McLaren off to a flyer as Mercedes wait in wings
The first few seconds of the first grand prix of the season told us a lot more about what we might expect in Malaysia and beyond than most of pre-season testing. Charging down to the first corner in Melbourne, we confirmed that McLaren have at last started a season on the front foot, something underlined by their dominance in qualifying. Jenson Button also proved he still has the edge on his teammate with the determined drive into first place.
It was plain to see that Mercedes have brought their 'A' game to the 2012 season. Michael Schumacher was fourth on the grid and by the first corner he was third and his teammate Nico Rosberg had rocketed up to fourth. They were helped by a clever rear wing design which incorporates DRS activated f-ducts. However, other teams are hoping to see the concept banned by this weekend. It would be a big blow to the German team if it was. In Australia, it was a shame to see the stellar start fade away.
We learnt that Red Bull has been hurt by rule changes banning 'blown exhausts' that helped aerodynamic performance last season. It's the world champions who have to play catch up, but they will be comforted by the Alonso-esque ability of Sebastian Vettel to wring a performance out of an underperforming car (with a little help from the safety car). Red Bull did warn their race pace was better than their qualifying pace but, as McLaren discovered last season, that won't buy you the championship.
You didn't need the first corner to tell Ferrari are in trouble. The whole weekend was a disaster. To see the Prancing Horse qualify 12th and 16th was unheard of. It was no wonder Fernando Alonso was stomping around with a long face. He managed to fight his way to fifth and it is a measure of the Italians' problems that they were delighted to get so high up the standings.
There were enough shunts at the first corner to suggest it might be a close season. There was more concrete evidence as the race progressed. It was a joy to see Rosberg, Vettel and Alonso mixing it early in the race and with Red Bull's wings clipped we can hopefully look forward to more wheel banging in Sepang on Sunday.
The midfield runners seem to have come out fighting, and they played their part in the Melbourne melee. Lotus qualified strongly with Romain Grosjean, and raced well with Kimi Raikkonen. Sauber have excellent straight line speed, and in Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi they have two drivers happy to mix it. Both cars being in the points was a great start to the season. Williams looked a different team to the forlorn outfit of last season, and Torro Rosso's young guns did enough to suggest they will make an impression.
You didn't need to wait until the first corner to know it is going to be a long, hard season for HRT. After struggling to pass the mandatory FIA crash test pre-season, the team failed to qualify for the race. The car is obviously struggling and it may not be too helpful to have two drivers whose combined age is 75.
The back markers, though, will be a footnote in this weekend's excitement, and in the season as a whole. Hopefully the general sense of optimism after the Australian Grand Prix will be borne out in Malaysia. The track will be very different, but in many ways it will be a bigger challenge. There are longer straights and bigger gradients and the teams only have a matter of days to get everything right.
Then there's the weather. It's hard enough to walk around that part of the tropical world without feeling drained. Imagine having to cope in the cockpit of a Formula One car. It will be a bit cooler if it rains, but as we know from recent years that can bring its own problems. It would be nice to actually finish the race.