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
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
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.
Having 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.
What 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.
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.”
Following 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
A 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,