Mark Webber, Red Bull, Melbourne, 2011

Melbourne will give first clues whether 2012 will be as close as it looks

2012 Australian Grand Prix previewPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

A shorter-than-usual off-season means the first race of the year has come around more quickly.

Will all the teams be ready for the start of 2012?

Testing indicated they will be more closely-matched this year and anticipation is building that this year’s championship could be much more competitive than last year’s.

It’s time to find out what the new season has in store.

What to expect in Melbourne

Melbourne circuit information

Lap length 5.303km (3.295 miles)
Distance 58 laps (307.6km/191.1 miles)
Lap record* 1’24.125 (Michael Schumacher, 2004)
Fastest lap 1’23.529 (Sebastian Vettel, 2011)
Tyres Hard and Soft

*Fastest lap set during a Grand Prix

Melbourne track data in full

Albert Park in Melbourne may give our first clues about how the season will unfold, but it won’t give us the full picture.

The circuit is not quite typical of modern F1 tracks. Being a temporary facility, it takes a while for the grip to develop over a race weekend.

The corners are for the most part quite slow, which doesn’t place the same premium on aerodynamic efficiency that most circuits do.

However the combination of a tricky surface and limited run-off in places can often make for exciting races and more than a few safety car appearances.

Last year’s race was unusual in that the safety car was never deployed – something which happened in the previous three Australian Grands Prix.

Red Bull

Mark Webber, Red Bull, Melbourne, 2011
Webber finished fifth at home for the third time last year
Last year Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull were the masters of locking out pole position on Saturday and then running off into the distance on race day.

Those tactics may not have made for spectacular races but no-one doubted their effectiveness.

This year tighter restrictions on exhaust-blown diffusers and front wing flexibility could undermine Red Bull’s ability to dominate races the way they did last year. Melbourne will give us our first indication whether that’s the case.

The race is the tenth anniversary of Mark Webber’s F1 debut. Yet his best result at home remains the fifth place he scored in that maiden appearance for Minardi, which he’s matched on two occasions since.

“The Grand Prix is one of the best sporting events that we have in Australia,” said Webber.

“It?s great to see the support and Australian flags in the crowd. I?ve incorporated more of an Australian theme into my helmet, which I?ll be using for the whole year, not just in Australia.”

McLaren

Testing suggested McLaren will be Red Bull’s closest rivals to begin with – but we all know how unreliable a guide testing can be.

But the team which made poor starts to two of its last three F1 campaigns look in better shape as they head into 2012.

Lewis Hamilton was a distant second to Vettel in last year’s race. The signs are it could be a closer contest between the two teams this year.

Ferrari

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Barcelona, 2012
Will Alonso's F2012 prove fast or flawed?
Intense speculation surrounds Ferrari’s F2012, which looked a handful in testing.

Is it a bold new concept with a narrow sweet spot which needs a little more testing time? Or is this car simply as fast as it is pretty?

Melbourne has not been a kind track to Fernando Alonso since he joined Ferrari. He’s run into trouble at the first corner in the last two races.

This weekend could be a case of keeping out of trouble, bringing home some points, and hoping the car has more to offer later in the year.

Mercedes

There’s a real buzz around Mercedes’ prospects this year – a sense that as they head into the third season since taking over the team, things are finally started to come right.

The W03 looks purposeful and quick, and if Ferrari have stumbled Mercedes will surely be there to take their place as the next closest challenger to Red Bull and McLaren.

However the fact remains this car has had less testing than most of its’ rivals, and it may take a little longer to come good.

Lotus

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus, Barcelona, 2012
Raikkonen has returned to lead Lotus
Kimi Raikkonen makes his long-awaited and much-anticipated return to F1 this weekend.

“For the first race in Australia we want to have a good weekend without any major issues or mistakes,” he said.

“I don?t know where we?re going to be on the grid ?ǣ nobody knows. If you look at the lap times from testing everybody is very close to each other.”

Getting a read on Lotus’s potential this weekend is made more difficult by their uneven testing form. They lost four days’ running due to a suspension mounting problem but the E20 looked quick in the other two tests.

Force India

Another driver making his F1 comeback this weekend is Nico Hulkenberg. His single previous race at the track ended when he was taken out by Kamui Kobayashi halfway around the first lap.

Vijay Mallya has high hopes of his team heading into the first race: “Andrew Green and his technical team have done an outstanding job to deliver a well-balanced car.

“I would even go as far as saying the VJM05 is the best engineered car we have produced and the detail of the design is beautiful. It?s a car we believe can help us take another step forward.”

Sauber

Sauber have bad memories of last year’s race: both cars finished in the points but were thrown out following a technical infringement.

The team have their sights set on consistent points-scoring throughout the season. That could prove a tall order in the tightly-packed midfield.

Toro Rosso

Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso, Barcelona, 2012
Jean-Eric Vergne will make his F1 debut for Toro Rosso
The arrival of Daniel Ricciardo means there will be two Australians on the grid for their home race for the first time ever.

“It’s cool. I mean, just to be a part of that I think is amazing,” he said.

“I’m just going to try to use all the positiveness out of the weekend, all those Aussie flags I see I’ll get an extra bit of energy and then obviously try and put the result on the track.”

Williams

Bruno Senna had his HRT up in the dizzying heights of 14th place on his sole previous visit to Melbourne – before his hydraulics died on lap five.

Williams endured a miserable 2011 and this race will give us the first clue whether they’re on course for better things this year.

Caterham

It’s highly unlikely Vitaly Petrov will be in a position to repeat his 2011 Melbourne podium with his new team Caterham.

But as Petrov notes this is a track that has a reputation for producing unpredictable races and could offer them some opportunities:

“I think it?s pretty clear we won?t be in a position to fight for a podium again but I think the goal will be to push the midfield teams as hard as we can and who knows what could happen.

“Usually there are quite a few retirements in Australia, and there are a couple of areas of the track that don?t leave any room for error, so I hope we?re there at the end of the race and able to take advantage of whatever’s happened ahead.”

HRT

Narain Karthikeyan, HRT, Barcelona, 2012
For the first time, HRT have run their new car before round one
Last year HRT ran their new car for the first time in practice in Australia.

This time around they have at least shaken their car down, though they didn’t make it as far as pre-season testing.

Marussia

Marussia also failed to get any significant running with their car before the start of the year, so they’ll be up against it in Melbourne.

That particularly goes for rookie Charles Pic, who’s had just two days of running in last year’s car since signing for the team in November.

Are you going to the Australian Grand Prix?

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Image ?? Red Bull/Getty images, Ferrari spa/Ercole Colombo, Lotus F1 Team/LAT, Red Bull/Getty images, HRT F1 Team