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]

Australian Grand Prix: Race Preview

In a few days’ time, F1 will be back for 2018 and racing around the streets of Albert Park for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

After a fortnight of pre-season testing confused by rain and snow, this will be the first chance to see who’s settled where in the pecking order over the winter.

Ferrari Media

Much of the focus will of course be on Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, as both drivers are gunning to become the first of their generation to win a fifth world title.

After testing many are tipping Hamilton as having the advantage again, with Mercedes’ focus on long runs in Barcelona hinting at a daunting degree of race pace.

But that’s not to say Mercedes will have the race all to themselves this weekend. The record-breaking lap times set by Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen in testing may have been a little flattered by low fuel loads, but still suggest there’s enough speed in Ferrari’s SF71H to give the Silver Arrows a real challenge in qualifying.

And then there’s Red Bull, whose RB14 looked dependable on track and much closer to the top two than its predecessor. The Austrian outfit hasn’t won in Melbourne since 2011, but could Max Verstappen or homeboy Daniel Ricciardo have the machinery to buck that trend this year?

Add that to the paddock talk from Barcelona that Mercedes is once again finding it difficult to unlock pace on the softer tyres, and the reigning champions could be facing a real headache on a weekend favouring the soft, supersoft and ultrasoft rubber.

Renault Sport F1 Team

Nor is it just the top three who might be in for a tough scrap in Albert Park—the race to take first blood in the upper midfield battle looks to be equally tight.

At present, Renault looks favourite to be best-of-the-rest in Melbourne. The Enstone team has been one of the most-improved this winter, judging by a consistent presence high up the time and mileage leaderboards in testing, and their two drivers have a history of delivering good results in Australia.

But Renault aren’t the only ones expected to make a solid start to their 2018 campaign. Haas made a big impression in pre-season testing and have been tipped by champions Mercedes to be this season’s dark horse. And the hype isn’t without good reason, either—Haas ended testing as the fifth fastest team, and with Kevin Magnussen as the sixth-fastest driver.

And speaking of surprising testing performances, Honda will be hoping their respectable showing in Barcelona translates to their first points finish in the season opener since 2006.

Together with new partners Toro Rosso, the Japanese marque ended pre-season testing with the third-highest number of laps per team as well as setting some decent midfield times.

But form in testing is one thing—the true proof of Honda’s 2018 campaign will come when the STR13 takes to the race track this weekend.

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool