F1 steps into the unknown in Melbourne

2014 Australian Grand Prix preview

Start, Melbourne, 2013Formula One draws a deep, collective breath and plunges into a season-opening weekend overflowing with unknowns and uncertainties.

As eagerly anticipated as the first race of the year always is, this Sunday may well produce the most intriguing and unpredictable 58 laps of action that the sport has ever seen around the Albert Park circuit.

This weekend’s event marks the sport’s first real step into its brave new V6 turbo era, while a series of additional tweaks and changes to the sport mean this Australian Grand Prix will have a remarkably different feel this time around.

Radically new engines coupled with radical rule changes mean a new form of racing awaits the thousands of fans who will venture to Melbourne and the millions who will tune in across the globe.

But while testing has provided some insight into the potential results of this weekend’s action, it remains to be seen how many of the 22 cars entered in this season-opening event will even reach the chequered flag on Sunday.

Albert Park 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 Soft

*Fastest lap set during a Grand Prix

Albert Park track data in full

Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit plays host to another new beginning for Formula One. The circuit provides an interesting mix of medium-to-high speed sweeping turns and slower 90 degree corners that often manages to conjure up a storm of overtaking, incident and drama. However it tends not to give a reliable indication of the season to come – recall Kimi Raikkonen’s sole victory of the season here last year.

As a pseudo-street circuit, the close proximity of barriers combined with a general lack of grip yet one of the highest average lap speeds on the calendar mean mistakes around Albert Park rarely go unpunished. And with drivers still getting to grips with the formidable torque of the new turbo engines, expect to see the cars getting away from their drivers.

While engines will likely dominate the talk this weekend, tyres remain as important as ever and Pirelli have opted for an understandably conservative approach with the medium and soft compounds for this opening race.

Given their high-profile testing difficulties, it’s easy to forget that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull arrive in Melbourne on the back of a record-breaking nine race winning streak. But that incredible run is now meaningless as the sport all but begins anew this weekend.

Testing times may only tell so much about the form of the teams heading into round one, but it would not be at all surprising if whoever claims the first victory of this newest turbo era does so using Mercedes power.

Australian Grand Prix team-by-team preview

Red Bull

Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, Bahrain, 2014Four consecutive constructor’s championships. Four consecutive driver’s championships. Nine consecutive race victories. And counting.

But such a staggering run of achievement does not change the fact that the Red Bull machine heads to Melbourne far less confident about its performance than it would like to be, following a highly frustrating pre-season plagued by breakdowns and setbacks.

Vettel begins his quest for a record-equalling fifth straight title at a circuit at which he has taken three pole positions but only – by his remarkable standards – a single victory, in 2011.

Daniel Ricciardo begins his career as a newly-promoted Red Bull Racing driver at his home grand prix. But while many of the local fans will be hoping to see the Australian achieve what his predecessor Mark Webber never could and take a podium in front of his home fans, Ricciardo and his new team say they will be satisfied merely to finish in the points.

Mercedes

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Bahrain, 2014Having covered more kilometres than any other team in testing, and run consistently, quickly and relatively trouble-free, Mercedes head to Melbourne knowing they have the best chance of any of the 11 teams to take first honours this weekend.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg will realise that whichever finishes ahead of the other this Sunday may well be the one to take the 25 points. But despite a highly positive pre-season, there’s no guarantee that both – or either – of the Silver Arrows will be able to complete the 58 laps trouble-free. They had problems on both the last two days of testing.

Hamilton has a single Australian win under his belt – during his championship season in 2008 – and Rosberg’s only podium appearance at Melbourne was alongside Hamilton that same year.

Ferrari

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, Bahrain, 2014What could be a golden age for Ferrari begins this weekend with the dream line-up of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen called into action for the first time.

After a reasonable pre-season showing, Ferrari know that a healthy early points haul – especially with rivals Red Bull beginning on the back foot – could well prove vital in what will be a long season of development.

