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Champions On The Back Foot



31 MAR - 03 APR 2016

Three of F1’s most decorated drivers have their work cut out at today’s 2014 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix. Tim Collings tells us why.

They may have 74 wins between them and have started enough races at Albert Park to qualify for a discounted ticket on Melbourne's famous trams, but none of that will console the trio of celebrated world champions who start today’s race from the blunt end of the grid.

Jenson Button, who qualified 11th for McLaren, will actually start from 10th thanks to a five-place penalty incurred by Valtteri Bottas of Williams for having to change a gearbox.

Kimi Raikkonen, back at Ferrari, starts 11th after qualifying 12th and defending four-time champion Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull starts 12th for Red Bull.

Given their travails in the rain-hit qualifying session on Saturday, it was little wonder that all three men and their teams were among the last to leave the Albert Park paddock after a day that had seen Lewis Hamilton steal pole for Mercedes from home hero Dan Ricciardo in the closing seconds of a thrilling hour's work against the clock.

They know there is work to do, and a lot of it, before their new 'high tech' cars can match the pace of a younger generation who danced through the rain on Saturday.

Button, 34, the most experienced man in the field, was World Champion in 2009 and is preparing for his 248th race. Raikkonen, three months older, took the title in 2007 and is back for a second stint at Ferrari. And Vettel, while still only 26, is a veteran of 120 starts in a career that has seen him take the title every year since 2010.

Before Saturday's revelation of their fallibility, it was almost unthinkable that all three could fail to be among the top ten qualifiers -- especially in a field with three rookies and a host of others floundering with the demands of new rules and regulations.

Vettel, the defending champion, suffered most as Red Bull's pre-season problems persisted.

Engine suppliers Renault said that a software issue was the cause of his problems, but it did nothing to hamper team-mate Ricciardo's progress to the front row on his debut with the team.

"This morning was OK, but definitely a step down, and then this afternoon when it started to rain, I was struggling a lot with driveability and it made my life pretty difficult," explained that rarely-seen creature, a downcast Vettel trying to find a positive voice. "I made it round, but I struggled a lot when going on the power, so driveability was down.

"There was a different set-up and a software update, but with modern Formula One there's a lot of software programming and it's not easy for drivers to understand what's going on."

This admission confirmed that Vettel has been pushed back among the also-rans and he admitted that merely finishing Sunday's contest will be an achievement.

"We still haven't done a race simulation or a race distance in one go," he said. "I think we have improved reliability compared to testing because we're able to put parts on the car with zero mileage, but there's still a long way to go.

"We're both trying to see the chequered flag and we know the car's quick so we want to finish as high up as possible, but priority number one is to finish the race."

Raikkonen won here first time out in a scarlet car and wanted to make an impact on his return to Ferrari – but not with a wall.

He crashed and triggered a flurry of yellow flags towards the end of Q2. "I was playing around with the switches or something and I got a little bit of wheelspin and touched the wall," he said. "But the car is more or less OK. It was just my mistake. I wasn't pushing anymore, but I couldn't catch it..."

For Button, who was comprehensively out-qualified by rookie team-mate Kevin Magnussen, 21, words were hard to find. "I am so angry -- we just ran out of time," he said. "I feel so annoyed. We just don’t know what is going to happen with the weather, the conditions or the car..."

If it looked tough for this venerable trio, it was looking easy for their team-mates. But, as they always remind you in Formula One, you cannot win the race on Saturday...

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