It's that time of year again so lets get the opening race thread of the season online! I havent been at home this month, been over to Daytona for the 500 and heading to Sebring this week!, so I have no data about past race etc so if someone wants to add that feel free!
As ever you can check out my website
to keep up-to-date with the news from the weekend and there's also a season preview online.
So many unknowns ahead of Australian GP
The Formula 1 winter seems to get shorter every year and after 110 days Melbourne will write the latest chapter in the sport’s history.
Testing has been dominated by the speed of Red Bull and McLaren, the struggles of Ferrari, the re-emergence of Mercedes and Lotus and with the midfield battle looking incredibly competitive.
But as has been said many times testing is one thing and racing quite another. The questions have been asked throughout the winter but now, for the first time, we start to get some answers. It’s time for the BS to stop…and for the five red lights to go out!
Albert Park Circuit
Melbourne has played host to Formula 1 since ’96 but it’s hard to remember a season opener with such a sense of expectation as this one.
Last year showed the positive effects that Pirelli tyres and DRS could have on racing but after Sebastian Vettel dominated the championship proceedings many fans were left disappointed by the year.
The coming year has the prospect of top class racing and the hope of a titanic championship battle similar to 2010 where four drivers went into the final race of the season in championship contention.
It is probably too much to expect to have four drivers entering the Brazilian GP in contention but the possibility of a strong season of close racing is very real.
Melbourne is a street circuit that offers a tremendous challenge for teams and drivers. The track evolves throughout the weekend with more and more rubber being put down on the surface. When you combine this factor with autumnal weather there is a prospect of cold weather and low temperatures offering an even greater challenge to the field.
First lap incidents have been common place in Melbourne with turn one having seen its share of accidents with the most spectacular arguably the 2002 clash between Ralf Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello.
The opening chicane is a hotbed for incident because it 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.
In 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 middle sector of the lap is dominated by the super fast turn 11 and 12 chicane. Drivers approach here at top speed before briefly dabbing the brakes to scrub off some speed before attacking the opening left hander which feeds directly into 12. Once through the chicane drivers reach top speed before the last overtaking opportunity of the lap.
What to expect in Melbourne
As with any opening race of the year it is difficult to know exactly what to expect. The expectation is that Red Bull and Vettel will continue to lead the way but there is no guarantee that is actually the case.
McLaren are very confident that they have found the pace over the winter to challenge the favourites in what should be a very competitive race with Martin Whitmarsh saying:
“Our sense it that we are competitive. The car seems quite reliable, the drivers like it and they seem to be quite buoyant,” said the Englishman. "We always say it at this at this time of year, but fuel loads, tyre programmes and test programmes interfere with the ability of the teams to judge performance. Race simulations and longer runs give a better indication though of where teams are at than headline lap times, and based upon that we feel that we are competitive."
In the Red Bull garage a similar refrain was rung out by Vettel with the reigning champion saying:
"Testing has been busy over the last few weeks and I think we have made a decent step with the car. You never really know where you are until we get to Melbourne and even then you don't really see what everyone has got until qualifying - so I'm looking forward to getting started. Australia and Malaysia are different circuits so they are hard to compare. Australia is not a permanent race track, it's quite bumpy and it's tough for the car. Malaysia is smoother, as it's a permanent race track with fast corners, but both are good tracks and Australia is one of the best places we go to.”
The intra team rivalry in Red Bull and McLaren is sure to be one of the talking points this weekend with Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton keen to exercise the demons after disappointing campaigns last year.
For Webber the hope is that a full season of using the Pirelli tyres will give him the confidence to push harder and challenge Vettel. Hamilton will be looking to eradicate the mistakes that marred last season.
Numerous clashes on track and an apparent lack of focus cost him dearly and McLaren clearly now view Jenson Button as the focal point of the team. For a driver of Hamilton’s ability and credentials it is likely that the 2008 champion will take that as an affront to his ability but now is the time for him to answer his critics with a strong opening race.
It is worth noting that both Webber and Hamilton came close to winning the title in 2010 and as a result a loss of focus and a disappointing year is not too unfamiliar for drivers coming off such a close call. The true test for both is now how they react to having been outclassed by their teammates last year.
This weekend’s race is one in which Webber has never had good fortune, his best finish is fifth last year, but the Australian is looking for some luck from his home crowd:
“It's great to see the support and Australian flags in the crowd,” said the 35 year old Aussie. “I've incorporated more of an Australian theme into my helmet, which I'll be using for the whole year, not just in Australia.”
