Stalwarts tumble in Oz as Button’s Brawn prevails

MelbourneBy Chris Hayes and Hugh Podmore

There were only two questions that mattered going into qualifying for Sunday’s historic season-opener in Melbourne: just how fast are Brawn GP, and just how slow are McLaren?

The crucial one hour session threw up a unanimous answer to both – very.

The Australian Grand Prix weekend was always going to be unpredictable of course given the sweeping new regulations introduced for this year, not to mention that Brawn GP had a head start on just about everybody in responding to them – ironically as a result of Honda’s failings and the decision to abandon last year’s car.

But nobody could have anticipated the scale of the reversal or the sight of the sports stalwarts – McLaren, Ferrari and Renault – struggling to break into the top ten.

Great Britain finds itself both fronting and bringing up the rear on Sunday with Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton at polar opposites from where they were less than seven months ago.

In fact, only five weeks ago Button’s then Honda team, or what was left of it, had no buyer, and the future looked very grim. But the resilience and hard work of the Brackley-based squad over the last two years has paid off – the pleasure of seeing their car’s name at the front of the grid, whatever tomorrow may bring.

Is this role reversal a mere trading of position though – and potentially an unsustainable one at that – or can Jenson find some of the luck and reliability that has so consistently alluded him further down the grid?

Can Brawn win the race? At a conservative estimate, with fuel loads factored in, Brawn have about a third of a second per lap over the rest of the field. With that kind of advantage they are expected to scamper away, with the possibility of unreliability the only threat. From the others, Vettel and Kubica might be in with a shout. Kubica’s third place is especially remarkable considering he was not carrying KERS.

In many ways the most interesting battle tomorrow could be in the midfield. It will be very interesting to see Alonso, Raikkonen and Hamilton in close combat with each other and the mere mid-pack mortals. Felipe Massa too is undistinguished in dogfights, but his relatively high grid position (7th) could be a springboard if his race pace is superior to his qualifying.

Kazuki Nakajima will be disappointed not to have made the top ten, on the grounds that in his team-mate’s hands the Williams was 5th. Equally, Nick Heidfeld’s 11th will be considered an opportunity missed. Finally, Nelson Piquet Jr’s failure to make Quali 2 will be a source of frustration to him and to his bosses.