Australian Grand Prix Preview: The start of a new decade in Formula One, but not in happy circumstances

Usually joyful and vibrant, the start of a new season in Australia would ordinarily bring a sense of positivity to Formula One fans around the world. This year, however, it is overshadowed by the seemingly omnipotent threat of Coronavirus.

And, indeed, three members of the paddock – two from Haas and one from McLaren – have already self-isolated after being tested for the illness.

However, the focus is not all on the doom and gloom side. Melbourne remains as picturesque and atmospheric as ever, and it is ready to play proud first host to what will hopefully be an enthralling season of racing.

Although, the likelihood of such seems fairly low. Mercedes dominated pre-season testing, and Ferrari looked average at best, with team boss Mattia Binotto playing down any chances of success for the Scuderia this year. Notwithstanding, Mercedes looked a way off Ferrari in Barcelona last year, and ended up dominating the season, so the true performance of the top three teams – including the resurgent Red Bull – remains to be seen.

Speaking of the former champions, they were given some degree of promise from their outings in testing, with potential championship contender Max Verstappen finding the limits – and falling foul of them – on a few occasions,. They also appeared to leave a few engineers in red scratching their heads as the enigmatic Dutchman looks to challenge Lewis Hamilton for the championship crown.

The enticing prospect of the fresh and finally integrated Alex Albon is also something we can look forward to, as well as the inter-team battle between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc at the Maranello outfit. Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, will have had no shortage of awareness of the effort and quality needed to defeat team-mate Hamilton this season.

Indeed, it was a positive start to 2019 for the Finn. He won last year at the 5.3-kilometre Albert Park circuit, and would win two of the first four races, but a frustrating barren spell of form would see Hamilton’s irresistible class shine through again.

It was, interestingly, only the fourth time that the driver starting from second had made to the first corner first at the track, so pole is inherently important there.

The newly-crowned six time world champion is certainly not resting on his laurels either. He comes into this season feeling ‘on another level’ – a stark proposition for those looking to knock him off his perch.

As always though, it is not all about the big guns up top. The vast majority of the competitive, intriguing racing came from the mid-pack and, provided the TV directors choose to give them some attention this time, there is a lot of action to look forward to.

Williams are at least a second quicker than last year, and have a distinct, tenacious habit of overcoming the several adversities they have been faced with in recent years, making them a good fit for a battle that will surely include everyone from McLaren down.

Well, maybe not everyone.

Racing Point – or the “Pink Mercedes”, as coined by Carlos Sainz – have copied Mercedes’ chassis design from last year to almost every meticulous detail, and as their resources incrementally rise to impressive extents year on year, they could challenge McLaren and re-take fourth spot in the Constructors’ dogfight – potentially even laying a stake on a top-three involvement as times this season. There would have to be a degree of fortuity however.

Another team in doubt for the midfield fight is Haas. After numerous problems both on and off track in 2019, the American outfit looked both slow and lacking in longevity, as Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean look to return their cars to points contention, and hopefully return them to the finish line without making contact this year.

As we say, though, testing is often little to go by, resulting in the discovery of many variables yet to be seen as the season goes on, and it all starts this weekend in Melbourne.

 

[Featured image – Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool]

The stumbling horse: Have we overestimated Ferrari?

“Why are we so slow?”

“I don’t know.”

This team radio message between Sebastian Vettel and his race engineer was the general gist of what was a sobering, dejecting, and exposing weekend for Ferrari at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

After such a promising winter where Ferrari looked quicker and more reliable than Mercedes, the Italian team came to Australia with a surely ardent belief that this, after years of waiting, was finally the year they would have the upper hand over Mercedes and would have enough to win the championship. Now, we may have only had one race so far, and we certainly will not rule out Ferrari after just 58 laps of racing, but Friday was a reality check for Ferrari and Sunday has made for compounded Monday morning blues at Maranello.

Ferrari Media

Sebastian Vettel was seven tenths off Lewis Hamilton’s pole position, and Ferrari’s fastest lap of the race, set by Charles Leclerc, was just under 1.4 seconds slower than the fastest lap of the race set by race winner Valtteri Bottas. To make matters even worse, Max Verstappen and his Honda powered Red Bull looked exceedingly quick and he pushed Vettel out of the podium places, leaving a lot of head-scratching to be done at Ferrari.

