The critics had written him off, he himself admitted that he thought he had made ‘a catastrophic decision’ early on in electing to becoming the first driver to change over to slick tyres in the 2010 Australian Grand Prix – but reigning F1 World Champion Jenson Button kicked his challenge for title glory firmly into gear with a brilliant victory in Melbourne, 12 months on from the triumph that launched a successful title challenge.
With the biggest Albert Park crowd in years, precipitation hanging in the air in the build-up to the race and rain increasingly threatening, the heavens opening barely 10 minutes before the start turned proceedings into a lottery, with all competitors heading out on intermediates and grip at a real premium. All the ingredients were there for a Formula 1 thriller – and that is precisely what we would get.
A textbook launch from pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel when the lights went out was not mirrored by those behind. Team-mate Mark Webber alongside the German made a more sluggish getaway, and was passed for second by the sprightly Felipe Massa in the Ferrari from row three, the Brazilian making a storming start at a circuit that has never really smiled upon him.
The real drama, however, came as world championship leader Fernando Alonso found himself caught in the middle of a pincer movement between the McLaren of defending title-winner Button inside him and Michael Schumacher in the Mercedes Grand Prix on the outside. As the three squeezed together and tangled, the Ferrari was tipped into a spin and left facing backwards as the oncoming pack darted left and right around him, with some – Schumacher and the fast-starting Lewis Hamilton among them – forced to leave the track in avoidance.
That left Vettel leading from Massa, Webber and Robert Kubica in the first of the Renaults, with the Pole having made a lighting getaway right down the middle to vault from ninth to fourth. Later around the opening lap, a front wing-less Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber found himself out-of-control heading into Turn Three and quite literally harpooned the luckless Nico Hulkenberg in the Williams and the Scuderia Toro Rosso of Sebastien Buemi, with all three departing the scene on the spot in a nasty-looking coming-together that thankfully resulted in no injuries.
As the remainder of the competitors literally tip-toed around the lap on the tricky track surface, the safety car unsurprisingly emerged, enabling Schumacher to pit to replace his own dragging front wing. That left the order at the front Vettel from Massa, Webber, Kubica, Nico Rosberg, McLaren duo Button and Hamilton and Adrian Sutil, with Russian rookie Vitaly Petrov confirming the fast-starting abilities of the Renault R30 by leaping up from 18th to tenth. Bruno Senna has similarly profited well from the chaos to put his HRT an excellent 14th – though the Brazilian’s race would unfortunately not last long.
At the re-start, while Vettel bolted away, Webber got very loose into the final corner to allow a racy Kubica to pull alongside on the start/finish straight as the Renault displayed superb traction in the wet, though the man from Krakow was unable to make a move stick on the outside line. Shortly afterwards, Hamilton asserted himself in the McLaren camp by diving up the inside of team-mate Button into turn three and aggressively squeezing him wide to make sure there was no comeback.
Further back, Schumacher was having fun and games with both feisty rookie Lucas Di Grassi and Lotus ace Heikki Kovalainen duelling energetically with the most successful driver in the sport’s history and the former even having the audacity to re-pass the German legend once he had been overtaken in the unheralded Virgin Racing entry.
Up at the sharp end of proceedings, meanwhile, Webber found a way past Massa to re-instate the Red Bull one-two, with Kubica and Rosberg moving in to hassle the Paulista immediately afterwards, and Hamilton next up similarly on the attack. Button became the first driver to pit for slick tyres when he made a late call on lap seven, in an audacious bid that initially looked to have failed as the Briton shot off-track not long after – but the gamble would not take long to start paying off.
With the 30-year-old subsequently going on to light up the timing screens, however, there was swiftly a flurry of activity in the pit-lane, with the two leading Red Bulls – and Webber closing in on Vettel at that – bucking the general trend by staying out longer, a risk that would cost the home hero dear. After staying out a lap later than anybody else, the Australian rejoined fifth, but was immediately pounced upon by earlier sparring partner Massa as he made a mistake on exiting the pits and found himself having to deal with the attentions of Rubens Barrichello and Hamilton crawling all over him behind.
As Petrov’s valiant effort unfortunately ended with his Renault beached in the Turn Three gravel trap, Vettel continued to lead, with Button’s early stop having hoisted him up to second – what, had he not gone off-piste earlier on, might well have been P1. Kubica was an excellent third, with Rosberg fourth, Massa fifth and Webber sixth. A charging Hamilton made his way past Barrichello into seventh, before immediately going on to harry Webber, with the pair of them then homing in on Massa, who was continuing to fight a rearguard battle.
The next action came as Webber dived down the inside of Massa into Turn One for P5, with the ever-opportunistic Hamilton brilliantly following through into sixth. The McLaren star immediately went on to challenge Webber, pulling along the outside on the run down to Turn Three. As the fans’ favourite firmly and stubbornly held his ground on the inside, the Red Bull failed to slow down sufficiently quickly for the corner and Webber was unable to hold it, shooting across the gravel trap and ceding some eight seconds as he slipped back behind Massa and the sister scarlet machine of Alonso, who had already liberated himself from Barrichello.
Fastest lap from the fired-up Aussie shortly afterwards went to demonstrate just how much pace he had, while when Massa again got it all wrong at the end of lap 21, Hamilton was able to draw alongside on the pit straight and dive down the inside into the first corner. Undefeated, however, Massa came back at the 2008 world champion on the inside of Turn Three, with Alonso chancing his arm on the outside, but with the Spaniard losing momentum, the recovering Webber vaulted by on the inside on the exit from a long way back to pinch seventh.
