11 March 2014
Finally! Formula 1 is back. And on the eve of the new formula, Round 1 at Albert Park in Melbourne this weekend is sure to be more fascinating than ever. The Australian Grand Prix has always been one of my favourites and not just because of the novelty of a new F1 season. The nature of the track is such that it rarely produces a dull spectacle. The Albert Park street circuit is fast and has a gritty feel to it. The track is usually dirty and lacking in grip off the racing line and reports have suggested that this year the surface is more worn than in previous years, which is likely to mean more grip, but higher tyre wear. Passing at Albert Park requires boldness on the part of the overtaking driver. There are a couple of overtaking opportunities, with the approaches to Turns 3 and 13 usually the best spots to out-brake and pass other cars. However, 2014’s race is likely to feature more passing than before down into Turn 1 given the straight-line speed differential between the Mercedes-, Ferrari- and Renault-powered cars combined with the DRS zone on the start/finish straight. Additionally, DRS is more powerful in 2014 compared to last year to compensate for the reduction in aerodynamic downforce at the rear of the car.
Races at Albert Park have often featured the safety car; in the 2006 Australian GP, the safety car was deployed four times and in 2008, three times. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the safety car appear more than once in 2014 given the reliability problems that are likely to affect many teams. There have been some sizeable accidents in Melbourne over the years too. Who can forget the inaugural round in 1996 when Martin Brundle’s Jordan 196 flipped over and flew headlong into the tyre barrier? Or what about the pile-up at the first corner in 2002, precipitated by Ralf Schumacher’s rather careless collision with Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari. Albert Park has also seen total domination, with McLaren running away with the race in 1998. Like 2014, that season was also the first in a new formula following substantial aerodynamic changes at the end of the 1997 season. Adrian Newey, who had moved to McLaren from Williams the year before, had worked his magic and delivered a supreme racing machine that ultimately took Mika Hakkinen to the drivers’ championship. Similarly, in 2004, Ferrari swept all before them with Michael Schumacher finishing over half a minute ahead of the next non-Ferrari finisher.
What does the 2014 Australian GP have in store? It isn’t a huge stretch to imagine that we’re in for a race of attrition as many teams struggle to go the distance due to unreliability. The Albert Park track is high on fuel consumption, which due to the new regulations in 2014, will present the teams with even more of a fuel management challenge. The reduction in the race fuel limit from 150kg to 100kg echoes the 1986 season when the FIA reduced the race fuel allowance, leading to some drivers running out of fuel in races, notably Alain Prost at the German Grand Prix. However, unlike in 1986, poor fuel management in 2014 is less likely to result in retirement, but a gradual decline in power output as the software controlling the powertrain compensates for excessive fuel consumption. The teams that did not complete a full race distance in testing, such as Red Bull, and drivers that are overly aggressive on the throttle are probably most vulnerable to this scenario in the early races. However, even Nico Rosberg has commented on Mercedes’ difficulties with fuel management throughout race simulations in testing. And Mercedes are better prepared than most. The strategic decision facing the teams (and drivers) in the race will be when to consume fuel and push for lap time and when to conserve fuel in order to finish well.
In dry conditions, it’s hard to see beyond either Hamilton or Rosberg for the race win and in fact I think I’m going to say Rosberg for the win, but Hamilton on pole. If Mercedes do slip up, then I’ll tip Felipe Massa. If it’s a wet race (and current long-range weather forecasts indicate rain at some point during the race weekend), it is likely to bring Ferrari and McLaren, especially Jenson Button, into contention at the front. Let’s hope it’s a classic!