For four long months, Formula One fans have been sitting idle on Sunday afternoons, not quite knowing how to fill the two hour gap left by Grand Prix racing in the off-season. But now, at long last, the wait for a return to F1 action is over. The season gets underway this weekend in Melbourne, Australia.
The first race of the season is always an exciting prospect. It’s impossible to know for sure who will be competitive based on pre-season testing, as the teams never give away exactly what their testing programme entails. Until qualifying on Saturday, any predictions of form are largely guess-work. By the end of Sunday, however, there will be a clearer picture of the pecking order.
Pirelli are bringing their P Zero White medium and P Zero Red supersoft tyres to Melbourne. It is the first time this particular combination of tyres is being used in Australia and it should make for interesting pit strategies. In particular, the supersoft tyre is likely to wear quickly on the abrasive surface of the temporary Albert Park circuit. There is a strong emphasis on traction out of the slower corners, which puts great strain on the rear tyres and can lead to severe degradation.
For qualifying, the supersoft tyre will be the tyre of choice if the session is dry. But while the supersoft tyre will be quicker than the medium tyre, it will also wear much faster on heavy fuel at the start of the race, which will necessitate early pitstops for drivers who elect to run on the supersoft in Q3. There is therefore the distinct possibility that drivers who progress to Q3 in qualifying but do not expect to challenge for pole position might use the medium tyre to set their grid time or perhaps not run in Q3 at all.
Pirelli are expecting two to three pitstops per car in the race. The number of stops will largely be determined by the behaviour of the two compounds in the race. If the supersoft tyre wears too quickly, the teams are likely to use the medium tyre for most of the race, which would suit a two-stop strategy. If the supersoft tyre lasts longer than expected, a three-stop strategy could be worthwhile, particularly as there is expected to be a significant performance advantage on the supersoft tyre over the medium compound.
Circuit Length: 5.303 km
Race laps: 58
Race length: 307.574 km
Lap Record: 1:24.125 – Michael Schumacher / Ferrari (2004)
Race winner: Jenson Button / McLaren
Pole position: Lewis Hamilton / McLaren – 1:24.922
Fastest lap: Jenson Button / McLaren – 1:29.187
- For six of the last ten seasons, the winner in Australia has gone on to win the World Championship.
- 2012 Australian Grand Prix winner Jenson Button has won the race three times and will equal Michael Schumacher’s record of four wins if he triumphs on Sunday.
- McLaren is the most successful constructor in Australian Grand Prix history, with twelve wins including the 1970 non-championship race. Their nearest competitor is Ferrari with 10 wins including three non-championship races in the 1950s.
Friday practice is expected to be dry, with the sun shining down on Albert Park and temperatures in the mid-twenties centigrade forecast. Saturday brings the possibility of rain for third practice and qualifying, with a 20% chance of precipitation in the afternoon and early evening. The race on Sunday is expected to be dry.
The impact of a potentially wet qualifying session is significant. A dry race requires a dry setup for qualifying, which will compromise wet weather performance. The chance of a wet session is not high, but if it does rain there could be 22 cars slipping and sliding around in conditions that do not suit the dry weather setups.
McLaren and Jenson Button have a very strong record in Melbourne. Button has won two out of the three races he has contested at Albert Park for McLaren and also won the race in 2009 for the Brawn team in his championship-winning season.
McLaren have had a strong pre-season and look like they should be competitive in 2013. Their car is generally suited to circuits like Albert Park, made up mostly of slow to medium-speed corners with an emphasis on traction off the corners. The Mercedes engine in the McLaren is ideal for blasting from corner to corner and, if McLaren’s form from last year is anything to go by, the MP4-28 should be strong aerodynamically, which is important in the middle sector of the Melbourne circuit.
With the departure of Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, Button is now the team leader at McLaren. He will be well aware that a win in the first race of the season would further emphasise that position and establish him as the team’s primary title contender.
Jenson Button has won the season opening Grand Prix in Australia. Button led McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton into the first corner and was never challenged from then on, as the McLarens translated their qualifying pace into blistering race pace.
Michael Schumacher passed Romain Grosjean into the first corner to take third, but was unable to keep pace with Button and Hamilton, who quickly pulled out a commanding lead. Schumacher was quickly under pressure from Vettel’s Red Bull, but a gearbox failure for Schumacher ended what was becoming an entertaining battle. Schumacher’s team-mate Nico Rosberg had a flying start to be fourth on the opening lap, but then struggled with to keep pace with the leaders, running eighth towards the end of the race before a problem on the final lap dropped him down to twelfth.
The Red Bull pair of Vettel and Webber were much stronger in the race than their qualifying pace had suggested. Vettel had a good start to beat Webber off the line and, after Schumacher retired, spent some time hunting down the McLarens. Button was too quick for the Red Bulls, but Vettel managed to pass Lewis Hamilton in the second round of pit stops, aided by the safety car that came out when Vitaly Petrov’s Caterham stopped on the pit straight.
After Ferrari lacked pace in qualifying, Alonso and Massa were both expected to struggle in the race, but Alonso put in a typically determined performance to finish fifth, behind the McLarens and Red Bulls. Massa was less competitive, fighting out of the points with the Saubers and Toro Rossos. His race ended in a collision with Bruno Senna. Senna had executed quite a neat pass round the outside of turn 4, but Massa gave him no space on the exit of the corner and crashed into the side of the Williams. It meant an early shower for both drivers.
