Australian Grand Prix Preview

Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne, 2005Spaniard vs. Finn. German vs. Columbian. The Regie vs. the Scuderia. This is international sport Formula One-style and it will grace the Melbourne paddock a little later than usual this year because the city has been holding the Commonwealth Games.

For those not up to speed on athletics, the Commonwealth Games is basically the Olympics, but contested only by the British Isles and various ex-colonial nations that are still fond of the Queen. It’s so tedious even the British can’t see the point of it any more [see Martin Kelner in The Guardian (external)].

Albert Park circuit Melbourne, Australian Grand Prix 2006Anyway now that’s dispensed with the race can go on, and the circuit will be exactly the same as before. The track uses the perimeter roads of Albert Park – much to the chagrin of local tree-huggers – which makes for one of the few non-permanent courses on the calendar. This means the surface starts ‘green’, takes a long time to rubber in, and could be expected to favour the Bridgestone teams – especially Ferrari.

The Malaysian Grand Prix was something of a reality check for Ferrari after the high of the Bahrain Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher’s race-challenging pace vanished in the Sepang sun, engines popped like balloons, and a storm over cheating brewed around the construction of their front and rear wings. They are expected to change the offending parts in time for Melbourne, as McLaren and BMW already have done – but what will become of the race if they do not, and perform well?

Jacques Villeneuve, BAR-Supertec, Melbourne, 1999Even if they get back to their Bahrain pace they will still have to find a way to deal with Renault, just like everyone else. As close as the leading pack may be, Renault seem to have just enough of an advantage to be a solid bet for victory. But carelessness – as with Fernando Alonso’s refuelling problem in qualifying in Sepang – could still cost them points. And a rejuvenated Giancarlo Fisichella could yet prove a thorn in Alonso’s side.

McLaren and Honda may provide some resistance to the French. Jenson Button seemed to drive his Malaysian Grand Prix at the upper limit of Honda’s competitivity, which may limit him to no more than podiums for the time being. But a question mark remains over McLaren. Juan Pablo Montoya has struggled with a down on power engine and persistent understeer, and Kimi Raikkonen has been just plain unlucky. They may yet be quicker than people think.

Mark Webber, Williams BMW, Melbourne, 2005Williams will look to get back to points-scoring ways after their double DNF in Sepang. They must be thinking of targeting at least Felipe Massa’s similarly Bridgestone-shod Ferrari on raw pace. And watch for a burgeoning team mate feud here – if the young Nico Rosberg, who is new to Melbourne, takes the fight to Mark Webber at the Australian’s home race, we could be in for some traditional Williams fraternal firworks.

As scenic a backdrop as Melbourne is for a race, the track has never really produced a legendary battle, just a series of memorable incidents: Jacques Villeneuve’s sparkling 1997 debut; his horror crash with Ralf Schumacher in 2001 that killed marshal Graham Beverdige; and Ralf’s own shunt with Rubens Barrichello in 2002 that eliminated half the field. Only the frenzied 2003 race, won by David Coulthard, can be picked out as truly entertaining.

Ralf Schumacher & Rubens Barrichello, Melbourne, 2002What chance a good race on Sunday? As is increasingly the case these days, a lot hinges on the qualifying session. A grid without the Renaults in the top four would be a good one – especially as their famously good traction off the line would be little help to them in the short run into turn one at Albert Park. Given that, we could be in for a good race.

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