As Hamilton cleared off and rapidly closed in on Rosberg – lapping a stunning two seconds a lap faster than his German rival and a lap faster, indeed, than the race leaders – Webber behind was similarly shaping up to begin seconds out, round two with Massa, and in a supreme display of bravery the man from Queanbeyan would find a way past his quarry around the outside of Turn Three a handful of laps later.
Hamilton, meanwhile, was soon going wheel-to-wheel himself with Rosberg for fourth, with the McLaren impressively doing a wall of death all the way around the outside of the Mercedes in Turns Eleven and Twelve. Rosberg fought back on the inside line heading into the following corner, but waving yellow flags put a halt to his challenge and he found himself obliged to yield.
The yellow flags were for Vettel, whose Red Bull Racing RB6 was beached in the gravel as a result of brake failure – the second time in as many races that the luckless German had been commandingly in control, only to be cruelly denied by factors outside of his control. That promoted Button into the lead just before half-distance, with Kubica in second but being swiftly reeled in by the sister McLaren of Hamilton, lapping one-and-a-half seconds quicker than the Renault.
Behind them – and similarly closing in – Webber had caught Rosberg for what was now P4, with Ferrari scoring something of an own goal by not advising Massa to make way for the visibly faster Alonso behind him. The pair went briefly wheel-to-wheel in Turn Six, but still the status quo remained intact. With Button motoring on serenely out front as he expertly nursed his tyres and Hamilton still a man on a mission, a pit-stop for Schumacher followed by impressive lap times from the seven-time world champion prompted Webber to do likewise for a set of new boots, with the rear tyres on the Red Bull looking distinctly second-rate as they came off.
Rosberg followed suit a lap later and enjoyed a brief wheel-to-wheel duel with former Williams team-mate Webber in the Mercedes, with the latter getting the verdict over the man he humorously dubs ‘Britney’ after Britney Spears. Hamilton also pitted amid concerns that the existing tyres would not hang on until the end with 25 laps still to go, and a mistake upon rejoining very nearly allowed Webber past, as the 11-time grand prix-winner ran off-piste and allowed his pursuer to latch right onto the back of him and fleetingly vault past, though the Australian was unable to hold the spot after running wide himself on the exit of the next corner.
With Button’s easy driving style on the tyres enabling him to continue to maintain a lead of over 10 seconds, Kubica in second was frustrating the attentions of the duelling Ferraris of Massa and Alonso directly behind him, with neither able to make any great impression as their tyres increasingly wore away. That, indeed, was allowing the charging Hamilton and Webber on new rubber to close right in, as the pair inexorably whittle down what had been a 20-second gap – to next-to-nothing with eight laps to go.
As the predators hunted down their helpless prey, Kubica was able to edge slightly away, with the ragged Alonso finding his hands full with defending against the McLaren and Red Bull right behind him. When informed by his team radio just how close Hamilton was getting, the double world champion’s response was arguably the remark of the race: “I don’t want to know!”
However, in the dirty air Hamilton suddenly found his progress arrested in the turbulence and dirty air and complaining that his tyres were again going off, with the three-way scrap between him, Alonso and Webber handing Kubica and Massa some welcome breathing space as the laps ticked down and time began to run out – and allowing Rosberg to cruise up behind in seventh too.
With three laps remaining, Hamilton finally pulled out of his former team-mate’s slipstream and got along the outside, but with not enough momentum to get past, he found himself having to yield – and then found himself harpooned by Webber, as the Australian’s eventful race came to a fitting conclusion when he ill-advisedly shot down the inside – and straight into the side of the McLaren. That left both drivers in the gravel trap, and whilst they would rejoin – the latter having to make an extra pit visit for a new front wing – they would take the chequered flag only sixth (Hamilton) and ninth (Webber).
Almost unnoticed as all that drama was unfolding, Button was continuing to make hay out front, and twelve months on from the victory that launched a successful title challenge with Brawn GP, the reigning F1 World Champion did it again, taking the chequered flag comfortably clear of any of his pursuers after looking after his tyres to perfection.
Kubica held on for a superb second, with Massa taking the final podium spot in third and Massa narrowly staving off the threat of a resurgent Rosberg in fourth and fifth. The points-scorers were completed by the frustrated Hamilton – who seemed to spend more of the end of the race complaining over the pit radio that fresh tyres had been the wrong decision than focussing his efforts on finding a way by Alonso ahead, and appeared more than a little rattled by his team-mate’s success – Vitantonio Liuzzi shining again with P7 for Force India, Barrichello a consistent and solid eighth for Williams, Webber ninth after a race that had promised so much more and Schumacher pinching the last marker in tenth.
That was only achieved, though, after the 91-time grand prix-winner had finally managed to get past Jaime Alguersuari in a wheel-banging move that saw the Spanish teenager very nearly run the oldest driver in the field off the road – and a last lap manoeuvre on fellow veteran Pedro de la Rosa in the Sauber. Tenth place, though, is not the kind of result the sport’s record-breaker came back for, and it already appears evident that few of his rivals are intimidated by ‘Schumi’ anymore. F1 has moved on in the last three years – and it is Jenson Button who rules the roost right now, not Michael Schumacher.