It’s likely to take more than a new helmet to give Webber the edge over Vettel but this weekend’s qualifying session and race will be crucial in his bid to unsettle his teammate.
Behind Red Bull and McLaren the battle looks set to rage between Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus as they fight for the tag as “best of the rest.” Even though Ferrari has struggled in testing it is likely that with Alonso at the wheel the Scuderia will still be able to fight for a top six finish. It is hardly what Alonso expected in his third year with the team but if he is to have a chance of winning a third title he needs to stem the bleeding in the early stages of the season.
At Mercedes Michael Schumacher seemed confident of a strong weekend even though the seven times champion refused to reveal too much ahead of the opening race:
“During winter testing, we completed lots of miles and built up a really complete set of data, which should put us in a good position for the first race and to develop the car even further in the right direction. We're ready for the 2012 season to begin..."
Testing has indicated the gap between the leading teams and the midfield has been reduced and there is therefore great hope for the majority of mid pack runners. At no team is there a greater sense of pressure and urgency for success than at Williams.
The team has suffered through a severe lack of funding in recent years and after a technical overhaul appears ready to finally make a move towards respectability once again.
For Bruno Senna this is a very important season. The Brazilian came into the sport racing for HRT and never really had the chance to perform at his best in a terrible car. Last year he showed promise for Renault but with only the last third of the season in the car it was hard to judge him.
Now for the first time he will have a full winter testing schedule behind him and the Brazilian can’t wait for the season to finally get underway:
“I am really looking forward to going to Australia,” commented Senna. “About a month after the last race of the season you are itching to get back racing, so four months later I really can’t wait to get started. Getting into the car on Friday will be very exciting, and I hope we can be competitive from the very beginning. Pre-season testing was promising, but you never know exactly what everyone is doing. It is certainly very close, so it is going to be very tight this year.”
At the back of the field Caterham have made progress but are still lacking pace. They have however, once again, outshone their fellow back markers. Marussia and HRT have not turned a wheel in anger yet this year and both teams have only shaken down their entrants for the new season. Just making the grid will be viewed as a successful weekend.
Setup and technical challenges
When asked about the challenges facing teams this weekend Mark Smith, Caterham technical director, said:
"The Melbourne event poses the usual challenges of a race held on a circuit using public roads which are used once a year for the Grand Prix. This means that the circuit grip evolves significantly throughout the weekend and can therefore make it tricky to target the optimum balance in advance of the race. The tyres being used this year are the soft and medium compounds which we gained some useful insights into during pre-season testing, albeit in very different conditions on a different type of circuit. The ambient temperature in Melbourne can be expected to be somewhere between the high teens and the low twenties, so not that far off what we saw in Spain in February, but the nature of the circuit is different and places reasonably high demands on the brakes and consequently on entry stability. Equally, maximising traction out of the lower speed corners is generally an area of focus. Whilst the cars will have a high average speed at this circuit the aero setup will still be relatively high downforce. Overtaking here is difficult so KERS and DRS will be valuable tools.”
F1 will revolve around Pirelli tyres once again in 2012
Pirelli tyres dominated proceedings last year and it looks as if little will change in the coming season.
The Italian manufacturer will take soft and medium compound rubber to Australia. It is likely that Sunday’s race will see two stops for most of the drivers. Melbourne is a track that places a huge strain on the rear tyres and tyre wear is sure to be a key factor in this weekend’s race. With a two stop strategy expected to be the norm it is worth noting that each stop will take in the region of 23 seconds.
Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s motorsport directory, is looking forward to the new season:
“We’re delighted to be starting our second season of Formula One, with a completely new range of tyres. The P Zero Yellow soft and the P Zero White medium have been nominated for Australia which each have a completely new profile and compound. Last year, the P Zero Yellow tyre set the fastest-ever lap of Albert Park, but coming at the start of the year this is always one of the most unpredictable races of the season. Being a semi-permanent facility, we would expect the track to evolve considerably as the weekend goes on.”
Weekend’s weather in Australia
The weather looks to be unsettled in Melbourne this weekend with rain expected to affect proceedings at some point over the course of the action. Temperatures will be in the range of 15-20C and with Melbourne historically hotter than this it will be very interesting to see if drivers can get heat into their tyres quickly.
|Friday 16 March|
|First practice: 1am|
|Second practice: 5.15am|
|Saturday 17 March|
|Third practice: 2.45am|
|Sunday 18 March|
|Grand Prix: 4.30am|
|2011||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull|