Melbourne season-opener looks set to be close

2013 Australian Grand Prix preview

Start, Melbourne, 2012The 12 days of pre-season testing gave few clues as to how the field will line up for the first race of the season on Sunday.

There appears to be little to separate the top teams and the leading five have all been tipped as potential contenders for victory.

But it’s in the nature of Formula One to produce surprises and keep us guessing. The possibility that one of them might produce an upgrade that pulls them a few tenths ahead of the chasing pack can’t be ruled out.

The usual difficulty of reading anything from testing was exacerbated by the new tyres supplied by Pirelli. Designed to degrade quickly but in a more predictable fashion than the fickle 2012 compounds, they were unsuited to the cool conditions most of testing was run in. Once graining set in they went off quickly, hampering teams’ efforts to cover useful testing mileage.

The weather in Melbourne should suit them better but drivers still expect the tyres to give them a hard time. They may also serve to limit the amount of laps they can cover during practice.

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 Medium and Super Soft

*Fastest lap set during a Grand Prix

Melbourne track data in full

Pirelli have brought their super-soft tyres to this race for the first time. How well they stand up to a race stint will shape strategy for Sunday. Some teams didn’t even bother running them in testing.

For those hoping to get an accurate read on the state of the playing field, Melbourne only ever gives an incomplete picture. The temporary circuit is unlike most of those on the calendar in terms of surface and configuration.

Qualifying will have a slightly different look this year with six cars being eliminated in Q1 and a further six in Q2. Caterham and Marussia are unlikely to escape the clutches of Q1 yet but it’s hard to pick which of their rivals might join them in a first-round exit.

However with tyres that degrade more quickly, the strategic benefit of being eliminated early in qualifying and saving fresh sets of tyres will be heightened.

We’ll also get our first impression of whether the revised approach to DRS will have any effect on overtaking. Drivers may only use it in the designated zones – of which there are two at this track – at all times, instead of having free use of it in practice and qualifying.

The race at Melbourne is often shaped by incidents. First-lap crashes are a common occurrence, as are safety car deployments. The race concludes in the late afternoon, with low rays of sunlight creating an additional hazard for the drivers.

Australian Grand Prix team-by-team preview

Red Bull

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Circuit de Catalunya, 2013All eyes will be on the world champions to see if they spring any surprises after a very low-key winter. Will the Drag Reductions Device seen during testing at the Circuit de Catalunya make an appearance?

Mark Webber scored a best-ever fourth in his home Grand Prix last year but he will be eager to make his first appearance on the podium in this race.

Ferrari

Returning to Melbourne will bring back memories of the team’s struggle with the woeful F2012 twelve months ago, when neither driver made it into Q3.

Testing suggests Ferrari have avoided a repeat of that, so expect Fernando Alonso to be the hunt. And we’ll find out if Felipe Massa is still in the same great shape he was at the end of last year.

McLaren

Jenson Button has won this race three times in the last four years. Another win would tie him with Michael Schumacher for most Australian Grand Prix wins.

But McLaren are still struggling to understand their new car. Though convinced it has potential, the winners of the last two races feel they may not be at peak competitiveness from the off. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh said he’d be happy with a points finish.

Sergio Perez will make his debut as a McLaren driver and we’ll get our first impression of how he’s coming to terms with life at the sharp end of the grid.

Lotus

The Lotus E21 is another car which is expected to be among the front-runners this weekend. But there are question marks over its reliability following a series of problems in testing. The team expects that racing in warmer conditions will prevent a recurrence.

Romain Grosjean ended last year under a cloud. In Brazil he tangled with another car in qualifying and crashed out on lap six – exactly the sort of wasted weekend he needs to avoid this year.

Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Circuit de Catalunya, 2013Mercedes have been a major focus of attention during the off-season due to the arrival of Lewis Hamilton, changes in their management and technical team, and their pace in testing.

Hamilton has been at pains to play down expectations ahead of his first race with the team – after all, they were a second off the pace at the shortest track on the calendar at the end of last year.

This race weekend will give us our first insight into whether they can challenge for race wins this year or if Hamilton’s going to have to settle for a season of making up the numbers.

Sauber

Nico Hulkenberg’s key objective on his third visit to Melbourne has to be surviving the first lap unscathed. Incidents ended both his previous races at this track.

