Australian Grand Prix 2007 preview

Australian Grand Prix 2007 circuit diagramWhat a tease! The first race of the year is by its very nature difficult to call because we have only the teams’ testing times to base our assumptions on.

But what makes educated guessing even tougher is the uniqueness of the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne – quite unlike anything else on the calendar.

Still, with a wealth of changes from the front to the back of the grid, the opening Grand Prix will give us a tantalising first glimpse at what promises to be a stellar season.

It’s not a permanent race circuit – but it’s not really a street circuit either. It’s dusty, slippery and ‘green’ like a street track, but with run-off areas and some high-speed straights it’s more like a road course.

The peculiar Melbourne circuit has a habit of throwing up results that go against the grain of the championship – but, being at the start of the season, it’s often difficult to discern that at the time.

Giancarlo Fisichella, Melbourne, Renault, 2005Thus Giancarlo Fisichella took his only victory of the 2005 season at Albert Park; Eddie Irvine his only win from the first half of 1999; ditto David Coulthard in 1997. Last year for the first time the teams arrived for the third race of the year – and many were all at sea due to the unexpected cold weather and corresponding lack of grip.

So whatever happens, don’t set too much store by the result – it could well prove, in retrospect, to have been a fluke.

The general consensus as pre-season testing ended held that Ferrari were quicker than anyone over long runs, but McLaren and perhaps BMW could match them over a single lap. Renault, too, found some crucial extra pace late in the final test and could be a lot closer to the front than was originally expected.

The art of translating testing times into race pace is vitally important and it’s an area which, on paper, Ferrari look weaker than last year – tactical head honcho Ross Brawn having departed.

Fernando Alonso must carry a decent measure of confidence approaching his first race for McLaren – he was the class of the field here last year, keeping his head while countless rivals threw their cars into the wall. This year he is the only man on the grid who truly understand what championships – and champions – are made of.

Savour the twin debuts of Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, making their first Grand Prix starts for front running teams in a once-in-a-generation changing of the guard right at the top of the sport.

There are more ways than ever for a rookie to screw up their debut today. Blow an engine in practice and take a grid penalty, fluff your first qualifying run and get bumped out after the first quarter-hour and so on.

Jacques Villeneuve, Damon Hill, Melbourne, Williams-Renault, 1996But there also the opportunities – chances to take that priceless rookie victory that Jacques Villeneuve came so tantalisingly close to scoring at this very track 11 years ago.

These chances lie in the kinds of finely-balanced tactical choices 2007 F1 presents the drivers. Do you hone your car setup on one of the two tyre compounds, and simply deal with the one stint you have to make on the other compound, or compromise?

Do you make that early first fuel stop knowing that a safety car period (always a likelihood at Melbourne – there were four last year) will punish you even harder than before for it?

Up and down the grid there are more questions. Will Kimi Raikkonen puncture Felipe Massa’s title hopes at their first meeting as team mates? Will Williams embarrass engine supplier Toyota? Will any of the four Red Bulls/Toro Rossos reach the chequered flag?

Melbourne will provide some answers – but certainly not all of them.

F1 is heading into the new, post-Michael Schumacher era. Set your alarm clocks and make sure you don’t miss the start of it.

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