Crash and Burn

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The F1 circus returned with a fresh season and the first race of the 2008 calendar to Australia. Eleven teams lined up at Albert Park. Making its debut was Force India, powered with a Toyota engine and two talented drivers. The qualifying round saw Hamilton top the time sheets followed by BMW’s Kubica and Mclaren’s latest Finnish sensation Heikki Kovalainen. The reigning champ- Kimi Raikkonen was pushed back to 16th with fuel pressure problems and former champion, hot-head Fernando Alonso struggled in his Renault at 12th. With traction control and Electronic Control Units’ missing from the armory of the F1 cars this season, the chances of slides and crashes have increased; this will truly be a season which would reveal new heroes. The race started, with the Mclarens making a spectacular start holding their position, and Polish driver Robert Kubica kept his second place as the 22 cars sped across the first corner. The first corner was a disaster as Force India’s proud veteran Giancarlo Fisichella crashed; accompanying him were Honda’s Jenson Button, Torro Rosso’s Sebastian Vettel, and Super Aguri’s Anthony Davidson. On the green and slippery track the F1 pilots failed to control the speed as many overshot, crashed and parked in the gravel. Filipe Massa was more fortunate as he pit to replace a damaged front wing, thus losing the fourth spot he earned in qualifying. The best progress was made by reigning world champion Kimi Raikkonen, as he screamed up 7 places within the first three corners, overtaking one car after the other; the pile up on the first corner undoubtedly helped. Alonso too made up 3 places- the champs were on the move. Hamilton, meanwhile, was in a league of his own as he sped away from the crowd, unharmed by the disaster behind, helping him with it was Kovalainen who was playing second fiddle to the Englishman, reminding one of the role the very talented Rubens Barrichello played to Michael Schumacher. The Mercedes powered Mclaren looked like the best in the pack; Ron Dennis and Pedro DeLa Rosa had worked hard in the winter to make the car reliable and quick. The silver devils were dominating, but the dramas were far from over. Raikkonen was looking ominous, he closed in on Barrichello at 9th putting the sole Honda in pressure. Hamilton, meanwhile, had pulled ahead leading BMW by at least 8 seconds while Kovalainen closed on Kubica at a second a lap. Raikkonen pulled off a brilliant overtaking maneuver bullying the 100 race start veteran Barrichello onto the curb, by braking late and stealing the position, one reminisced of the ruthlessness Raikkonen showed in his debut F1 season with Sauber. Force India’s hopes were shattered as Adrian Sutil pulled into retirement, putting the last of the Vijay Malaya babies out of contention. The number of contenders on the race track dwindled as the race went on. The first pit stop window opened and the race leader Lewis Hamilton pitted along with Kubica putting his Mclaren teammate in charge of leading the race. Trulli pit, but with battery fuel leaking into the cockpit he aborted his race hastily, leaving the rookie Timo Glock to battle it out for Toyota by himself. As his competitors went for a refuel and tire change, Raikkonen was on the track with a full tank, did not pit and stormed up the order to 3rd. The Finn was now locked in battle with the two Mclarens. Ferrari was back and the Finn was looking stronger as each lap went by. Raikkonen continued to pile the pressure on Heikki Kovalainen. The other Scarlet car was gaining momentum as Massa started picking off one driver after another till he encountered David Coulthard in the Red Bull. Massa had a faster engine than the energy drink sponsored car and took the inside line on the 1st corner. David Coulthard blind sighted by the move shunted himself out of the competition by piggy backing on Massa and calling the Safety Car a third time. The damage to Massa’s car then looked minimal. The field bunched up behind the race leader and Raikkonen was locked behind the Mclarens, the race was Hamilton’s to lose; his foe in the Ferrari was back and looked to snatch another victory from the Englishman. Raikkonen was light on fuel and while the fans roared and experts scrambled to make calculations. Raikkonen blundered; as the safety car went off he tried a very ambitious late brake on Kovalainen and Hamilton to take two positions. The lack of the E- brake sent Raikkonen on the gravel, struggling to stop himself from crashing the Finn somehow managed to avoid the barrier and limped off to the pits. Refueled and with fresh tires the Fin came out 11th to find him on a clear track but dead last. The rest of the 11 drivers had all been eliminated, including his Ferrari teammate Massa, whose car had finally given way and into retirement. Raikkonen’s podium hopes were shattered and Hamilton’s 1st step hopes looked in jeopardy as his teammate closed up on him. The drama seems to have calmed down by then and there was not a lot of the race left. The top 8 saw rookie and 4 time champ car winner Torro Rosso’s Sebastian Borudais on 6th, competing with the top dogs for points. Timo Glock in his second race seemed to be looking at points while the Williams Rookie Nakajima looked to close in on the points as well. Raikkonen closed in on 10th; he looked determined to take a higher position in points again, Barrichello and Kubica pit sending Raikkonen into 8 and into the points. The reigning champion was pushing hard and a miracle might put him on the podium. Alonso and Kovalainen came out of the pit Raikkonen was on 6th. Suddenly, as his hopes of seeing a podium increased, the Finn put his head down and pushed his scarlet car, but the Prancing horse was groaning under the severe pressure which Raikkonen was putting it under. The exhaust defaulted and the Iceman started to lose speed, his undercarriage was almost scraping the ground and the engine was loosing power and speed, the Mclaren and Renault passed him as the Finn struggled and fought to maintain the final point scoring spot, there was little he could do to except hope that his car pulled through.7 laps to go and the motor sports fan cheered for the British driving sensation as he effortlessly led the pack to his maiden Australian Victory. Barrichello was handed a 10 second stop-go penalty and the pack reshuffled as Nakajima took out Kubica with a horrendous crash. The BMW driver ended his race and the Williams rookie came out after repairs. The final laps of the race was not without drama as the Ferrari finally gave way and, ironically, stalled exactly where it had stalled in Qualifying- at the entrance of the pit lane. The Champion’s race was over. As the laps clocked down, in the last lap Barrichello was disqualified for leaving the pit lane during red lights and throwing Raikkonen into 8th giving Ferrari the sole point despite of retiring. Alonso battled with Mclaren’s Kovalainen for the fourth spot; Alonso’s bull headed driving prevented the silver car from reaching 4th. The race however belonged to Williams as both Drivers finished in the points. Nico Rosberg parked his car at third spot giving Williams their first podium finish since their conception. After the Williams-BMW marriage dissolved in controversy it was BMW which looked to have come off a winner, but things are now looking to change. Hamilton celebrated a well deserved victory; he had an uneventful but grueling race, with BMW Nick Heidfeld on the second step without histrionics. Hamilton was, however, supported by Kovalainen in almost the entire race, Hamilton cruised around while the Finn soaked the pressure. Heikki Kovalainen seems to be another Iceman in the making if the trends are anything to go back. The Renaults looked tame but one had to bow down to the desperate lunges and slides by Alonso which got his car to 4th place from 12th. As the checkered flag went down there were only 6 finishers out of the 22. FIA might have created a nail biter but had ruined the competitive racing and the speeds which Formula-1 racing is known for. If Albert Park was a yardstick- the races to come would be as thrilling and as dangerous as the first. Patanjali Pahwa[Image courtesy: http://flickr.com/photos/ignaciomanchado/2342048526/sizes/m/]

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