F1 gears up Down Under - Australian Grand Prix Preview

Nick Grey 24 March 2011 - 10:44

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A four-way competition going into the final race, the rollercoaster ride that was the 2010 Formula 1 season will prove a hard act to follow. Nevertheless if the press conference ahead of this season’s opening race in Melbourne is anything to go by, the drivers at least have equally high hopes for the 2011 season.

“It’s time to go!” said Felipe Massa.

“Finally, the moment has arrived!” agreed Fernando Alonso.

 “We're excited, we've had enough of testing now and we want to go racing again," explained Sebastian Vettel.

Yes it seems even the incumbent world champion won’t sit back and bask in last year’s glory, so buckle up and prepare for another gruelling 19-race campaign and what could be Formula 1’s best season yet.

As you were

This time last year the outlawing of fuel stops forced teams to majorly rethink their race strategies. Similarly this season’s appointment of Pirelli as the sport’s exclusive tyre supplier has provided much food for thought as teams prepare for Sunday’s F1 curtain-raiser at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit. The new tyres will be quicker to wear out than their Bridgestone predecessors and this will see both the speed and strategy of pit stops become more crucial than ever.

Otherwise the new regulations are mostly technicalities, with adjustable front wings replaced by adjustable rear wings and double diffusers and F-ducts now banned. Apart from that not much has changed in Formula 1, with the FIA wisely keeping tinkering to a minimum perhaps in an attempt to recreate those same conditions which produced such a thrilling denouement to the 2010 season.

There have been a few amendments to the race calendar, notably the addition of the much-anticipated Indian Grand Prix and the switch that will see Interlagos take over from Abu Dhabi to host the final event in November. Due to the political unrest in Bahrain, intended host of the opening Grand Prix, Melbourne now finds itself the first port of call this season.

Albert Park

Proud host of the Australian Grand Prix since taking over from Adelaide in 1996, the 58-lap Albert Park circuit features a series of slow corners which makes braking a key issue. This can initially be tough on the temporary street surface, but conditions should improve throughout the weekend as the cars lay down rubber on the slippery asphalt.

The circuit incorporates the streets of Melbourne, although not those on which Lewis Hamilton performed a burnout after last year’s race and found himself slapped with a $500 fine for doing so. That day Jenson Button had taken the chequered flag for the second year running and will have his eye on completing his hat-trick come Sunday.

First practice begins on Friday morning, and the weather is expected to get progressively better as the weekend goes on, although sunshine could be at a premium. All eyes will be on qualifying to see which team’s close season preparations seem to have paid off. Already Fernando Alonso has re-emphasised the importance of mechanical aspects over driving ability.

“As usual the quickest or best car will win the championship,” said the two-time world champion.

So by the time the race begins at 7am on Sunday (UK time), we should know who will be this season’s team to beat. Qualifying will also be of interest at the other end of the scale given this year’s reintroduction of the 107% rule, which would see any driver who fails to lap within 107% of the pole position time disqualified from the race.

Mercedes on the rise

Ross Brawn’s team hope to improve on their rather lacklustre debut season and believe that 2011 will see ‘a big step forward’. The heavily modified MGP W02 ran well in final testing a fortnight ago in Barcelona, but it is unlikely the Brackley-based constructor will make a long-term impact on the top trio of Ferrari, Red Bull and McLaren.

However we are led to believe that Michael Schumacher, four times a winner here in Melbourne, still has claims. But without even a podium finish to show for his sensational return to Formula 1, the seven-time world champion’s best years look to be behind him, outperformed as he was at every turn by team-mate and fellow countryman Nico Rosberg last season.

One driver who won’t be able to build on last year’s success is Renault’s Robert Kubica. Having achieved three podium finishes last season (including second in Melbourne) the Pole is expected to sit out most, if not all, of this campaign while he recovers from injuries suffered in a high-speed rally crash six weeks ago.

Home boy

It all went wrong for Mark Webber in Abu Dhabi in November and many fear the 34-year-old may never have a better shot at the world championship. Poor pit strategy saw the title slip away from him that day, but a slow start to the campaign was equally to blame and Webber will be looking to come out of the blocks quicker this time around. Once again the Australian will be hoping to improve on his highest home finish, at present a disappointing fifth place in 2005.

Reigning champion Sebastian Vettel is the bookies’ favourite to follow up last season’s success, while many fancy Fernando Alonso to carry on his impressive form towards the back end of the 2010 campaign. Vettel was left frustrated after last year’s Australian Grand Prix after his brakes cost him the race, one of several incidences of mechanical failure throughout 2010 which initially looked to have cost him the title. Reliability remains an issue and how the Red Bull performs over the weekend could set the tone for the season.

Again expect Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton to be there or thereabouts, but the drivers’ championship could well be a two-horse race between Messrs Vettel and Alonso. Jenson Button’s chances have been dismissed by many after his championship hopes fell away last season, but he will take heart from back-to-back victories in his last two outings at Albert Park and punters may be tempted by the 16/1 outside odds of him completing the hat-trick on Sunday.

Possibly make or break for Button then, but this season could very much be the making of new Force India driver Paul di Resta. The first Scotsman to race since David Coulthard, the 24-year-old should at the very least be a more popular personality than his dour countryman. His rivalry with Vettel, whom he beat in the Formula 3 Euroseries, may cause intrigue in seasons to come, while Mark Webber has already been singing the rookie’s praises, stating that there are ‘a lot of arseholes’ in Formula 1, but that di Resta is not one of them.

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