Can Fernando Alonso bolster his championship lead with another win at Melbourne? Might Mark Webber finally get on the podium or even win his home Grand Prix?
F1 heads into the first double-header event of the season with the Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne followed by the trip to Sepang for next week’s Malaysian Grand Prix.
Reasons to be cheerful
Will we see a better race in Melbourne than we did in Bahrain? I think there’s a good chance we will.
The Melbourne track, with its limited run-off and tricky braking zones, tends to invite incidents. And, happily, no one has bolted an ill-advised one kilometre long extension on it which consists entirely of slow, narrow corners.
Turn one is often the scene of first-lap accidents, like last year when Rubens Barrichello ran into Mark Webber. This time we’ve got an extra four cars to funnel through the right-left flick and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one driver’s race lasted no further than the drive to the first corner.
Melbourne often produces stop-start races with several safety car interruptions. Last year there were two, courtesy of Kazuki Nakajima and the Sebastian Vettel-Robert Kubica crash in the dying stages of the race.
Bahrain was a cagey affair – you got the impression that even some of the front-running teams were still exploring the limits of their cars’ performance and avoiding taking risks for fear of ruining their tyres and falling down the field.
But it’s still as hard to pass in F1 as it’s ever been and qualifying will be extremely important.
We could see some very early pit stops this weekend.
At Bahrain teams discovered the best way to make progress in the race was to make your first pit stop as early as you could get away with. Lewis Hamilton, for example, came in as soon as McLaren realised they could slot him into clean air further down the running order, which allowed him to move ahead of Nico Rosberg.
Assuming we get a clean start without a safety car appearance, what will be the earliest lap the front running teams can bring their drivers into the pits?
That will depend partly on how the field is spreading out behind them and when those drivers make their pit stops. It will also depend on how quickly the leaders catch the slowest cars – expect the race leader to catch the HRT duo around lap 12, assuming they’re still running.
Tyre wear will be important as well. Last year Bridgestone brought medium and super-soft tyres, and drivers complained the latter wore out too quickly. This year the tyre choices are soft and hard and that more durable combination may make it possible for teams to do very long stints on one set of tyres. But we’ll have to see how those tyres perform in practice to get an idea if that is the case – especially as the track temperature falls towards the end of the ‘twilight’ race.
As it’s quite likely we could see a safety car deployment on lap one, could drivers pit for tyres then and try to make it to the end on a single set? I think it’s possible – but the scramble into the pits would create problems of its own.
Not only will teams have to turn around both their cars within a few seconds of each other, but the new ‘exclusion zone’ rule in the pits could cause some drivers to lose a lot of places. Teams may only release their cars when there is not another car within a certain distance of them, and with the entire pack streaming into the pits at once it’s not hard to see how one unfortunate driver might lose a lot of positions.
(Looking ahead, we may see the FIA discourage this by copying the rule used in GP2 which says that a pit stop taken within the first few laps does not count as the mandatory pit stop a driver must take. A better solution would be to remove the requirement for each driver to use both types of tyre during a race, but I digress.)
Drivers to watch
Four driver to keep an eye on this weekend. Name your top picks in the comments.
Mark Webber – How can it be that Mark Webber’s best result in his home Grand Prix is still the fifth place he scored for Minardi in 2002 (which he matched at Williams in 2005)? He has had some miserable luck at Melbourne, not least his gearbox failure while leading in 2006 and being taken out at turn one last year.
The Red Bull RB6 is clearly quick but Webber failed to capitalise on its performance in qualifying at Bahrain. This weekend the pressure will be on him not just to perform in front of his home crowd, but also to get on terms with Sebastian Vettel.
Robert Kubica – Another driver who is owed a result here after his tangle with Vettel last year and being taken out by Kazuki Nakajima in 2008.
His first outing for Renault was frustrated by a first-lap collision but he showed good pace in the R30 and ran a longer stint than anyone else did. Surely the driver most likely to break into the ‘big four’.
Felipe Massa – Beat Alonso in qualifying but lost out to him in the race. Needs to hit back while the F10 is still the class of the field.
Paul di Resta – Set to make his first appearance as a test driver at Force India in free practice one on Friday. His planned first appearance at Bahrain was cancelled as the team wanted to run their race drivers having lost so much preparation time due to rain during in pre-season testing.
The Australian Grand Prix on F1 Fanatic
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