April 26th (F1plus / Chris Cameron-Dow).- Four races into the 2012 Formula One season, and the teams have returned to Europe to prepare for testing in Mugello before the season resumes in Spain on 13 May. The racing has been very close throughout the field, with no team yet stamping their authority on the season.
This is how it happened:
Australia – McLaren takes early initiative
After pre-season testing, no-one was quite sure what the order would be on a race weekend. That question was answered emphatically when McLaren locked out the front row in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix. In the race, Button passed Hamilton off the line and went on to take a dominant victory. World Champion Sebastian Vettel came through from sixth on the grid to finish second, with Hamilton rounding out the podium.
A few themes emerged in Australia. McLaren were obviously the quickest team, with formidable qualifying pace in particular. Lotus and Mercedes had clearly made progress from last year, although Mercedes seemed to lack pace in race conditions. Ferrari were visibly off the pace, with Massa and Alonso struggling to keep the car on track throughout the weekend.
Malaysia – Rain changes everything
Malaysia looked like being a repeat of Australia, until the weather intervened. McLaren occupied the front row of the grid with Mercedes, Red Bull and Lotus in close company, but the order was turned on its head when heavy rain brought out the red flag.
After the restart, when the track started to dry out, Fernando Alonso emerged in the lead, holding on for an unlikely victory to go top of the championship standings. Sergio Perez finished a superb second for Sauber, and might have won the race if he hadn't run wide while harrying Alonso for the lead. Lewis Hamilton finished third for his second podium of the season. Nine constructors featured in the points, showing just how closely matched the cars are this year.
China – Rosberg makes history with Mercedes
Nico Rosberg took his first career pole position and first win to give the ‘Silver Arrows’ their first success since Fangio won at Monza in 1955. And he did it in style.
Rosberg’s pole position, over half a second clear of the field, set the tone for the race, in which he sprinted into the lead and was never challenged. A loose wheel for Schumacher ended the possibility of a Mercedes one-two, but there was no stopping for Rosberg as he finished 20 seconds clear of the Button’s McLaren. Lewis Hamilton in third found himself leading the championship despite not having won a race.
Throughout the field, the battles were close and entertaining. McLaren, Red Bull, Lotus and Williams were all in the mix, using DRS to good effect down the long back straight.
Bahrain – Vettel back on top
After the 2011 race was cancelled, Formula One returned to Bahrain amid fears for the safety of all involved in the race. Two Force India team members returned home after finding themselves uncomfortably close to a petrol bomb on the Thursday night.
Sebastian Vettel silenced his doubters by first taking pole position, and then leading almost the entire race to take his first victory of 2012, setting the fastest lap along the way to the championship lead.
Lotus continued their strong season with Raikkonen second after challenging Vettel at one point, and Grosjean an impressive third. McLaren had a miserable day, with pitstop errors limiting Hamilton to eighth place, and Button retiring with a cracked exhaust just a few laps from the end of the race.
With four races, four winners and four championship leaders, Formula One has already delivered enough action for a full season. The teams will be testing at Mugello in Italy from 1-3 May, and from there will proceed to Barcelona where the action continues in two weeks’ time.