Despite five trips to the Albert Park podium in his career, including victory in 2006, Alonso is yet to reach the top step at Melbourne in Ferrari colours. New team mate Raikkonen begins his second stint at Ferrari at the same circuit at which he started his first, in winning fashion, in 2007. Repeating that feat this weekend, however, may prove difficult.

Lotus

A woeful pre-season testing period coupled with very public financial difficulties and high-profile personnel departures does not bode well for the team that won this very race just 12 months ago.

While Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado have both had impressive runs in Melbourne in previous years, victories and podium finishes are both well and truly out of the question this time around.

“The aim is to finish the race and maybe score points,” admitted Grosjean. “We’re not yet in the place we want to be competitively, but we will be there to compete and you never know what could happen with everyone else too.”

McLaren

Kevin Magnussen, McLaren, Bahrain, 2014Following their worst season in decades, McLaren attempt to bounce back in 2014 with a renewed focus. One familiar face is back at the top of the team – Ron Dennis – while new recruit Eric Boullier arrives from Lotus to take charge of the day-to-day running.

From their testing form, it seems McLaren will be back in contention for podiums once again from the very first race. Jenson Button prepares to start his 15th Australian grand prix having been on pole here twice before and taken victory in three of the last five races at Albert Park. A fourth victory may be difficult to achieve, but a podium seems a possibility.

Button’s new team mate and 2014’s first rookie Kevin Magnussen makes his grand prix debut at a circuit he has never driven before, but will have arrived in Melbourne full of confidence after recording some impressive times in testing.

Force India

Sergio Perez, Force India, Bahrain, 2014After a solid performance in testing, Force India prepare for Melbourne knowing this could well be the most important – and successful – season in their history.

With the Mercedes engine clearly performing best of the three suppliers at this early stage of the season and arguably their most impressive driver line-up to date, Force India have a real opportunity to take some strong points at this opening round.

Sergio Perez will be keen to try and prove that McLaren were wrong to let him go at the end of last season by beating the McLarens around a circuit at which he has often impressed.

However the first order of business for Nico Hulkenberg’s is to ensure he’s still on the track on lap two. He has retired before that point on each of his three race starts at Albert Park.

“They say bad luck comes in groups of three so hopefully attempt number four will work out better,” he said.

Sauber

Sauber prepare for the opening round of this season’s championship appearing about as strong as they did heading into the first race of 2013 – albeit this year without their most powerful asset in Hulkenberg.

While the team did not suffer as many mechanical issues in testing as some of its rivals, the C33 is clearly not the best performing car that Sauber have produced, so a solid two-car finish will be the goal with points an added bonus.

Esteban Gutierrez needs to make a fresh start after an underwhelming rookie year. New team mate Adrian Sutil’s 110th race start will be his first in a car manufactured somewhere other than Silverstone.

Toro Rosso

Jean-Eric Vergne, Toro Rosso, Bahrain, 2014It’s likely to be business as usual for Toro Rosso during the first race weekend of this new-look Formula One with the team seemingly set to take its traditional place in the midfield.

Now in his third F1 season, Jean-Eric Vergne arrives in Melbourne for the first time as team leader and will be looking for a positive start to the year at a circuit where, by his own admission, he has not done as well as he would like.

Russia’s newest F1 rookie Daniil Kvyat gets his first opportunity to prove to the world that Red Bull made the right decision in picking him for Daniel Ricciardo’s vacated Toro Rosso seat over Antonio Felix da Costa.

“It should be very interesting and I can’t wait to be on the grid for my first grand prix,” says Kvyat.

Williams

Williams FW36 - Martini livery reveal, 2014Williams begin 2014 with a smart new livery but the transformation at the team is more than skin deep. Several astute technical hirings, the signing of Felipe Massa from from Ferrari and an impressive pre-season campaign has looks to have rejuvenated this historic team.

If their strong testing form holds true for this first race weekend, Williams may well leave Melbourne with more points from the first race of 2014 than they accrued throughout the entire 2013 season.