So just why were Ferrari so much slower over the course of the weekend than Mercedes? Well, the heart that Ferrari fans can take from this weekend is that the gap in qualifying pace this season was similar to what we saw last year. The race this year, though, did not turn out so well. Even another Haas pit stop failure for Romain Grosjean couldn’t save Ferrari this time around.

Melbourne is a very unique circuit. Many forget that the track is actually a main road and therefore is a tricky surface, a mix between straights and twisty corners. It is, for the most part, a power track, which would suggest that Mercedes have managed to edge back ahead of Ferrari engine-wise.

Ferrari Media

Overall, however, the Albert Park circuit tends to be fairly unrepresentative of pace and performance, which will be the key source of positive thinking that Ferrari will be looking to heading into the Bahrain Grand Prix. Furthermore, Mark Webber was keen to point towards tyres, suggesting that Mercedes were able to get the tyres into an operating window and keep them there. Ferrari, meanwhile, were not, which in turn would link back again the unique nature of the Melbourne circuit.

An aspect that will concern them even more is that Red Bull looked genuinely fast. The Honda-powered car was brilliantly fast in the speed traps, split both Ferraris in qualifying, and set a faster lap than them both during the race.

It is difficult to judge whether this is a step in the wrong direction for Ferrari, or whether this was just a wacky weekend that didn’t turn out in their favour. All did not look well during the weekend and the early signs suggest that the Prancing Horse is not match for the Silver Arrows, and may even be challenged by the new-look Charging Bull.

 

[Featured image – Ferrari Media]

Ferrari team orders issued to avoid ‘any risks’ at Australian Grand Prix

Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto says Ferrari issued team orders to Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc to avoid taking ‘any risks’ in the closing stages of the Australian Grand Prix.

Ferrari Media

Despite many labelling the Scuderia the favourites going into the season based on their form in testing, Ferrari struggled around the streets of Albert Park.

“Right from Friday, we didn’t feel comfortable at this track,” Binotto said. “Even though we did a lot of work on set-up, we didn’t find the right balance and even our qualifying performance demonstrated that we were struggling to adapt to the Albert Park track.”

After Vettel made a pitstop to switch onto the medium tyres, he failed to get enough grip out of them and was passed by Max Verstappen. When Leclerc then started gaining on Vettel using newly fitted hard tyres with ten laps to go, he asked the team whether he should stay behind.

“Yes, and back off to have some margin,” came the reply. Leclerc obeyed and the pair trailed home fourth and fifth, nearly a minute behind race winner Valtteri Bottas.

Ferrari Media

It was made clear in pre-season testing that Ferrari had the intentions of prioritising Vettel over Leclerc in an attempt to boost the former’s hopes in the title race. In Australia, though, it was a matter of not jeopardising either of their drivers’ results, despite the thirty second gap to Kevin Magnussen in the Haas behind.

Speaking of the decision, Binotto said, “When [Vettel] could no longer fend off Verstappen, we decided the most important thing was to get to the end, managing the tyres. When Charles caught up to him, it seemed wise not to take any risks.

“We leave Australia with a lot of data to analyse and we will use that to work out how to get back to our actual level of competitiveness for the race in Bahrain in two weeks time.”

Lewis Hamilton: Qualifying “first time we’ve unleashed full potential of the car”

Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton believes that qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix was the first occasion that Mercedes were able to ‘unleash the full potential’ of the W10.

Hamilton led a Mercedes 1-2 in qualifying around the streets of Albert Park, almost a tenth of a second ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas and seven tenths ahead of third-placed Sebastian Vettel.

It was the Brit’s eighth pole position in Australia, equaling Michael Schumacher’s record of the most poles claimed at one circuit.

“I feel so fortunate to be in the position I’m in today,” Hamilton said. “We had no idea that we’d have this gap to the others – we thought we were behind, we thought it was going to be a push, so we gave it absolutely everything and more to arrive here with the best possible package and delivery.”

Mercedes came into the first race of the year with many saying that Ferrari held the advantage over the Silver Arrows based on their form in pre-season testing; Hamilton thus expressed his surprise at the performance of his car in qualifying.

