- Australian Grand Prix preview
And now for something completely different...Laurence Edmondson March 13, 2014
"This is the year you need to watch Formula One!" Not ESPN's words, but the words of 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton, and he's absolutely right. Talk to members of the paddock and nobody is sure what will happen over this weekend's Australian Grand Prix, let alone the next 19 races. Contrast that to the end of last year when it was a surprise if Sebastian Vettel was not at the top of the timesheets in every practice session, and F1 has got the shot of adrenaline it was craving for over the last 12 months. Things will go wrong, mistakes will be made and accidents will happen, but they will make this year all the more exciting. Whatever you do, don't miss out!
In formIf there was such a thing as a winter testing championship, Mercedes would have walked it. On almost every measure the Mercedes W05 was the car to beat over the course of the three tests in Spain and Bahrain, meaning Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg enter the 2014 season as the clear favourites. Felipe Massa may have set the fastest lap time of the final week of testing in Bahrain, but Rosberg was nearly as quick the previous week using the soft compound rather than the super-soft. What's more, Mercedes has the resources and financial power to extend its advantage over the course of the season, plus the advantage of an in-house engine programme. Anything less than a podium will be a disappointment for the Silver Arrows in Australia.
Out of formFor a team that has become so used to success in recent years, the last three months have been a rude awakening for Red Bull. The team was completely at one with the previous set of regulations, but will now face genuine difficulties getting its car to the finishing line. But don't be fooled into thinking Red Bull has somehow forgotten how to build a race-winning Formula One car. The RB10 is genuinely quick in the corners and has the potential to worry every other team on the grid once its Renault power unit is working in harmony with the rest of it. Renault made genuine progress over the course of the tests and will have done so again in the build-up to the Australian Grand Prix, but there's no denying both team and engine manufacturer are on the back foot. It's still far too early to write the team off, but it'll need all of its brainpower and resources working in the right direction to close the gap that clearly existed during testing.
One to watchFollowing one of the worst seasons in its history, Williams heads to Australia as a genuine contender for victory. The team has been rejuvenated over the past year after the board put in place an action plan to reverse its fortunes. A new technical team, engine supply and sponsorship deal with Martini has given Williams renewed impetus, even though its resources and budget remain relatively small. Pre-season testing was very positive with Massa the fastest man of the final week and the car looking like one of the most reliable. Don't be surprised if a Williams driver ends up on the podium this weekend.
Talking pointsKnown unknowns
Nobody is quite sure what Sunday will bring. The changes in the regulations have not only affected the pecking order, they have also changed the way the cars are driven and the way races are run. Limiting each car to just 100kg of fuel over a race distance means Sunday afternoons will be just as much about frugality as ferocity. The idea of a fuel-saving formula won't appeal to everyone, but it will add another variable to racing that will play to the strengths of some teams and drivers over others. But there's still something for the purists, as Saturday's Q3 promises to offer foot-to-the-floor thrills with the tyres from Q2 becoming the ones that the teams will start the race on. What's more, the loss in downforce and addition of torque over the winter means it's that much easier to get the cars out of shape.
Back with a bang...?
Reliability was a concern for almost every team during pre-season testing, but engine supplier Renault bore the brunt of the issues. Getting the different components to work in harmony on such a complex and pioneering piece of kit as the new V6 turbo power units has proved a mighty task, and ultimately Renault was a couple of steps behind its rivals. However, all cars suffered issues and all teams were subject to serious downtime as the problems were diagnosed, located and fixed. The added complexity of the 2014 cars means every task takes that little bit longer and that could be a problem if an issue emerges in final practice with the qualifying session looming just two hours later. The teams will be better prepared at a race than they were at the tests, with replacement engines dressed and ready to be installed, but mechanics are going to be working harder than ever during the early races.
Mixing the pot
Only Mercedes and Marussia have kept the same driver line-ups for 2014, while every other team has made at least one change, creating the perfect conditions to make and break reputations. The most exciting partnership is Ferrari's, with two of F1's heavyweights - Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen - going head to head. Alonso has more experience at the team, a stronger work ethic and is as determined as ever to succeed, but he has lost his cool when going up against competitive team-mates in the past. Raikkonen, meanwhile, will not be sidetracked by mind games and intra-team politics, and proved at Lotus over the last two years that he is still capable of outshining the rest when the mood takes him. Over at McLaren, Jenson Button is going up against one of F1's most promising young talents in Kevin Magnussen and at Red Bull Daniel Ricciardo should not be ruled out as he joins Sebastian Vettel. Other drivers to keep an eye on will be a rejuvenated Felipe Massa at Williams, Pastor Maldonado at Lotus and the return of Kamui Kobayashi at Caterham. All should provide interesting sub-plots as the year progresses.
Facts and stats
- Albert Park staged two non-championship Formula Libre Australian Grands Prix in 1953 and 1956, although the cars ran around the circuit anti-clockwise
- Eddie Irvine holds the record for winning at Albert Park from the lowest starting position, having triumphed from 11th on the grid in 1999
- This will be the 30th Formula One Australian Grand Prix - the race was first staged in 1985 at Adelaide - and the 19th consecutive year at Albert Park
- Out of 18 grands prix at Melbourne, the winning driver has gone on to win the championship on 11 occasions
- Jenson Button has the most victories of the current grid at Albert Park, with three wins in the last five Australian Grands Prix
WeatherSince the start of the week the forecast for Sunday have varied widely. At the time of writing, the weather man was predicting hot and sunny weather on Friday and Saturday before rain and a significant drop in temperature arrives for race day. If that is the case, the race will be even more manic as the drivers struggle to put the added torque down on a wet track with slippery white lines.
ESPN predictionWith so many unknowns heading into the race weekend the list of potential winners is long. However, Mercedes still stands out as favourites and Nico Rosberg's methodical approach should just give him the edge over Lewis Hamilton as everyone gets used to the new-look F1.
Laurence Edmondson is deputy editor of ESPNF1