Melbourne looks set to stage an exciting start to the F1 season

Race-start-Barcelona-2012Are we there yet? It’s a familiar refrain to everyone but for each team on the pitlane this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix will be the first time that they really see “where” it is. Every team works through testing with their cards held close to their chests by running with different fuel loads and aero programmes.

It is only once the teams head to Melbourne that they will be able to compare their car to the opposition in equal conditions. The opening race weekend of the season is always exciting. Fans get to see racing back on the TV but for the teams it is also the most nerve wrecking time of the year.

Melbourne’s street circuit has given a host of thrilling races over the last twelve seasons and with the battle at the front looking exceptionally close ahead of this season it is clear that this weekend should provide another cracker!

The Albert Park Circuit

Nico-Rosberg-Romain-Grosjean-Michael-Schumacher-Barcelona-race-2012It’s difficult to overtake in Melbourne so finding the right balance and managing your tyres will be crucial for whoever wins this weekend. Reliability is put to the test with numerous heavy braking zones. The bumpy surface also ensures that maximum concentration is required from the drivers at all times as Lewis Hamilton explains:

“It’s a street track with a really bumpy surface so you try and put as much downforce on the car as possible and it really puts the drivers to the test,” said the Mercedes racer.

The safety car makes a regular appearance during this race with only the 2011 having been an uninterrupted race. The reasons for the safety car are obvious with first lap incidents common place in Melbourne.

The opening chicane has seen its share of accidents with the most spectacular arguably the 2002 clash between Ralf Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello. This section is quite fast and open on the way in before narrowing sharply at the apex. Once through it the field powers towards turn three, another corner with a history of accidents.

Jenson-Button-Portier-Monaco-FP3-2012In the inaugural Melbourne Grand Prix Martin Brundle barrel rolled through the gravel trap after crashing into David Coulthard as the Scotsman looked to avoid another incident. With two DRS zones this year turn three is expected to offer a key overtaking chance in Melbourne.

The opening sector of the lap ends with turn five. Braking into this slow right hander is difficult as the road is covered by a canopy of trees making it hard to spot your braking and turn in points. It’s easy to put your left rear onto the grass and lose the back end on the way into the corner.

Once through turn five drivers head towards the ever accelerating turn six and seven before hard braking into turn eight; another slow chicane. Once through the chicane drivers accelerate through the long left hander that leads into the superfast turn 11 and 12 chicane. Drivers approach this at top speed before flicking the car into the fast left-right complex.

Turn 13 is another slow right hander and the last genuine overtaking opportunity of the lap before the drivers make their way back to the start finish line through the final series of corners.

Testing paints an incomplete picture

Sebastian-Vettel-side-Monaco-FP3-2012With testing limited to just 12 days the early races could be pivotal in how the championship will unfold. Unreliability or a lack of understanding of their car can cost teams dearly in the early races and even though the new cars are evolutions of recent year’s designs it is still worth remembering that these are prototype machines and it is very easy for problems to arise.

McLaren seemed to struggle in testing to understand their new suspension systems so the pace and consistency of Jenson Button and Sergio Perez will be worth monitoring throughout the weekend. Button a veteran of over 200 Grand Prix has seen it all during his 13 year career but the unknowns ahead of the opening race of the season still excites him:

Jenson-Button-Massenet-Monaco-Qualifying-2012“One of the most fascinating things about Formula 1 is the way it resets itself each and every winter,” commented the former champion. “I’ve seen every side of that: you can have a terrible winter of testing, then turn up at the first race and be competitive; equally, you can look impressive in winter testing and be nowhere in Melbourne. If you’re lucky, it all comes together in the tests and you hit the ground running at the first race. That’s always the goal.

“This year, I don’t think any team really knows or understands the competitive order. It’s been an extremely hard-to-read winter: varying fuel-loads and levels of tyre degradation mean that it’s hard to accurately predict who’ll arrive in Australia with the best-sorted car. But that’s part of the game.”

Jean-Eric-Vergne-wheel-off-ground-Monaco-FP3-2012Testing has indicated that the fight at the front will be exceptionally close with McLaren, Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus all within a couple of tenths of each other and Mercedes having the potential to be very quick on occasion. If this is the case the strategic implications could be huge.

