MELBOURNE, Australia — Formula One heads to Malaysia this week after a season-opener where the natural order of the sport was turned on its head and doubts were raised about whether the result will be allowed to stand.
England’s Jenson Button won the Australian Grand Prix and his Brawn GP teammate Rubens Barrichello was second, making F1’s newest team only the third in history to record a 1-2 finish in its debut race.
But there’s no guarantee the result will stand. Rivals Ferrari, Red Bull and Renault have appealed a stewards’ decision that allowed Brawn GP, Toyota and Williams cars to race in Australia with rear diffusers they believe breached the sport’s new aerodynamics regulations.
The decision on the legality of the cars will be made by the FIA — the sport’s governing body — after this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
With no change prior to Malaysia, the pattern from Australia could be repeated at Sepang.
Since preseason testing, it had been apparent that Brawn had the quickest car, and in Melbourne the England-based team proved it had the reliability to match. Williams and Toyota also showed they had taken strides forward since 2008, thanks in no small part to those diffusers.
Red Bull and Williams appear to be the strongest of the ‘non-diffuser’ teams, while the established giants Ferrari and McLaren are playing catch-up. Both Ferrari and McLaren devoted most of their efforts last year to tweaking their 2008 cars as they challenged for the title, and are now competing with rivals that turned to development of the radically different 2009 cars much earlier.
Defending champion Lewis Hamilton of McLaren was third in Melbourne, promoted from fourth after a stewards’ penalty imposed on Toyota’s Jarno Trulli for overtaking under safety car conditions as the GP came to a close.
The third-place finish resulted from a patient and mature drive by Hamilton, but exaggerated McLaren’s performance, and the team is not expecting much in Malaysia, either.
“Yes, we had a fantastic race (in Australia) but we’re all aware that our car isn’t capable of repeating that sort of performance on sheer pace alone,” Hamilton said. “And Sepang is one of the tougher tracks on the calendar, one where we will probably be further from the front-runners than we were in Albert Park.”
Ferrari finished without a point in Melbourne for the second straight year. In 2008, the Italian-based team bounced back quickly in Malaysia as Felipe Massa took the pole and led comfortably in the race before spinning off, handing the win to teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
A repeat looks more difficult this weekend. In Melbourne, as it did last year, Ferrari struggled to get heat into the harder tire. But where the scarlet cars looked good on the softer tires in 2008, in Melbourne last weekend it quickly degraded its rear tires when on the softer compound.
Ferrari is hoping a return to a pure racetrack in Sepang, unlike the low-grip street circuit of Melbourne, will provide a turnaround in fortunes.
“It’s good we have a race coming up immediately in Malaysia,” Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali said after the Melbourne race, saying the result there was “not worthy of Ferrari”.
“It will give us the opportunity to react as long as we draw the right conclusions, calmly but also decisively.
“The pecking order is not so clear. It will be more evident in Sepang, but we are well aware that, apart from one team that was untouchable today, there are numerous other strong competitors.”
Just as Ferrari will be looking to right the wrongs of Melbourne, so too will Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel. The young driver ran in second place for much of the Australian race before a collision with BMW’s Robert Kubica four laps from the finish ended the race for both.
Kubica was looking to pass Vettel and maybe even challenge Button. As he overtook around the outside, Vettel, on worn tires, could not avoid the collision.
Stewards fined Vettel $50,000 and gave him a 10-place grid penalty in Malaysia.