Valtteri Bottas heads into his second season looking to build on his impressive performances during the final races of last season with points at a circuit he has only driven once before.

Meanwhile Massa will make his first race start powered by something that isn’t a Ferrari, and he seems to have chosen the perfect time to make the switch.

Marussia

Fresh from their tenth place finish in the constructor’s championship in 2013, Marussia will undoubtedly see this weekend as their best opportunity to finally break free from the rear of the grid and begin to feature in the midfield.

But a spate of mechanical problems in testing means that the first priority will be to get the cars to the finish first, then worry about positions.

Max Chilton’s spotless finishing record will face its toughest test this weekend, while Jules Bianchi will endeavour to replicate the impressive performance he delivered in his grand prix debut here last year.

Caterham

Marcus Ericsson, Caterham, Bahrain, 2014A critical season for Caterham begins in less than ideal circumstances with the team having suffered in testing from the same teething problems with engine reliability as its fellow Renault-powered teams.

With F1 returnee Kamui Kobayashi admitting that the unsightly CT05 is not particularly fast, simply reaching the chequered flag will likely be the goal for this first weekend.

But will not dampen rookie Marcus Ericsson’s spirits as he anticipates to what will undoubtedly be a challenging grand prix debut. “We’ve done everything we can to prepare, but, honestly, I don’t think you can ever prepare for what it’ll feel like in the car, sitting on the grid as the lights go out in my debut race,” said Ericsson, Sweden’s first F1 driver since 1991.

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2014 Australian Grand Prix

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Images © Red Bull/Getty, Ferrari/Ercole Colombo, McLaren/Hoch Zwei,

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22 comments on F1 steps into the unknown in Melbourne

  1. Aimal (@aimalkhan) said on 12th March 2014, 15:57

    Could Redbull do a Mclaren 2011 and surprise us all at the first race? I hope not.

    • iFuel said on 12th March 2014, 16:03

      I wish they would… be competitive, but not champions, and more importantly, having their “nº2″ driver performing better than the 1st.. I would love

    • Steven (@steevkay) said on 12th March 2014, 18:24

      I wonder if the performance gain would be that simple? In 2011, it was the octo-exhaust and the impact on car packaging/cooling that caused their woes in testing.

      I’d liken RBR’s situation more to McLaren of 2009, when they turned that MP4-24 into a race winner by the end of season. If they can limit the damage to the first few races, then RBR would definitely still be in contention, especially if the car’s aero design is as well thought out as pundits say. If they’re amonst the fastest by end of season, then the double-points finale may play into their hands.

  2. Force Maikel (@force-maikel) said on 12th March 2014, 15:58

    Wouldn’t mind seeing a three way battle between Mercedes, Williams and Ferrari, throw a McLaren or a Force India in the mix and we might have a thriller.

  3. Shimks (@shimks) said on 12th March 2014, 16:20

    A brilliantly written article. My excitement is building to umbearable levels!

  4. The Blade Runner (@thebladerunner) said on 12th March 2014, 16:28

    This is the best team-by-team, new season introducing article I have seen this year.

    If I get any more excited then I might need to lie down!

  5. matt90 (@matt90) said on 12th March 2014, 16:34

    I generally dislike pseudo street circuits, but there’s something about Melbourne which gives it a pass. It might be the atmosphere, the unpredictability, the scenery or something else, but I can’t wait.

    I’m praying it’s dry though. I want to see what these cars can do, both overall and in relation to one another. I want to see how much of an impact fuel saving is likely to actually have. Rain would surely provide a great start to the season, but I’m too curious to know what a dry race will be like.

    • The Blade Runner (@thebladerunner) said on 12th March 2014, 16:35

      I know what you’re saying. If it rains the race may end up resembling “Wacky Races”…

    • Steven (@steevkay) said on 12th March 2014, 18:26

      While I am curious to see the cars running at 100% in the dry, I’m also very curious to see wet performance, since the drivers have already mentioned the increased importance of throttle control in the dry.

