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]

2019 Australian Grand Prix Driver Ratings

The first round of the 2019 Formula 1 season is complete – here we look at Australian GP driver ratings:

Valtteri Bottas – 9

Sunday was near perfect, with a lightning start allowing him to jump his team mate and from then he just went off into the distance, getting an extra point for fastest lap as well. He wasn’t necessarily the winner we expected from pre-season testing but he was without a doubt the driver of the day.

2019 Australian Grand Prix, Sunday – LAT Images

Lewis Hamilton – 7

Hamilton is well known for having the Saturday pace which generally puts him in good stead for Sunday, but he was beaten fair and square during the race. Still, he’ll take the podium along with the equal record for the most poles at one circuit.

Max Verstappen – 8

Verstappen put in the best performance for Honda in the whole of the hybrid era with his podium finish. He managed his tyres well and made an easy move on Vettel. A mistake at turn one hindered a late attack on Hamilton, but he will leave Melbourne with a smile on his face.

Sebastian Vettel – 7

Vettel had a solid start and was quick in the first stint, attempting to attack with an undercut which ultimately didn’t work. You can guarantee an investigation will be underway at Ferrari to figure out how they ended up 57 seconds behind the winner.

Charles Leclerc – 6

A great start by Leclerc but he was rather ambitious to attempt a move on his team-mate which could have ended in tears. Unlike his team-mate, he was slow in the first half of the race but fast in the second, and caught up to Vettel before being told to hold position. He showed he had speed in Q2 but the Ferrari doesn’t seem to be the package everyone thought.

Ferrari Media

Kevin Magnussen – 8

Magnussen was best of the rest in Australia, with solid pace and what seems to be the fourth quickest car. It was a better result than last year with no faulty pitstops, even if he was outqualified by his team-mate.

Nico Hulkenburg – 7

It was another result in a familiar place for the German. He started 11th so had free choice of tyres, which benefitted him in the race as he got the move on a few other drivers.

Kimi Raikkonen – 8

Raikkonen did exceptionally well considering where the team was last year, with a very aggressive package seeming to suit him well. He got the car into Q3 and kept that momentum going into Sunday.

Lance Stroll – 7

Stroll always raises eyebrows due to how he got into the sport, but in the race he showed he was fully deserving of the seat at Racing Point as he was in the thick of it all weekend. He scored the team’s only point, having some great battles whilst keeping the car clean.

Danil Kvyat – 6

A good return to the sport, ignoring a mistake at turn three. He was ambitious to run the hard tyre and defended well from faster cars behind, taking his car deeper into the race and allowing him to overcut the majority of them for the last point.

Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Pierre Gasly – 4

Australia will be a race to forget for Gasly. A mistake on Saturday by the team cost him dearly and he spent most of the race staring at Kvyat’s rear wing, unable to get past even on the softest tyre.

Lando Norris – 7

It was a great Saturday from Norris, but an early stop in the race in reaction to others put him in traffic. He was unable to pass Giovinazzi for several laps and just missed out on the points. Expect big things from Norris this season.

Sergio Perez – 5

It was an off-day for the Mexican on Sunday as he was classified down in 13th. He got caught up in the midfield battle which let others overcut him. The car looks great though, so there will be plenty more opportunities for him.

Alex Albon – 6

Despite being the first to spin this season in similar circumstances to his incident in testing, Albon did a good job. He matched Kvyat for outright pace on Saturday but was just caught up in the ever-so-tight midfield squabble. A good Sunday debut.

Antonio Giovinazzi – 5

The returning Italian was a pain for most at Melbourne, stuck on a confusing strategy with his tyres were ruined, and becoming a replacement for the infamous ‘Trulli train’. He showed true grit in terms of defence but not a lot of outright speed, though this is only his third ever race in F1.

George Russell – 6

Russell blitzed his much more experienced team-mate, but that’s not saying much considering Kubica is really the only competition he has due to Williams being so far behind the others. He finished his debut race and hopefully get in the mix, sooner rather than later.

George Russell (GBR) Williams Racing FW42.
Australian Grand Prix, Sunday 17th March 2019. Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia.

Robert Kubica – 3

A race to forget and move on from for Kubica. He hit the wall twice on Saturday and then hit Gasly at turn one on the first lap of the race. Williams will have collected some data though, and Kubica will get quicker and quicker throughout the season.

