2009 Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix – Click above for high-res gallery
Boring. Predictable. The world's most expensive parade. Sound familiar? If it does, chances are you've steered clear (so to speak) of Formula One for the past decade or so. And even the most red-blooded racing enthusiasts among us would have to admit that you had good reason.
As spectacular as it was, Michael Schumacher's domination of the pinnacle of motor racing got a little boring after a while. Schumi's long since retired – his lackluster brother Ralf, too – but the past couple seasons since have still been dominated by the rival powerhouses of McLaren and Ferrari trading places on the podium and hoisting the championship trophies. This weekend's Australian Grand Prix seems to have opened a new chapter in motorsports, however, kicking off a season that stands a fighting chance of bringing the disenchanted back to the fold. Follow the jump to find out why.
Okay, so we'll admit that the whole "Phoenix rising from the ashes" cliché has been done to death. But that's a shame, because if there was ever a story of a miraculous recovery, it belongs to Brawn GP. The story starts back in 2000 when Honda got back into F1 racing with British American Racing (BAR), which the Japanese automaker initially charged Prodrive chief David Richards to run before taking it in-house. Success did not come easy for Honda, but last year they managed to coax Ross Brawn, the master strategist who engineered Schumi's dominance of the sport while serving as Scuderia Ferrari's technical director, out of retirement to take on the challenge of turning the Honda team into a winning outfit. Unfortunately, hard times fell on the entire industry in the meantime, and Honda canceled its racing program before Brawn ever had a chance to complete his mandate. Undeterred, Brawn and company took over the team themselves, and after unveiling their new car later than the rest of the field, grabbed headlines by outgunning the big guns in pre-season testing. Speculation was that it was all for show, but the naysayers were left chewing on their own feet after Saturday's qualifying session, where Brawn GP's aging drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello took first and second on the grid, outpacing the rest of the field by a considerable margin. But would Brawn's Button and Barrichello be able to translate their blistering pace into race victory?
In short: yes. After 58 laps in the blinding sun of Melbourne's Adelaide Park, the checkered flag waved over Jenson Button, with Rubens Barrichello trailing in second. For Button it was easy sailing to his second career victory, but Barichello had to fight until the bitter end. The Brazilian driver, well accustomed to both Brawn's management and to coming in second from his years at Ferrari, hit the anti-stall button at the start of the race, causing him to drop way down the pecking order as half the grid moved around him. Button, meanwhile, pulled cleanly away, quickly establishing a commanding lead over his rivals and largely escaping the myriad of incidents that would plague the rest of the field over the race distance.
Brawn's boys weren't the only ones to impress on their debut, however. Remember Sebastian Vettel? He's the German wunderkindt who made a splash last year at Scuderia Toro Rosso – Red Bull's ostensible "b-squad" – by winning the Italian Grand Prix on supposedly "inferior" equipment. For this year, the young driver was called up to the senior Red Bull Racing team to replace the retiring David Coulthard, and despite a disappointing crash that cost him second place in his first race with the new team, waged a battle nearly as impressive as Brawn GP's. Having qualified third and moved up past a languishing Barichello on the starting grid, Vettel secured a solid second place behind Button and looked poised to stand next to him on the podium until an incident on the third to last lap cost him his laurels. BMW's Robert Kubica attempted to pass Vettel for second place, but instead the two ambitious drivers locked wheels and took each other out of the race.
Meanwhile, Barrichello was fighting his way back up the grid, tangling with nearly everyone along the way. In the first lap, the elder statesman of the F1 circus collided with both Mark Webber's Red Bull and Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber, sending Webber into Heikki Kovalainen's McLaren to end the Finn's race while Fernando Alonso ran his Renault wide to avoid the incident. Barichello lost part of his front wing in the collision, and later lost another part in another clash, this time with Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari.
The tifosi, meanwhile, had little to celebrate at this year's season opener. Both Raikkonen, who won there two years ago in his first race for Ferrari, and Massa, who fought Hamilton for the title last year right down to the wire, retired early from the race. BMW Sauber, which looked poised to take on Ferrari and McLaren this year, didn't fare much better, with Kubica classified just ahead of Raikkonen in 15th place and Heidfeld in 11th – both out of the points. Despite a thoroughly laudable performance by Vettel, Red Bull also missed out on the points, with Webber in 13th and Vettel limping home behind him with a broken front-left wheel to classify 14th. Their counterpart Sebastiens – returning Bourdais and newcomer Buemi – fared slightly better, as did Force India's Giancarlo Fisichella and Adrien Sutil. Williams' Nakajima spun out on lap 18, but his team-mate Nico Rosberg managed an admirable seventh, setting the fastest lap in the process. Two-time world champion Alonso took sixth after his team-mate Nelsinho Piquet likewise retired on lap 25. But after the Brawn duo, the real surprise finishes came from Toyota and from defending champion Lewis Hamilton.
After a frustrating qualifying session left him stuck in 13th place on the starting grid, Hamilton fought a diligent campaign to work his way up the field, picking his way through the wreckage to ultimately take fourth place and a solid five points for himself and his McLaren-Mercedes team. His battle was ultimately helped by the Vettel-Kubica collision, as the safety car allowed him to jockey for position. The safety car also helped the Toyotas of Timo Glock and Jarno Trulli, which started the race at the very back of the grid, move up the field. Trulli took his place on the podium next to the Brawn boys, with Glock finishing just behind Hamilton in fifth place.
Racing fans could hardly have asked for a more surprising, intriguing and stage-setting start to what is quickly shaping up to be the shake-up of the Formula One hierarchy we've all been waiting for. So will Brawn GP burn out as quickly as it rose up? Only one way to tell, so tune in again next weekend as the 2009 FIA Formula One World Championship sails north to Malaysia for round two.