The 2013 Australian Grand Prix Preview

2012 Australian Grand Prix Start

Lewis Hamilton qualified on Pole Position in 2012. Image: aystatic.com

Round 1: Australia, Melbourne, 58 Laps

The wait is finally over. After all the speculation of who has the quickest car, who doesn’t have a particularly quick one, who will in win in Melbourne on Sunday and who the favourite for the 2013 Formula One World Championship is, some of the answers will become clear this weekend.

Albert Park is always the ideal place to start the Formula One season after countless days of testing in Europe. Cold and wet conditions that have sometimes greeted the paddock in Spain this winter have been replaced by warm, bright Autumnal skies in South-Eastern Australia. In its customary role as host of the first race of the season, teams, drivers and fans create an incredible atmosphere around the circuit.

Unpredictable

Many drivers, most notably reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel has said that the winter has proved to be “the most inconclusive one ever”. Despite an incredibly close 2012 season, which featured eight different winners, all evidence points to 2013 being even closer, especially from the outset.

The inside line is that the pace of the Mercedes is genuine, despite Lewis Hamilton playing down all expectations. Red Bull is apparently not showing their genuine speed, and Lotus and Ferrari are quick. A question mark still hangs over McLaren after a difficult winter, and their difficulties in getting the MP4-28 to work properly. However, their troubles could be minimised in Melbourne, and Jenson Button will be confident of  his fourth victory in as many years in Australia. The lack of change in the regulations will certainly close the grid up.

Being a street circuit often means that the result in Melbourne can sometimes be misleading for the rest of a season. For example, Toro Rosso always go well in Albert Park, but struggle for the remainder of the year. Normally it’s Round 2 in Sepang that gives clearer answers.

The distorted picture of who is quickest has led Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to claim that up to ten drivers could have a chance win the Grand Prix. Qualifying is never a guarantee of victory in Albert Park, as we have seen with multiple races held in the city, and therefore the first race of the season always tends to throw up an unusual result as teams grapple with reliability.

You only have to think back to 2002 or 2008 when less than ten cars were classified, or 2009 when the result was largely unexpected. That is why so many people love Melbourne.

The Tyres

The main variable that the teams have to deal with is the tyres, and this is what has caused the unpredictability amongst the teams and drivers ahead of Melbourne. Pirelli’s new-for-2013 compounds have struggled to give any consistency in testing, and although the low ambient track temperatures have been to blame for this, no one really knows how things will play out in Melbourne.

The 3.2 mile circuit isn’t particularly demanding on tyres, but in its role as the first race of the season, it normally witnesses some unusual strategies as the teams try to figure out how the tyres work. It was a similar scene in Australia two years ago, as Pirelli’s return to the sport with tyres that were claimed to degrade very quickly were handled differently by the teams. We all remember Sergio Perez, in his first race, stopping only once on the new rubber.

That will certainly not be the case this year. Nobody knows how long the tyres will last but there will certainly be plenty of work for the mechanics to do on Sunday afternoon. Each driver has three sets of the Prime (the harder compound) and three sets of the Option (the softer compound) to use in Qualifying and the race, so any mistakes will go heavily punished.

Although that’s just what the teams will be doing this weekend as they all try and gain some understanding of the running order ahead of the Grand Prix. Much of the set-up work is centred on the tyres, and how to get them to last longer, so both Friday Practice sessions will be vital in trying to understand this.

Because Albert Park is a temporary facility, the track is exceptionally “green” on a Friday before practice. This means that, because there is little motorsport activity on track, the surface will not be in its prime; virtually no rubber will have been laid, which will make the process of trying to understand the tyres a moving obstacle for the teams. We may not see a clear picture of who is quick and who isn’t until the second part of Qualifying on Saturday.

This year, Pirelli have brought their medium and super-soft compounds to Albert Park, although little can be compared to the medium compound they brought last year, as the characteristics of the tyres have changed drastically. Bringing the super-soft is an interesting decision. We know already that that specific compound degrades very quickly, although how quickly will be determined by track temperatures and how the teams learn to use them on this parkland circuit. Expect the early running in Free Practice 1 and 2 to be focussed fully on the medium compound.