Williams showed good pace, with Pastor Maldonado harrying Fernando Alonso until the final lap of the race, when Maldonado made a small mistake on the exit of turn 6 of the final lap and ended up in the wall. It was an unfortunate end to a strong race for the Williams team, but perhaps necessary experience for Maldonado.
There was disappointment for Romain Grosjean, who had a slow start and then found himself fighting with Maldonado. Contact when Maldonado passed the Lotus broke Grosjean’s right front suspension, which was the end of his race. After a very strong qualifying performance, it was disappointing to see Grosjean out so quickly, but team-mate Kimi Raikkonen showed what the Lotus can do, fighting through the field from 17th on the grid to finish seventh.
Mclaren will go away from Australia with confidence after a clinical and commanding performance. Red Bull look like they may be able to challenge the McLarens, but there is a gap back to Mercedes, Ferrari and Lotus. Williams may be in there somewhere as well. The front of the grid has certainly tightened up compared to last year. It looks like the season will be very close.
Formula One now heads to Malaysia for the second race next week.
HRT have failed to qualify for tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix. It’s the second year in succession that the Spanish team has not made the grid for the season opener. It’s time to ask the question: why are they there?
Formula One is a sport. In sport, winning is the target. In two seasons so far HRT have failed to make any noticeable progress whatsoever. For the third season in succession they have missed pre-season testing completely, and it shows on the track. Today the two cars were over six seconds off the pace in qualifying, which put them outside the 107% time and therefore out of tomorrow’s race. They have made no strides at all towards the midfield, nevermind the front of the grid.
Contrast this story with that Caterham. After starting right at the back of the field, with HRT and Virgin (now Marussia) in 2010, the team previously known as Lotus has steadily progressed towards fighting in the midfield. In qualifying today, Heikki Kovalainen was only a second slower than the Ferrari of Felipe Massa. That is an indication of a significant step forward by Caterham in only their third season of Formula One. HRT has made no steps forward. If anything, they have gone backwards.
What exactly are HRT doing in Formula One? If they’re trying to win, they’re not trying very hard. If they’re there just to make up the numbers, then they’re simply an expensive annoyance to be lapped 3 times per race. So far, they can only (sometimes) compete with Marussia. They’re not racing for points, or even a share of of the prize-money allotted to the top 10 teams. There is no way they will even come close to the top ten teams this season.
If they’re serious about Formula One, HRT need to make some drastic changes. Perhaps they are already doing so, behind the scenes. If not, they need to get out of the way of the other teams who are there to race. Currently, what HRT does is not racing.
Formula One teams finally had a completely dry session this morning, with bright sunshine in Melbourne for the third practice session of the weekend. So Massa, Senna, Vettel and Schumacher took full advantage by spinning under braking.
In the case of Massa, it looks like he may have put a wheel on the grass in turn 15. Again. He did that yesterday too in turn 9. Senna also lost it in the slow turn 15, which is quite easy to do, according to Jaime Alguersuari who is commentating for BBC.
World Champion Sebastian Vettel lost the back end of his Red Bull in turn 6. Vettel has not been happy with his car throughout the weekend. The team now has very little time to prepare for qualifying. Vettel managed to produce some magic in qualifying last season. Can he do it again today?
Schumacher lost his Mercedes under braking for turn 9. There didn’t seem to be an obvious reason for the spin. Perhaps his DRS stuck open, which would certainly cause instability at the rear of the car. Nonetheless, the Mercedes is looking quick, so Schumacher and Rosberg should be competitive in qualifying.
Lewis Hamilton topped the times for McLaren, highlighting the pace of the MP4-27. Romain Grosjean was second for Lotus, which suggests that the E20 is working well.
Qualifying starts in about 45 minutes. All the indications so far suggest that it will be close. It’s quite possible that some big names will not make it into Q3. The Ferraris have looked out of sorts since the beginning of pre-season testing. Alonso and Massa will have to produce something special to be competitive. At this stage, predictions of pole are difficult, although Hamilton and Button have been looking very comfortable in the McLarens.
It’s still early days, but all the signs are pointing to a strong Australian Grand Prix weekend for Michael Schumacher. The seven-time World Champion has never really looked himself since returning to Formula One with Mercedes in 2010, but in practice for the first race of 2012 has looked quick and comfortable in the car.
Schumacher topped the times in Practice 2 on Friday afternoon, although the mixed weather conditions limit how meaningful the laptimes are. In Practice 1, he was fastest for quite a while before being beaten by the McLaren pair of Button and Hamilton.
Perhaps the most significant sign of Schumacher’s struggles in 2010 and 2011 has been his qualifying performances. Team-mate Nico Rosberg has comprehensively outperformed Schumacher over the last two seasons. So qualifying for Australia should give a clear indication of how happy Schumacher is with the car.
It’s definitely too early to predict race results. We haven’t seen the best of Red Bull or Ferrari, and we don’t know what fuel loads the teams were running on Friday. Qualifying will begin to paint a clearer picture of who is quick. It starts in just over 7 hours.
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