Jenson Button drove a brilliant, championship-quality race in the blistering Brawn car in cruising to victory in the Australian Grand Prix. But his was not the driving performance of the race. That honor belongs to Lewis Hamilton, who delivered a third place finish against all odds.
It's no secret that the MP4-24 is not exactly the car of the year at this point. Performing poorly in testing, it backed up its current reputation with a pace that struggled to emerge from Q1. The current reported problem is a lack of rear downforce, and one could gather this by observing the time sheets throughout the weekend. The McLaren was rubbished by the competition in Sector Three, which consists of high speed corners for which rear downforce is necessary.
To compound matters for Hamilton, a gearbox failure and subsequent replacement relegated him to the final row on the grid for the start. With the Toyota's being DQ'ed from qualifying for flexible rear wing components, he would begin the Grand Prix in 18th, the worst starting position of his career. It was shaping up to be a miserable day for the defending World Champion.
McLaren elected to throw caution to the wind and institute an aggressive fuel strategy, making him light to give him the opportunity to get a quick start and make overtakes.
It was a strategy that potentially could end up working quite well with an early safety car, which at best could have forced quicker cars ahead to make a pit stop under the SC and at worst would have closed him up to cars who had already pitted and were heavier. With the prospect of cars ahead retiring or dropping back due to reliability issues or incidents, the strategy was designed very well for a points finish.
The strategy worked out brilliantly due to good luck in the form of the competition's mishaps and an expert driving performance by Hamilton. Early incidents forced stops and/or retirements from Heikki Kovalainen, Nick Heidfeld, and Mark Webber, and Hamilton physically overtook six cars on the circuit. He then proceeded to extract the absolute maximum pace from the McLaren, register a series of outstanding (relatively) laps to gain time and position himself well to challenge for a points position.
A safety car on lap 18 courtesy of Kaz Nakajima closed him up to the drivers ahead. With drivers in superior cars ahead having yet to make a pit stop, Hamilton again extracted the maximum out of the car and ran a series of brilliant laps to keep pace with them and set up the opportunity to overtake them through the pit cycles, which he did. The only problem he faced was the possibility of an extended run on the super-softs, which were degrading quickly and had previously gotten the better of Nico Rosberg, who Hamilton eventually overtook.
Keeping pace with Jarno Trulli in the superior Toyota, Hamilton positioned himself in sixth after the final pit stops. A fortunate safety car period emerged in the closing laps due to the incident between Robert Kubica and Sebastian Vettel, both giving Hamilton the opportunity to take two more positions and protecting him from a challenge from Timo Glock due to tire degradation on Hamilton's extended run on the super-softs. With Trulli going off course under the safety car, Hamilton eventually took a highly improbable third place finish.
A brilliant strategy brilliantly executed by the driver, Hamilton delivered perhaps the greatest performance of his young career. The most oft-raised criticism toward him is that he has been blessed to move immediately into a quality car and needed to prove his true driving ability in an inferior car before being labeled a great.
His performance in the Australian Grand Prix was every bit on the level of Schumacher in the 1996 Ferrari and Alonso in last year's Renault. In the case of Hamilton v. Detractors, the defending world champion introduced Exhibit A in testimony to his greatness with his drive in Albert Park.