with Richard Drew
Let's start with an apology. At the end of the last column I predicted the season was going to be 'too tight to call'. Imagine my surprise then when Sebastian Vettel qualified a country mile ahead of everyone else (without using the Kers power boost system), and was two and half seconds ahead of the field at the end of the first lap in Melbourne.
It goes to show how pre-season can be a notoriously bad indicator of what lies ahead. The biggest anti-climax was the adjustable rear wing. We all held our breath waiting for the explosion of overtaking, and then exhaled slowly as nothing happened. It took until the 25th lap for Jenson Button to finally get past somebody using the device.
There have been lots of mutterings from those in authority about the system taking time to bed down and it will be interesting to see if the long straight in Malaysia this weekend will make any difference. The worry is that not even giving drivers this artificial advantage will overcome the basic problem of overtaking in F1. There is still enough dirty air from the aerodynamics of the car in front to negate the extra downforce and speed the open rear wing provides.
Tyres were another big surprise in Melbourne. They will be very closely watched in Sepang, where the conditions will be totally different. Pirelli were tasked with making the tyres more fragile, more susceptible to wear. The idea was to make racing more unpredictable and force teams into multiple pit stops, but in Melbourne it was business as usual.
Rookie Sergio Perez even managed a one-stop race with the last long stint done on the softer tyres. Not even Perez's team thought that was possible. It is entirely plausible that the race was a one-off. Already predictions are being made of a four-stop race in Malaysia. Certainly the conditions will put more strain on the tyres and by extension the teams. High temperatures might help grip, but it also makes them disintegrate quicker. Recent history also tells us there is a very high possibility of rain, and that would change the nature of the tyres and the race completely.
The other big surprise was the performance of some of the big teams. Red Bull had been almost universally tipped to lead the pack and that they did, but McLaren and Ferrari shocked us for opposite reasons. McLaren looked dead in the water during pre-season testing, but they head to Malaysia rejuvenated after a very strong showing in Australia. That was mainly down to being brave enough to scrap their complicated exhaust system and cobble together a new, simpler one. It might have looked a bit rough and ready but, along with other upgrades, it did the job and Lewis Hamilton made it to the podium.
Ferrari, on the other hand, have found themselves in the middle of an enquiry into how their weekend went so wrong. If they don't know why they were so far off the pace, it's unlikely the rest of us will know. One thing is for sure though, Ferrari have enough resources to get to the bottom of the problem pretty quickly and you cannot rule out a vast improvement at Sepang. Fernando Alonso you suspect will demand it.
McLaren have suggested that the Malaysian Grand Prix will be more of a true reflection of the state of the teams than the glorified street circuit of Melbourne. The team though feel it is their rivals Red Bull who are not using their full performance potential.
There were still some things that this column did manage to predict. One was the potential of Sauber's Perez. The Mexican came seventh before being disqualified on a technical issue and the team were spot on to call that performance 'outstanding'.
It was also good to see that Renault lived up to the pre-season promise and found their way onto the podium, with Vitaly Petrov proving there is hope despite Robert Kubica's accident.
And as for this season being too tight to call, let's just wait until the dust has settled in Malaysia before we throw that prediction away.