very pleased with the pace shown although probably not as much with the end results in the race. Michael Schumacher looked like he had a car that he could attack with in qualifying again - a first for his comeback career. The team have certainly built up a new and formidable technical structure and have the budget and infrastructure to ensure that they have all the tools for a good development program. That first win for the new Silver Arrows may not be as far away as many thought.

Kimi Raikkonen fought back through the field from 18th to seventh © Sutton Images
Lotus will probably be relieved as much as anything else after seeing Romain Grosjean qualify third and Kimi Raikkonen come through the pack in the race. The team showed good pace in testing but there were always the usual question marks about whether that would carry on into the races. It looks like they have a car that is very consistent even when the tyres degrade and is able to give the drivers confidence to lean on it. Kimi showed that he's not really race rusty at all and was able to go wheel to wheel fairly successfully. Whether the team are able to avoid a repeat of 2011 and carry on developing the car to stay a top runner for the rest of the season will be one of the big stories of the season.

The other big story is undoubtedly Ferrari. The team knew before Australia that they could be in trouble and as the weekend progressed it proved to be the case. The red cars can still make the awesome starts that we often saw in 2011 and getting track position early on helped Fernando do his usual relentless charge for a decent points haul but it's clearly not where he wants to be. Massa struggled with tyre wear and you can be 100% sure that there will be some long nights ahead in Maranello to turn this around.

Plenty of fascinating stories await as the circus rolls forward to Malaysia.