With tyres lasting only a handful of laps in testing it is clear that the Pirelli rubber will play the most significant role in the outcome of races again this year. At certain races it might be advantageous to hold back a set of tyres from Q3 and just accept a lower grid placing to have fresh rubber throughout.

It is unlikely that this situation will arise in Melbourne where the norm has been for two stops in recent years but at some of the more abrasive tracks it will be worth keeping an eye on.

Usual suspects up front

Mark-Webber-Kimi-Raikkonen-Romain-Grosjean-Mirabeau-entry-Monaco-Qualifying-2012The season will open with the usual contenders for pole position and the victory but the fight is exceptionally close between Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari. When everything is working on the McLaren it seems, like last year, to have an edge in terms of outright pace but the team has struggled for consistency in testing.

Red Bull on the other hand spent the winter running with quite high fuel loads but once their weight penalty was taken into account they seemed to be very fast in race trim. The RB9 looks consistent and relatively easy on it’s tyres in comparison to its rivals. From trackside observations it seems that Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber are as confident in the new car as they have been with its predecessors and both should be very competitive this weekend.

Webber has reveled in his role as unwanted by Helmut Marko but with Red Bull, Dieter Mateschitz, having confirmed his support for the Australian this season should be more comfortable for Webber.

Fernando-Alonso-Portier-Monaco-Qualifying-2012At Ferrari this year’s preseason was much more promising than last years and the new car seems very competitive in the hands of both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. If the team is to have a chance of winning this weekend they will need to be more aggressive with their race strategy than in the last couple of years but the speed of the new car is certainly giving them more confidence.

Question marks hang over Mercedes and Lotus

Lewis Hamilton on trackJerez Test2013Behind the leading trio we will find Mercedes and Lotus. Both have had moments of glory in testing but with question marks about the consistency of the Mercedes and the reliability of the Lotus it is hard to put them in the same bracket as the established pace setters.

In Barcelona both Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton topped the timesheets with hugely impressive lap times but given that Mercedes was over one second a lap off the pace for much of last year it is very difficult to see them having overcome such a deficit over the last couple of months.

Even so Hamilton has always gone well at Melbourne and with rain forecast over the weekend he could spring a surprise. The Englishman however has been keen to downplay his chances:

“We had a good, reliable car during winter testing so that’s the positive we can take with us into the weekend but we know that in terms of performance, everything begins again from zero in Friday practice,” said the 2008 world champion.

Kimi-Raikkonen-Monaco-FP2-2012At Lotus there is however much more reason for optimism. The team was the most consistent of all runners throughout the winter with a string of impressive mid range stints including the most eye catching race stint by Romain Grosjean at the first Barcelona test.

It seems that the new car has carried forwards the positives of last year’s model with impressive tyre management. If they can find improved single lap speed they should be very impressive once again and Kimi Raikkonen is far from a dark horse for the world title but a lot will hinge on their reliability.

In testing only Williams completed less mileage with their 2013 car, and this was in large part due to having tested an interim car at Jerez. If Lotus can iron out the kinks they will be a contender but until they do so they have to be viewed in a lesser light than the leading trio.

Midfield battle likely to be led by Sauber again

Paul-di-Resta-defends-Jean-Eric-Vergne-Barcelona-Race-2012Sauber, Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso will all be fighting tooth and nail to claim sixth position in the Constructors’ Championship this season and the opening race should give us an indication of where each team stands ahead of a long season.

Only Toro Rosso name and unchanged driver lineup so this could be an advantage for the team as both drivers should be fast from the start of practice but given the teams underperformance last year they have a huge amount of ground to make up in comparison to their rivals.

Sauber could have won races last year and even though Nico Hulkenberg should give them a major life this season it will be very difficult to match their achievements from 2012. Realistically if Sauber can build on last year and cement their place as the sixth best team on the grid this will have been a very successful season. They have gone well in Australia in recent years and if they can give Hulkenberg a strong car this weekend he could be a Q3 participant and points scorer.

Pastor-Maldonado-Felipe-Massa-Massenet-Monaco-Qualifying-2012Williams will be looking to build on their very promising 2012 campaign. Pastor Maldonado will need to keep his car on the island and avoid the unnecessary crashes that made up much of last summer. He has tremendous potential and when he is in a position to score well and battle at the front he invariably looks fantastic but in the tight battle in the midfield of 2013 scoring regular points will be far more important than hitting the high notes.

