Juan Pablo Montoya gave a preview of what was to come in an extraordinary demolition derby Australian Grand Prix yesterday when he spun his McLaren-Mercedes before he got to the grid. As Fernando Alonso's Renault subsequently swept to a superbly judged victory in a race marred by no fewer than four safety car periods and several heavy accidents, the pole-sitter Jenson Button saw his hopes finally go up in smoke (and flame) as engine failure in his Honda lost him fifth place in the final yards.
The original start had to be abandoned, following Montoya's antics, when the front-row starter Giancarlo Fisichella's Renault stalled. The Italian was pushed into the pits as the Colombian resumed his rightful place for the fresh start. Button attacked immediately, repelling Alonso's challenge, but the Englishman's effort was negated when the safety car was deployed for the first time following a crash between Christian Klien, Felipe Massa and Nico Rosberg in the first corner, and a spin by Jarno Trulli in the sixth.
At the restart on lap four Button was simply unable to defend against Alonso, as his Honda's Michelin tyres had, crucially, lost their temperature. "I tried to push hard in the final corner before the restart," he said glumly, "but it was like driving a car without wings. I had massive understeer and then massive oversteer, and Alonso was gone."
There was momentary respite when the safety car came out again from laps seven to nine after Klien crashed heavily, but on the latest restart it was Raikkonen who pushed ahead of Button. Once again his dreams of glory had faded.
It was soon clear that Alonso had the legs of Raikkonen, whose front wing had a damaged endplate. They headed the field after the first round of pit stops, which came in between safety car periods. The next of these came when Michael Schumacher drove his Ferrari heavily into the wall exiting the last corner on lap 33, while pushing Button for sixth place.
"I tucked in behind Jenson and unexpectedly picked up some heavy understeer and finished on the grass," the multiple champion said dolefully.
That prompted a rash of final pit stops on the 34th lap, and then some frantic racing when the track was clear again on lap 38. But soon the safety car was out again, as Tonio Liuzzi crashed very heavily after, he alleged, Jacques Villeneuve had squeezed his Toro Rosso on to the grass. Earlier in the race the young Italian had yet again demonstrated his talent with a surgically precise pass on Michael Schumacher as they fought over eighth place. He is beginning to make a habit of that.
Despite the interruptions, Alonso kept his cool and drew out a fresh lead as Raikkonen, who had a new front wing fitted in his second stop, struggled to make up lost ground. The Finn reduced the gap over the closing laps, but Alonso was always in control.
Behind them, Ralf Schumacher moved up to third for Toyota, with Nick Heidfeld fourth for Sauber-BMW after Montoya nearly emulated Schumacher Snr's last-corner shunt before stopping with electrical failure.
The final drama befell Button. Under pressure from the recovering Fisichella, his Honda engine exploded in the final corner, and such are the arcane rules of the sport that it was better for him to stop before the finish line and thus surrender points for either fifth or sixth place, rather than incur a 10-grid place penalty at Imola in three weeks' time.
As Alonso celebrated, a disillusioned Button faced the true scale of his task this season. "The car is strong when we have tyre temperature," he said, "but when we don't we have massive grip problems that will not be easy to resolve." In other words, don't hold your breath for his maiden GP success. Despite all the work Honda have done over the winter, it is still going to be a long, hard slog for the man who is so anxious to deliver.
It was also a frustrating day for the local hero, Mark Webber. He would have been one of the last to pit in the first stint and was leading on lap 22. But that little present to the watching triple champion, Sir Jack Brabham, celebrating his 80th birthday, was snatched away by transmission failure a lap later.
For the winner, it was a day of no worries. "This was a very different race to the other two so far this season," Alonso said. "In Bahrain I was fighting with Michael all the way; in Malaysia, it was Jenson I was battling for second place. But today, it was quite comfortable. There were no fights, and I was very relaxed for a lot of the race." There's nothing like rubbing it in.
* The American racer Scott Speed was handed a post-race penalty of 25 seconds for paying insufficient attention to yellow flags. That dropped him behind David Coulthard and lost him, and the Scuderia Toro Rosso team, their first world championship point. The race stewards also fined Speed $5,000 (£2,900) for use of abusive language to another competitor - believed to be Coulthard - during the hearing.
Australian Grand Prix results
1 F Alonso (Sp) Renault
hr 34min 27.870sec
2 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Merc
3 R Schumacher (Ger) Toyota
4 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber
5 G Fisichella (It) Renault
6 J Villeneuve (Can) Sauber-BMW
7 R Barrichello (Bra) Honda
8 D Coulthard (GB) Red Bull Ferrari
9 J Button (GB) Honda at 1 lap; 10 C Albers (Neth) Midland-Toyota at 1 lap; 11 S Speed (US) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:35:21.670*; 12 T Sato (Japan) Super Aguri at 2 laps; 13 Y Ide (Japan) Super Aguri at 3 laps. Not Classified: 14 J-P Montoya (Col) McLaren-Mercedes 46 laps; 15 T Monteiro (Por) Midland 39 laps; 16 V Liuzzi (It) Scuderia Toro Rosso 37 laps; 17 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 32 laps; 18 M Webber (Aus) Williams-Cosworth 22 laps; 19 C Klien (Aut) Red Bull 4 laps; 20 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams 0 laps; 21 J Trulli (It) Toyota 0 laps; 22 F Massa (Bra) Ferrari 0 laps
Fastest Lap: Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren 1min 26.045secs (lap 57)
Drivers' Championship: 1 Alonso 28 pts; 2 Fisichella 14; 3 Raikkonen 14; 4 M Schumacher 11; 5 Button 11; 6 Montoya 9; 7 R Schumacher 7; 8 Heidfeld 5; 9 Villeneuve 5; 10 Massa 4; 11 Webber 3; 12 Rosberg 2; 13 Barrichello 2; 14 Speed 1; 15 Klien 1.
Manufacturers' Championship: 1 Renault 42pts; 2 McLaren-Mercedes 23; 3 Ferrari 15; 4 Honda 13; 5 BMW Sauber 10; 6 Toyota 7; 7 Williams-Cosworth 5; 8 Scuderia Toro Rosso-Cosworth 1; 9 Red Bull Racing-Ferrari 1
*Speed finished in eighth position but was handed a 25-second penalty after the race for overtaking while under a yellow caution flag.