Beyond past troubles

Lewis Hamilton flanked by runner-up Nick Heidfeld (left) and third-placed Nico Rosberg.-AP Lewis Hamilton flanked by runner-up Nick Heidfeld (left) and third-placed Nico Rosberg.

A confident win in Melbourne for Lewis Hamilton banished any lingering memories of McLaren's torrid 2007 season, writes Paul Weaver.

There are mere victories in sport and then there are declarations. Lewis Hamilton did more than win the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. He made such a vivid statement that it might have been motor sport's answer to Barack Obama, and its thrilling eloquence will still be making a noise in Kimi Raikkonen's ear at Malaysia's Sepang International Stadium, the venue for the second race of the season.

Hamilton was always going to be more than just a one-season wonder. He was always too substantial a driver for that. But there was still a considerable feeling that he might find life more difficult second time round.

Ferrari, handed the drivers' and constructors' championships that should have gone elsewhere, nevertheless appeared to gain impetus from those titles and in pre-season testing, to the delight of the Scuderia's devoted Tifosi, it was the red car out of Maranello which looked the most impressive.

But Hamilton produced the most complete drive of his five Formula One wins. Without traction control and other electronic aids � braking was a particular problem � the cars twitched so much that it must have reminded the McLaren-Mercedes driver of his boyhood days racing radio-controlled cars, when his hand-eye coordination stunned his father, Anthony, for the first time.

Here, on the park streets of Melbourne, Hamilton was a road runner who was just as difficult to catch as the cartoon original. Raikkonen's Ferrari looked as dopey as a winter wasp when it crawled into the pits and finally died in the 54th lap. And when the driver clambered out he looked as broken as his car.

His principal worry, apart from the problems with his own car, is that Hamilton won with something to spare. "I paced myself and didn't overdo it," the English driver said. "I had plenty of time in me. I never thought it would be, physically, such a breeze as it was. We could have ? gone quicker, so I am not particularly bothered about the Ferrari's pace."

There was also, after last season when there was more talk of chicanery than chicanes, a whiff of closure in the sweltering air. Hamilton added: "I wouldn't say that this has drawn a line under what happened last year but coming into a new season we wanted to turn over a new leaf. We wanted to get off on the right foot.

"Ron (Dennis) has been through a lot, so has the team, but we've pulled through and it really shows in the results. I'm glad he's happy. It's an emotional feeling to win the first Grand Prix of the season, especially with all the winter testing, the whole build-up, not really knowing whether you have the pace of everyone else, whether the cars can be reliable. When you come out on top it's a real relief and satisfaction."

Those who got up in the middle of the night to watch this may well have felt that it was worth their while. It was a terrific spectacle. Traction control had been replaced by seat-of-the-pants control and Hamilton appeared to thrive on it. "In terms of management, managing my tyres, controlling my pace and feeling confident and comfortable, this was the best race I've had so far. It's quite different from my first win in Montreal last year because it was really not expected. I've put more pressure on myself this year. I think I'm twice as fit this time."

Canberra is Australia's capital city and Sydney the country's dazzling prize. But the second city of Melbourne can claim to be the nation's sporting capital. The country's first Test cricket and Rules football were played here. There is the Melbourne Cup and the tennis Open. And, of course, the Grand Prix. When fireworks exploded into the evening sky over Albert Park and the music blared, the folk of Melbourne appeared to be celebrating their good fortune.

Socially this is probably the best race of the season. The warm weather meant that there were chairs outside the hospitality areas in the paddock and old champions compared stirring deeds in battles past. There was a sense of reunion and renewal in the air.

The racing, though, is the key ingredient and here it was compelling. Only seven competitors got over the finish line, but that was more down to driver error than mechanical failure. It appeared as old-fashioned car racing before it became safe and sanitised. But, of course, it is much safer these days. There were so many crashes it might have been American motor sport � banger racing, even. The safety car made so many appearances that an outsider might have concluded that it was leading the race.

Hamilton, of course, was spared, for the most part, the bothersome little detail of traffic, having won pole position the previous day. But it was still a masterful drive from a precociously mature performer.

He added: "It was more demanding on the drivers but also on the tyres and on the car. We have no engine braking so it puts a lot more demand on the brakes. The temperature from the brakes and the whole car is probably quite a lot higher than last year. But in terms of racing, it's real racing. This is how it should be."

Slicks refers to tyres but the word might easily apply to McLaren, still the cleverest, most professional team in the business.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008 * * * Tough start

Track marshals clear Force India Formula One driver Giancarlo Fisichella’s car after he crashed at turn one.-AP

The first Indian-owned team to start a Formula One race was given a tough lesson in the realities of the sport when both its cars failed to finish the Australian Grand Prix.

Force India, which is co-owned by Indian billionaire Vijay Mallya, never expected to challenge the likes of McLaren and Ferrari for victory but was hoping to at least make it to the finish.

Former Australian Grand Prix winner, Italian Giancarlo Fisichella, crashed out on the first corner, while Germany’s Adrian Sutil retired after eight laps because of a hydraulic pressure problem.

“It was a very disappointing first race for Force India,” the team’s chief technical officer Mike Gascoyne said.

“We missed a great opportunity to score points... and we have to look to get a better result in Malaysia.”

The team’s frustration at failing to finish the race was compounded by an unusually high casualty rate which saw just seven cars complete the event.

Fisichella, who had started from 16th place in the grid, made a clean getaway when the race began but came to an abrupt halt when he was caught in a pile-up. “I was very disappointed as I lost the race at the first corner because another driver came in like a kamikaze into my car,” Fisichella said. “It was very frustrating because this was such a good opportunity to score points.”

Sutil started the race from the pit lane after cracking a chassis in qualifying. He managed to avoid the carnage at the first corner and got as high as 13th place before his day also ended prematurely.

“It was good while it lasted,” Sutil said. “In the opening laps, I could stay with the guys in front of me.”

Force India raced as Spyker last season, scoring just one point and finished 10th overall in the 11-team championship after McLaren was stripped of all its points for a spying controversy.

Mallya bought the team in the hope that Force India would be on the podium when New Delhi hosts a Formula One race in 2010 but knows the obstacles it faces. Despite his disappointment at failing to finish the race, Mallya said there were still plenty of encouraging signs.

“I was very pleased with the weekend despite the frustration of going out early in this astonishing race,” he said.

“I was, however, very encouraged with the pace we showed in the practice sessions. Although qualifying was ultimately disappointing, last year in Australia this team was well off the pace, this year we were up with the midfield.”