“We haven’t massively changed the car; it’s almost the same set-up we had in Barcelona, so this gap was really surprising to see,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve unleashed the full potential of the car and I’m so happy to have a car that I can fight with. This is a really great start to the new season and it puts us in a good position for the fight tomorrow.”

 

[Featured image – Steve Etherington]

Daniel Ricciardo: Renault “have to keep a cool head” after difficult Australian GP qualifying

Daniel Ricciardo says Renault “have to keep a cool head” going into tomorrow’s Australian Grand Prix, despite a difficult qualifying that saw both of the team’s drivers fail to reach Q3.

Ricciardo missed out by the narrowest of margins and will start his home race in P12, just one position behind his team-mate Nico Hulkenberg.

“I’m clearly disappointed not to make Q3,” Ricciardo said, “especially as it was just half a tenth and that’s something I can find in myself – I lost a bit of time in the first sector on the last run. We had the potential to make Q3 so when you don’t do the perfect lap, it’s frustrating.

“As expected the midfield is really close but I’m feeling optimistic for a strong result tomorrow. I always want to do well at home, but we have to keep a cool head, have a good start and then attack when necessary.”

Renault’s Sporting Director Alan Permane added, “We thought [Ricciardo] had another couple of tenths which would have put him safely into the top ten. We therefore have a little bit of work to do tomorrow, but with the good long run pace we demonstrated yesterday, we are aiming to make up for today and get both cars well into the points.”

 

[Featured image – Renault F1 Team]

Lando Norris: “I’m not going to get carried away” with Q3 performance

McLaren rookie Lando Norris says he isn’t ‘going to get carried away’ with himself and with the performance of the car, despite a Q3 appearance on his F1 debut at the Australian Grand Prix.

Norris qualified P8 with a time of 1:22.304, putting him ahead of the likes of Kimi Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg and home-favourite Daniel Ricciardo. It is McLaren’s first Q3 appearance since the Monaco Grand Prix of last year.

Speaking of his performance, Norris said, “I loved it but I’m not going to get carried away! I was very nervous at the start of the session with it being my first-ever F1 quali and never having been here before. But I managed to put the laps together today – the team were fantastic.

“Our aim was to get into Q2 but it turned out to be even better, and it’s a great confidence boost for everyone. It’s going to be a long, tough race and that’s what I must concentrate on now.”

Norris’ team-mate Carlos Sainz, by comparison, will start from P18, having been forced to back off when he encountered a puncture-riddled Robert Kubica in Q1.

 

[Featured image – Steven Tee/McLaren]

Renault driver line-up ‘perhaps the strongest on the grid’ according to Abiteboul

Renault’s managing director Cyril Abiteboul has said he believes the team’s 2019 line-up of Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo to be ‘perhaps the strongest on the grid’.

Ricciardo will be making his Renault race debut at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix alongside Hulkenberg, who starts his third year with the team, and Abiteboul is optimistic about what the pairing can deliver.

“The first race of the year, the Australian Grand Prix, is a high point of the season,” Abiteboul said, “but even more so this year as Daniel Ricciardo makes his race debut for the team. We head there united and with strong determination.

“We have a new car that has shown potential in Barcelona. The power unit has made progress and or driver line-up of Daniel and Nico is perhaps the strongest on the grid. We’re looking forward to seeing them showcasing their experience and talent on track. There is a lot of expectation for the first race, especially with Daniel’s debut for the team coming at his home Grand Prix.”

Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) Renault Sport F1 Team RS19.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Friday 1st March 2019. Barcelona, Spain.

Ricciardo announced his shock move from Red Bull – where he had been since 2014 and with whom he had won seven Grand Prix – at the Belgian Grand Prix of last year. The Australian, too, is positive about the prospect of racing for his new team, even if it is unlikely they will be at the same performance level as Red Bull immediately.

“My first impressions, on a whole, have been positive,” Ricciardo said, “and we’ll continue to learn more throughout these early races. It’s going to take some time to get used to everything, but that’s not unexpected.

“We’re realistic in our approach and we have work to do. We have a decent platform to build on now and we always strive for better. We’ve found some things during testing which we’ll dissect and see what we want to take forward, but our bigger steps will come during the next few months.”

 

[Featured image – Renault Sport F1 Team]