It is interesting to note that Free Practice 1 and 3 will be held in early to mid-afternoon when the track temperature is slightly higher than it would be when the race gets underway at 1700 local time (0600 GMT). The slowly setting sun not only blinds the drivers as they turn through Turns 14 and 16, but it represents a challenge in how to consistently maintain performance in the tyres.

The Circuit

The circuit itself has been present on the calendar since 1996, and nearly every year since, Turn 1 has been both a scene of first-lap chaos and a prime overtaking spot. You have to again think back to 2002 when Ralf Schumacher launched his Williams over the Ferrari of Rubens Barrichello, causing an eight car pile-up, or when Nico Rosberg, Felipe Massa and Christian Klien all came to grief four years later. The first corner represents the first time the drivers would have run on full-tanks for some time, so everyone is a little nervous of where to turn and brake.

A good run out of the last turn has always been important to pass into Turn 1. The track narrows slightly on the entry, so placing the car on the inside is important. Rarely in instances where the driver lunges down the inside do both cars survive to see the following straight. In 2008, Felipe Massa tried to pass David Coulthard from far behind, resulting in two corners of the Red Bull disintegrating, forcing his retirement.

Turn 1 is all about the exit however. Keep it neat and tidy through the chicane of Turns 1&2, and it will serve you well down the long straight toward Turn 3, another favourite passing point. This year, as in 2012, the two DRS (Drag Reduction System) activation zones will be along the pit-straight and the straight between Turns 2&3. There will be one detection point before Turn 14, just as the drivers start another lap. If a driver has already made the pass with DRS into Turn 1, they can then pull away out of Turn 2.

With the track winding around the outskirts of the city, Albert Park is very much a “point and squirt track”. Therefore good traction is vital. That is first evident at the right-handed Turn 3. However, it is more famous for the number of accidents it has witnessed over the years. Martin Brundle flying into the gravel trap in 1996, along with Jacques Villeneuve in 2001 remains the most chilling. If you do attempt to pass down the inside, you have to spot your braking precisely, as the canopy of trees shadow the circuit.

Turn 9 is one of the most important corners on the circuit, due to the long, sweeping straight that follows. The approach is quick, and the braking area is incredibly bumpy, with the corner arriving before you really know it. Running slightly wide onto the kerb and Astroturf is not quite the end of your lap, but it will severely limit your traction down to Turns 11 and 12, the fastest section of track.

Grazing the entry kerb through Turn 11 at 150mph is important to negotiating the quick chicane, and getting a good exit down toward Turn 13. Apart from a downshift or two, the drivers will not touch the brakes until this turn, making the exit of Turn 9 even more important.

Turn 13 is the last conventional passing spot on the track. Like Turn 3, the corner is a virtual right angle, so drivers can have a small lunge down the inside if they are within striking distance. This does necessitate a good car through the fast sweeps of Turns 11 and 12 if a car is to closely the one in front.

Turn 15, the penultimate corner is all about traction. If you manage to get a good exit without lighting up the rears, or limiting exit speed, then the run through Turn 16 and back down the main straight should be fairly straightforward. Anything else and you will be a sitting duck into Turn 1.

Melbourne will mark the first time that DRS can be used only in the designated area in Free Practice and Qualifying. The FIA introduced the regulation on safety grounds for 2013, and it has been heavily praised by the drivers. The teams will therefore have limited the amount of time they have spent developing it.

Five drivers make their Grand Prix debut this weekend, the highest number at the first race since 1994. The new drivers are Giedo van der Garde, driving for Caterham, Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi, both driving for Marussia, Esteban Gutierrez, driving for Sauber and Valtteri Bottas, driving for Williams. Each has their own point to prove, although realistically, only Bottas and Gutierrez will have a chance of scoring.

Albert Park is the perfect place to start the 2013 season. There is a novelty to viewers in Europe to witness the Championship starting in the early hours of the morning. Throw in the chance of rain on Saturday and Sunday and you have a Grand Prix as unpredictable as they come. That’s why everyone loves Melbourne.

Podium Predictions:

  1. Sebastian Vettel
  2. Fernando Alonso
  3. Lewis Hamilton

 

 

 

 

 

 

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