After an off season that saw two teams resolve their naming-rights dispute, one driver sued by a team owner over a brawl in a Shanghai night-club, and the much-anticipated return of a former world champion, the 2012 Formula One World Championship got underway today in Melbourne with the Australian Grand Prix.
Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.
After a series of pre-season tests followed by more on race weekend, Saturday's qualifying sessions gave us the first true glimpse at what to expect this season. While we'd become accustomed to seeing Red Bull dominate the starting grid at virtually every race last season, this weekend saw McLaren top the time sheets as Lewis Hamilton took pole, joined on the front row by his wingman (and last year's runner-up) Jenson Button. Far more shocking, however, was the sight of Romain Grosjean (returning to the grid with Lotus-Renault) in third.
Seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher impressed by landing his Mercedes in fourth, followed only then by the Red Bull duo of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel in fifth and sixth, respectively. Nico Rosberg (Mercedes), Pastor Maldonado (Williams), Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) and newcomer Daniel Ricciardo (STR) rounded out the rest of the top ten, while two-time world champion Fernando Alonso was relegated to twelfth (following a qualifying-session crash in his Ferrari) and former champ Kimi Raikkonen (returning this season with Lotus) fairing no better than eighteenth due to poor tire strategy. Neither of the HRT cars met the qualifying threshold, so neither was permitted to start the race.
Come race Sunday, it was Button who got the jump on his teammate, edging Hamilton for the lead into the first corner. Rosberg had a good start as well, skipping past both Red Bulls to join his elder teammate Schumacher in fourth and fifth. Massa also started admirably, jumping from tenth to fifteenth, but Webber fared far worse, dropping from fifth to ninth in the race – almost as bad as Hulkenberg, who spun out in the Turn 1 traffic only to rejoin at the back of the pack.
Vettel began to reclaim his winning form when he retook fourth from Rosberg on lap 2, and would go on to take third from Schumacher, who'd retire after running wide on lap 11. Meanwhile, Hulkenberg retired with excessive damage, soon joined by Grosjean, who had qualified so strongly only to bust his suspension in a collision with Pastor Maldonado.
Lap 5 saw Massa get the drop on Maldonado for eighth position, but it was Sergio Perez who impressed the most over the opening laps. Having started 22nd on the grid, the Sauber driver had made it up to tenth by lap 7.
After the first round of pit stops were completed, Button was back in the lead with Hamilton fighting hard to catch up. Massa was holding up the field behind him, including his former teammate Raikkonen and Sauber's Kobayashi. Kimi seized the opportunity to squeeze past Kamui, only for both to move past Massa on lap 27.
Ten laps later Vitaly Petrov, now driving for Caterham, pulled his car off to the side of the track with mechanical problems on the start/finish straight, bringing out the safety car due to the lack of passing room. In the resulting flurry of pit stops Button retained his lead, but Vettel managed to re-emerge ahead of Hamilton, with Webber right behind in a staggered McLaren/Red Bull order for the re-start. At that point Button streaked away to reassert his lead while Vettel, Hamilton and Webber fought hard for second place.
Maldonado lost it on the very last lap, crashing his Williams into the wall while up ahead Button claimed the checkered flag and the first blood of the season. Vettel took a solid second, with Hamilton in third for an all-champ podium. Webber took fourth, followed by Alonso, who performed far better in the race than he had in qualifying. Kobayashi took an impressive sixth for Sauber, followed by Raikkonen, who showed he hadn't lost his touch while galavanting around rally stages and speedways during his F1 hiatus. Perez took eighth in a solid day for Sauber, followed by Ricciardo in ninth for Toro Rosso and Paul di Resta claiming the final point in tenth for Force India.
And so begins what promises to be an exciting season ahead, full of needle-nosed cars and no less than six world champions on the grid – half of those with multiple titles to their names and all of them eager to add more. Join us again next week for our coverage of the Malaysian Grand Prix.