      Maybe we’ll get a mix! Hopefully a part wet/part dry GP (didn’t Jenson get his victory in changeable conditions here?) as those are typically the most interesting races!

    • checked the weather update , there is a 40% chance of Rain for Sunday and 20% for Quali , so we might get a Dry-Wet race.
      In terms of temp expect Baharin like temp for Friday and Saturday, but much cooler on Sunday with a 5pm (local) start, temp should be around 20^C , so cooling might not be a issue

  6. andae23 (@andae23) said on 12th March 2014, 16:56

    it remains to be seen how many of the 22 cars entered in this season-opening event will even reach the chequered flag on Sunday.

    There has been a lot of talk about this. Some teams have stated that if you finish, it’s very likely you will also get points, meaning that teams will probably be even more conservative. That’s why I think the number of finishers won’t be so spectacularly low as some expect it to be.

  7. Sam Andrew said on 12th March 2014, 17:00

    I’m excited, but lets hope the cars are not so unreliable and undrivable when driven hard that we just see lots of red flags :|

  8. BarnstableD (@barnstabled) said on 12th March 2014, 17:15

    What do we think the chances are of some teams not making the 107% qualifying time needed to race? (That’s still a rule, right?)

    • sauzedoulx (@sauzedoulx) said on 12th March 2014, 17:49

      I reckon pretty high, but that the stewards discretion will be fairly lenient this weekend so the effect won’t be a tiny grid on Sunday, making it a bit of a non story…

    • Steven (@steevkay) said on 12th March 2014, 18:29

      I think we can still expect the Caterhams/Marussias to be floating around that level, but I don’t really expect it to be enforced, since it is a decision at the race director and/or stewards’ discretion. If I recall correctly, there have been instances in the past few years where the backmarker teams have fallen behind 107% but were still allowed to race (I can only think of HRT, to be honest…)

    • George (@george) said on 12th March 2014, 18:45

      I think it’s unlikely unless they have serious engine issues in quali, they were generally inside the 107% rule in testing.

  9. Gridlock (@gridlock) said on 12th March 2014, 17:57

    Given their high-profile testing difficulties, it’s easy to forget that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull arrive in Melbourne on the back of a record-breaking nine race winning streak. But that incredible run is now meaningless as the sport all but begins anew this weekend.

    It won’t be meaningless if he manages 10 in a row across one of the most significant rule evolutions ever, will it?

    • Robbie (@robbie) said on 12th March 2014, 18:40

      Yeah, I’m guessing the meaning is there that of course it will go in the record books. But it can’t be compared to the last chapter in F1, as this is a totally new era…kind of like comparing qualifying performances from one year to the next after totally changing the format. The numbers can be compared, sure, as in number of poles, or number of times beating one’s teammate in quali, but beyond that the format was totally different in how the numbers were achieved.

      But you are absolutely right, @gridlock especially after their testing woes, combined with the revolutionary (not evolutionary) changes, if SV were to win that would be epic for him and the team. And if some would want to put an asterisk beside his name to signify how the number 10 was achieved, just as many would put a gold star there instead.

  10. antifia (@antifia) said on 12th March 2014, 19:06

    The effort made by the big wigs to shake the pecking order in F1 in order to create more excitement in 2014 may well backfire big time. There is the reliability issue and the formula endurance issue (with drivers doing long portions of the race in severe fuel saving mode). In addition, it may not solve the problem of having one dominant team at all – Mercedes could well emerge ridiculously over competitive, to the point of winning races with a couple of laps over the rest. And the lack of excitement problem was somewhat overblown – 2010 an 2012 were decided by less points than what separates a 1st place from a 2nd in a single single-points race. Oh yeah, and if all else fails, we will have double points Abu Dhabi, of all places. The only thing that may make some think that all is forgiven is the fact that the guy winning is likely to be Lewis (I’ve seen people deriding seasons like 2004 and 2013, but it is rare to see folks here giving 1992 the same treatment…).

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