Romain Grosjean – 7

Another pit stop failure resulted in early retirement for the Frenchman, after being on course for a good points haul. A long delay in the pits pushed him down the order, and he then had to stop the car on track due to a ill-fitted left-front tyre.

Daniel Ricciardo – 5

For the first time in Melbourne in the turbo era, Ricciardo failed to get through to Q3 on Saturday, and his race – his first for Renault – was pretty much over in a few seconds when he pushed wide onto the grass and broke his front wing. He decided to retire the car.

Carlos Sainz – 4

Sainz was beaten by his rookie team mate on Saturday comprehensively, and was the first to retire on Sunday. Because of the nature of the track he had been unable to make up much ground prior to the retirement. He is a fighter though, and will be back for Bahrain.

 

[Featured image – Wolfgang Wilhelm]

Daniel Ricciardo: Why the Aussie has nothing to fear ahead of Renault move

 

Daniel Ricciardo in Aston Martin RedBull Racing garage at the 2018 Mexico Granprix. Image courtesy of Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Another race; another retirement due to a mechanical failure for Daniel Ricciardo. Every time he steps in the car, something seems to go wrong, even when he won in Monaco. It has led him to say that his Red Bull is “cursed” and that he might just let Pierre Gasly drive the car for the last two races of the 2018 season in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

These comments were, of course, in the heat of the moment, but reliability-wise, the Red Bull with a Renault engine has not treated the Aussie well at all this year.

During the summer break, shockwaves were sent through the world of F1. Ricciardo was leaving Red Bull, but the shock wasn’t that he was leaving; if we’re being honest, the news was something we anticipated even before the turn of the 2018 season. The shock was who he was joining.

He wasn’t off to Italian giants Ferrari, instead to the midfield team that has yet to really prove itself since its return to F1 in 2016: Renault.

The French team was not really anyone’s expectation for Ricciardo, but the surprise factor was, truth be told, a negative one. Overall, there was a sense that Ricciardo is taking a career with prospects of a world championship and flushing it down the toilet. However, this may not be the case.

In reality, all you really need to do is look at the progress Renault have made since 2016. They took over a Lotus team that was in tatters, and they had to start a process of reinstating themselves as a Constructor in F1, after past success in the sport, most recently with Fernando Alonso in his two championship-winning years in 2005 and 2006. Of course, they had success supplying to Red Bull, but being a team that has to make a cohesive car with the chassis and the engine is an entirely different beast.

They went from being a team that was often at the back of the field in 2016 to a team that is now expected to score good points in 2018, and therefore, with the fast progress of a manufacturer team, will be handed even higher expectations for 2019. Therefore, this may be a leap, but it’s a leap to a fast-developing team, with a team boss in Cyril Abiteboul who demands the very best of everyone at the team, and certainly lets them know when he’s not satisfied.

Christian Horner over looking Dan’s car before the race. Image courtesy of Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

The main talking point in the races since the announcement has been that of reliability. Ricciardo’s scream of anger after an engine failure in qualifying for the Japanese Grand Prix in early October told us everything we needed to know about just how bad the Renault engine has been for Red Bull this season.

But if we look at the wider angle of this, Ricciardo has had 6 retirements due to mechanical issues this season compared to just two for soon-to-be team mate Nico Hulkenberg in the factory Renault car – I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on just how much of a difference there is in reliability between the factory team and their customer. However, perhaps the most important aspect of this is that Ricciardo’s failures have not always been Renault’s fault. His retirement at last weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix was down to a hydraulic failure, which lies on Red Bull’s side of the blame. A lot of pain for Red Bull in terms of reliability and performance has come from the French manufacturer though.

However, the Renault engine at certain circuits, when it is not failing, can be competitive – a good chassis for Renault next year and another factory push with the engine, and Renault could be a serious threat to Red Bull.

And let’s not forget Lewis Hamilton. Mercedes, in 2012, were dire. They, too, were somewhat of a midfield team, albeit more competitive proportionately than Renault are right now. Hamilton left a McLaren team accustomed to winning, and went to a struggling Mercedes team that had won one race that year and had been fairly average in most others, often struggling to score points. He has since won four championships with the German manufacturer.

Of course, this is not to say things will turn out equally for Ricciardo; two careers rarely turn out the same, but they say fortune favours the brave, and the Honey Badger has certainly lived up to his nickname with a bold move that might turn out a lot better than many are anticipating.