Team mate Esteban Gutierrez is concentrating on qualifying well and staying out of trouble in his first F1 start.

Force India

Paul di Resta said he’s enjoyed his best-ever build-up to a new season despite the team taking until the final test to decide on his team mate.

It didn’t take long for Adrian Sutil to look at home at Force India again and he should be on his team mate’s pace from the off.

Williams

Williams have had four days’ less running with their car than all the other teams. They will continue to catch up by running aerodynamic tests on Friday to decide which of their two performance upgrades to use for the race.

Pastor Maldonado is always one to watch on circuits like this and was on course for a good result last year before crashing out on the last lap.

Toro Rosso

Daniel Ricciardo scored points in his home race last year despite being involved in the turn one melee. Toro Rosso are expecting a significant step forward from their 2012 car and will be disappointed if they find themselves among the Q1 rejects again.

Caterham

Team principal Cyril Abiteboul has played down expectations ahead of the first race of the season, saying the team will come on strong once their upgrade package for the CT03 has arrived.

Marussia

Jules Bianchi, Marussia, Circuit de Catalunya, 2013The contest at the tail end of the field is likely to be all about this team and Caterham again. However they seemed to be on a par with each other in testing so keep an eye out for what should be a close scrap between Jules Bianchi and Charles Pic in qualifying.

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Who do you think will be the team to beat in the Australian Grand Prix? Have your say below.

And don’t forget to enter your predictions for this weekend’s race. You can edit your predictions until the start of qualifying:

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14 comments on Melbourne season-opener looks set to be close

  1. Bullfrog (@bullfrog) said on 14th March 2013, 10:00

    What’s the betting that all these drivers who are trying to stay out of trouble crash into each other?

  2. jh1806 (@jh1806) said on 14th March 2013, 10:13

    I’m predicting a few ‘underdogs’ will do well this weekend. People like Grosjean and Maldonado.

  3. sumedh said on 14th March 2013, 10:24

    I have a feeling Vettel is gonna run away with this race.

  4. Ninjenius (@ninjenius) said on 14th March 2013, 10:26

    In fact, it’s going to be so close that the article’s top-most picture is actually a prediction of how the final lap will begin.

    • Ilanin (@ilanin) said on 14th March 2013, 10:55

      I had a brief moment of “wait, how did Keith manage to find a picture without the HRTs in?” before remembering that HRT didn’t qualify for the Australian Grand Prix last year…something which people wanting to illustrate 2013 previews are probably very grateful for now.

    • Shreyas Mohanty (@) said on 14th March 2013, 16:35

      Woah, obviously the last lap isn’t gonna start like that. The last lap is usually 2-3 at the front..a group of cars about 5-7 behind the first car secs in the middle..and the last ones with over 30 sec gaps.

  5. Aditya F. Yahya (@adityafakhri) said on 14th March 2013, 10:26

    I do have a same amount of hope and concern of the Lotus E21. The car is quick, obviously. But the dependence with the temperature is a bit worrying.

    The Lotus E21 is another car which is expected to be among the front-runners this weekend. But there are question marks over its reliability following a series of problems in testing. The team expects that racing in warmer conditions will prevent a recurrence.

    What if it’s raining or massive clouds hampered above the track?

  6. Colossal Squid (@colossal-squid) said on 14th March 2013, 12:49

    I’ve got a feeling that Lotus will be much more competitive than last year and the top 3 of previous years (RBR, Ferrari, McLaren) will become the top 4, with all scoring regular victories. Kimi will have blown away the cobwebs this time, and Grosjean will hopefully have matured enough to keep clean at the start. So I’m gonna say Kimi Raikkonen for an unlikely victory this weekend!

  7. Xujun Zhang (@endofworld2012) said on 14th March 2013, 13:45

    kimi will win at this weekend!

  8. HoHum (@hohum) said on 14th March 2013, 14:35

    Having fedall this information into the “Infinite Improbability” machine, I allready know exactly what is going to happen, but I wont spoil it for you, just don’t stick your neck out.

  9. Pelican (@pelican) said on 14th March 2013, 21:11

    I’m kind of afraid all the teams will go conservative because they won’t actually know how the tires work at normal summer temperatures, making the race somewhat dull.

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