Force India has had a turbulent winter with the Vijay Mallya having been at the centre of numerous financial reviews for his Kingfisher brands. Kingfisher Airlines are heavily in debt and it is clearly placing a tremendous strain on Mallya’s resources and with Sahara also having run into similar issues the funding of the team is a major question mark for their future.

Adrian Sutil closeup Barcelona test 2013The new car seems reasonable and di Resta has shown that he is a very capable driver but he needs to improve on his performances last year. It seemed like he was out-psyched by Hulkenberg last year so having Adrian Sutil alongside him should make things much easier.

They were teammates in 2010 and di Resta was able to match Sutil throughout the campaign. With an extra years experience he should be comfortably quicker. Will it be enough to lift Force India back into sixth position in Constructors Championships? It’s hard to know but Melbourne will at least give us an indication of how the midfield is shaping up for the rest of the year.

Setup challenges facing the teams in Melbourne

Caterham garage Giedo van der Garde Jerez Test Day 1 2013Track evolution is key at Albert Park. Once the running starts the grip improves dramatically with more and more rubber being put down and the racing line being cleared up. The weather this weekend is for showers over the weekend so after each shower the track surface will be cleaned and drivers will have to start the process of “rubbering in” the track surface. This will lead to greater wear on the tyres and will obviously play a role in how teams set their cars up over the weekend.

Sauber’s Head of Track Engineering, Tom McCullough, talks us through some of the key difficulties facing engineers this weekend:

“Melbourne is a typical street circuit with significant track evolution,” said the Englishman. “It is very important to have good braking stability and a car that performs well in the low to medium speed corners. The layout of the track also requires the car to have a good change of direction. It will be interesting to see how the new generation Medium and Super Soft Pirelli tyres perform at a track with less high speed corners than our two test tracks.”

Fernando-Alonso-Pastor-Maldonado-Kimi-Raikkonen-Barcelona-race-2012Mike Coughlan, the Williams Technical Director, also commented on the challenges of Albert Park:

“Melbourne is a high power sensitivity circuit, more so than Spa-Francorchamps which is quite surprising. Ambient temperatures can be very high, fuel consumption is high and there is increased brake wear. The ambient temperatures in Jerez and Barcelona are very different to what we expect to find in Australia, so we’ll be looking very closely at tyre degradation during practice on Friday.”

As Coughlan said the track will place a strain on engines this weekend and Rémi Taffin, Head of Renault Sport F1 Track Operations, also commented on the difficulties that the engine manufacturers face in Australia:

“Albert Park is a tough place to start the season as it represents a hard challenge for engines,” said the Frenchman. “The average speed is towards the top of the table, while the percentage of the lap spent at full throttle is also one of the highest of the season. The short bursts of power between corners put the internals under intense pressure, while greatly increasing fuel consumption; in fact the fuel consumption per 100km is the second highest of the year.”

Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres

McLaren-cleaning-tyres-Barcelona-2012Pirelli’s third season as the sole tyre supplier begins in Australia and the Italian manufacturer will bring with them the medium and supersoft tyres. It is likely that with a clean track surface and low ambient temperatures that the rubber will be given a serious work out but it is unlikely that we will see excessive wear and two stops should still be the winning strategy.

Paul Hembery, the tyre manufacturer’s motorsport director, spoke about how they are prepared for the season opening Grand Prix:

“We’re bringing the P Zero White medium tyres and P Zero Red Supersoft to Australia,” said the Englishman. “This is the first time that we have nominated this particular combination for Melbourne. We’ve deliberately gone for a more extreme tyre choice than last year that delivers extra performance, but this should still result in between two and three pit stops per car: our target for the year.

“There was quite a lot of degradation in testing, but this will be reduced once we get to the warmer conditions of Melbourne, where the tyres should be operating within their intended working range. Albert Park is a temporary venue, so we would expect to find a very slippery and ‘green’ surface when we arrive, but the grip level will improve considerably once the track begins to rubber in over the course of the weekend.

“All the compounds and constructions have changed for 2013, and the drivers should notice a wider working range and a bigger window of peak performance. The performance gaps between the compounds are also larger, which means that teams have a greater opportunity to use strategy to their advantage by exploiting the consequent speed differentials.”

Weather for this weekend

Friday is forecast to be dry and overcast but showers are expected to roll into Melbourne on Saturday afternoon before qualifying and stay present until the end of the weekend.

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