12 March 2015
Droning on in Melbourne…
Last year’s Australian Grand Prix marked the beginning of a new era in Formula 1. After years of domination by Red Bull, pre-season testing had prompted fans and pundits alike to ask which team(s) had got it right and which had got it wrong. Red Bull and Renault looked like they were in trouble in testing, as did many other teams. Would even half the field finish in Melbourne? Ultimately, dire warnings about mass retirements did not come to fruition and the race itself was instead marked by the stunning success of Mercedes, in spite of Lewis Hamilton’s retirement.
However, the event was rather overshadowed by the race’s own promoters and organisers. F1 has a curious way of repeatedly shooting itself in the foot. It was frankly embarrassing to hear the Australian Grand Prix promoter Ron Walker slagging off his own Grand Prix to satisfy a wider political agenda that had latched on to the lack of engine noise in 2014 compared to the previous year. I had always thought the Australians were very good at putting on an F1 race. But this was ridiculous. What spoke even louder, however, was the absence of any official voice in F1 promoting the racing excitement that the new turbo-charged hybrid powertrains had brought to F1. A very positive message that should have been promoted by the FIA and the media was lost in the din about engine noise.
Tyre performance critical at Albert Park
Politics aside, the Albert Park circuit often produces excellent racing. The spectacle in Australia no doubt benefits from usually hosting the season opener thereby handing it novelty value and at the same time satisfying the winter withdrawal symptoms of many an F1 petrolhead…like me. Albert Park is also gritty and tough. It’s a real car breaker. It’s hard on engines, brakes and high on fuel consumption. And overtaking is possible. A great mix.
The best overtaking zones are under braking for Turns 1, 3 and 13. However, passing in Turn 1 requires boldness on the part of the overtaker because the apex is unsighted and the driver being overtaken has a good chance to regain his position on the inside of Turn 2. Turn 3, at the end of the second DRS zone, is undoubtedly the prime overtaking place.
Generating sufficient mechanical grip from the tyres is probably the critical performance factor due to the low grip asphalt. Being a street circuit, the surface is dirty in the early practice sessions, but evolves throughout the weekend. Pirelli has brought its Soft and Medium compound tyres to cope with low and high track temperatures. However, Pirelli’s new rear tyre for 2015 increases traction, helping drivers get back on the power earlier on corner exit. The stop-start nature of the lap and the pattern of constant braking and acceleration causes tyre degradation. The left rear tyre will be the most vulnerable in the race.
Albert Park requires a high-downforce setup. Any teams struggling for rear-end downforce will suffer from higher tyre degradation, particularly in the comparatively slow-speed Sector 3, because downforce will minimise the rear of the car sliding and protect the tyre for longer. A good aerodynamic package can really help make up time in the slow Sector 3, in particular Turns 15 and 16, where good low-speed grip is essential. Anyone performing well in this final sector is likely to put themselves in overtaking positions into Turn 1, with the help of DRS of course.
Around 60% of a lap round Albert Park is spent on full throttle. However, rather than outright top-line speed and grunt, which naturally come in handy for the relatively higher-speed Sectors 1 and 2, engine driveability is a more significant performance factor given the constant need to re-accelerate.
On the strategy front, the long-range weather forecast suggest warm and dry conditions, with the chance of showers following qualifying. In 2014, Rosberg won from pole on a two-stop strategy, spending 70% of the race on Soft tyres. As ever round Albert Park, the strategy wildcard is the safety car, which has about a 50% chance of appearing, not least due to the high likelihood of contact in Turns 1 and 2 in the early laps.
The fight in the chasing pack
Expect a tumultuous battle behind the Mercedes. Williams are likely to perform strongly given the driveability of their Mercedes powertrain, the FW37’s greater rear downforce compared to its predecessor and more consistent rear tyres from Pirelli. Bottas and Massa will probably be able to get back on the power sooner on corner exit compared to 2014 and either pull away from their pursuers or pressurise cars in front. However, expect Ferrari and even Red Bull to mix it with Williams. Testing in Spain indicated that Ferrari has made an all-round improvement on aerodynamic performance as well as on horsepower and driveability. Additionally, the Scuderia appears to have cured their lack of front-end downforce from last season that hurt corner entry performance and upset Kimi Raikkonen’s season. Red Bull do not have the horsepower of Mercedes or Ferrari, but Adrian Newey and co will no doubt have produced a strong aerodynamic package that will help negate the RB11’s relative power deficit. Expect Ricciardo and Kvyat to be stronger in the technical final sector where greater downforce is critical to a quick sector time.
McLaren will probably count themselves lucky if both their cars complete the race distance. On pace, I expect them to be fighting with Lotus, Force India and Toro Rosso. The question is how far will Button and Magnussen get into the race? Alonso’s absence due to a heavy accident in testing is obviously a loss, but less damaging at this early stage in the MP4-30’s development and when there is not a world championship on the line.
Sparks will fly…!
Hold on tight! Here’s Round 2! I look forward to one hell of a battle between the warring Mercedes pair. Trying to split them on performance is like splitting hairs and I expect the pattern of 2014 to be repeated this weekend. The battle will probably tighten up when Hamilton and Rosberg go to the Soft tyre, with Rosberg likely benefiting more from the extra rear grip, but when the Mediums are bolted on, watch out for Hamilton. If the World Champion gains track position at any point during the race, I’m backing the Briton to hold off Rosberg.
My race forecast is a win for Hamilton.