It's 8 in the morning, and I've been awake for 3 and a half hours already. The weekend's race in Australia has just ended and marked the start of the season. I have to say, it was worth sacrificing the weekend's sleep!
On Saturday, the qualifying session presented us with the first opportunity in which to see what teams had the edge. People who aren't so experienced in F1 might wonder why we had to wait until qualifying to see who was fastest what with the weekend's three practice sessions and the preseason testing. Well, testing is notoriously unreliable for predicting who will be the fastest, and so there is very little that anyone can glean from these sessions. In practice sessions, it's often unclear as to who is sandbagging and hiding their pace. So, it's on the qualifying sessions that we can see who is genuinely fast.
After Red Bull's dominance of 2011, a lot of people were wondering whether they could do it again. As the three quali sessions progressed, it looked increasingly like this wasn't the case. Q3 sadly confirmed that the massive gap of Red Bull had diminished over the break, and we didn't see Sebastian's perfect lap. Instead, the McLarens appeared to have the edge over the rest of the field, with Hamilton getting pole and Button second, locking out the front row for the first time in a few seasons. You might expect Red Bull to be just behind this, however you'd be surprised. Romain Grosjean instead took the third spot in the Lotus. So, where were Red Bull? Fourth? Nope. That spot went to none other than Michael Schumacher, suggesting that the experienced racer might be returning to his old form. Of course, it's early in the season so this is a question which may remain unanswered. Finally, in fifth and sixth positions we found the Red Bulls, with Webber out qualifying Vettel. Rosberg followed the two Red Bulls, himself followed by the Williams of Pastor Maldonado, again suggesting that this team might be having a much better season than in 2011. The Force India of Nico Hulkenberg and the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo made up the last of those in Q3, and I think this year the mid-field battles will be much close than last year. You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned the Ferrari drivers. Well, qualifying for the red cars was a bit of a let down, with Alonso beaching himself in the gravel in Q2, and Massa just not getting up to speed in the session. They eventually qualified 12th and 16th. The final surprise of the first 2012 quali session was Raikkonen's inability to get out of Q3, qualifying 18th.
So, with a fairly jumbled grid set up all we had to do was get up at 6am to watch how the race would unfold. The McLaren of Jenson Button made a fantastic start, overtaking Lewis to take 1st. To my delight, Vettel also had a brilliant start, getting behind Schumacher and Nico Rosberg after another good start for the Mercedes. Alonso also appeared to come from nowhere and managed to get himself in the top 10. The race unfolded fairly eventfully, with a lot of overtaking (not least from Vettel, prompting me to ask whether we can leave behind the argument that Seb can't race - I think he's proven himself as a racer for quite some time now) and one safety car after the Caterham of Petrov pulled over on the pit straight. While the safety car was out, Seb pitted the Red Bull (named Abbey this year, following on from Luscious Liz, Kinky Kylie, Kate's Dirty Sister and Kate) and managed to leapfrog Hamilton's McLaren. From there on, there was a lot of close racing between second, third and fourth places, however eventually this resolved into a train of Vettel, Hamilton and Webber (Webber's best finish in his home race). Jenson Button ultimately won the first race of the season.
Further back in the field, there were a lot of surprises and disappointments. Schumacher's car broke down, so sadly we didn't get to see whether he had returned to his old ways. After Maldonado's close racing with the double world champion Alonso, he dipped a wheel on the grass and crashed into a barrier on the last few laps of the race. Despite Grosjean's amazing qualifying position, the race wasn't quite as favourable after he ended up in the gravel having almost lost a wheel. Raikkonen's fate, however, was much better. Even though he had an abysmal qualifying session, he eventually ended up in 7th place, securing six championship points on his return. Honestly, I think that Lotus will be a team to watch this season, providing their races go without incident and they have decent qualifying sessions. Again, it's early in the season so watch this space!
Overall, it looks as though the season will be a close fight between McLaren and Red Bull, with Ferrari having some catching up to do like last season. Sauber also appeared to be moving up the mid-field, with (the remarkably entertaining) Kobayashi ending up just behind Alonso in 6th place, and Perez finishing 8th. Williams appear to be having a better season than last year, however some bad luck during the race meant that they couldn't reap the rewards this time round.
2012 then looks like a good one. With 19 races left to go, the championship is far from decided and anything can yet happen. I can definitely say that the sleep deprivation was worth it, but if you weren't as keen on getting up a stupid o'clock then go watch