Australian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

G’day! The first stop of the 2014 Formula 1 Championship Season starts once again at Melbourne’s Albert Park. The 5.303 km circuit runs clockwise through a series of high speed corners mixed with hard braking points in the middle of each sector. The new Turbo V6 engines, while running an undoubtedly quick pace, are considerably quieter than their predecessors. This season’s cars don’t have the same “angry wasp” noise that have addicted fans, but alas, I’m sure we’ll learn to love the growl of the turbo engine. Previously the track favoured a high speed package, though this season a reliable package will see teams pick up points. Rumours in the paddock are that at least half the field are expected to retire. An exhilarating qualifying session certainly shuffled some of the grid around with deteriorating track conditions leaving three world champion drivers stranded in Q2.  Hamilton just managed to snatch pole position from homeboy, Daniel Ricciardo, much to the dismay of the crowd, while Nico Rosberg followed just behind the two.

Mercedes appear to have their package sorted for this weekend starting from the front two rows on the grid. Like most of the field, Lewis Hamilton made an early appearance in Q1 on the soft compound tyres to set a flying lap before the impending rain hit the circuit. When the rain did reach Albert Park, the F1 W05 immediately went to the top of the time sheets and only left briefly for the RB10 of Daniel Ricciardo and team mate Nico Rosberg. In the final moments of Q3, Hamilton managed to snatch pole from homeboy Ricciardo by 0.317s with a lap time of 1:44.231. Nico Rosberg, as usual, delivered throughout all three sessions proving to be (in my eyes at least) a serious contender for the Championship this season. The German driver made the wet track conditions appear easy, despite DRS being disabled in Q3. While occasionally sliding the F1 W05 through the circuit, Rosberg challenged both his team mate and Ricciardo for pole position. Rosberg eventually crossed the chequered flag to qualify P3 with 1:44.595.

Daniel Ricciardo stole the show today in his first qualifying session for Red Bull, posting consistent P1 times throughout all three qualifying sessions. The ever smiling Australian looked effortlessly confident and very at home in the RB10, despite varying and very difficult track conditions. After playing an exhilarating game of cat and mouse for pole position with the two Mercedes boys, Dan qualified in P2 with a 1:44.548, which leaves me to wonder; how many Weetbix are we feeding this kid? Surprisingly, Sebastian Vettel sat at the opposite end of the time sheets during today’s qualifying session. The reigning world champion failed to put a lap together to make it out of Q2 , but not for lack of trying. While the RB10 obviously had the pace, Vettel appeared much less comfortable in his new ride than his teammate, even touching the barriers on his flying lap. It’s bound to happen once in a blue moon, but tomorrow Vettel is qualifying P13, though starting P12.

Rookie driver for McLaren, Kevin “Mini Mag” Magnussen more than proved his Formula 1 seat in today’s session, excelling not only during the dry stages of Q1, but spending time near the top of the time sheets throughout the rest of the wet sessions putting in a final qualifying time of 1:45.745 to start alongside Ricciardo in P4. However, the Dane driver with Vettel, is currently under investigation by the race stewards for failing to observe the yellow flags at the end of Q2. Jensen Button’s crucial flying lap in Q2 was hindered by yellow flags waved after Raikkonen went into the barriers between turns 3 and 4. Subsequently the McLaren was eliminated on the cusp in Q2 to qualify P11 with 1:44.437 as his best posted lap time, though a later penalty for Bottas will see Button start P10. Despite a less than ideal session for the Brit, the McLaren appears to be one of the reliable cars on the grid this season.

Ferrari once again had a bipolar qualifying, both drivers appeared split in their ability to control the F14 T in wet conditions. Alonso definitely appeared to be more confident in this years car than his team mate, and except for suffering a lockup into turn 1 during Q1, had a relatively strong handle on the car. The Spaniard’s flying lap at the end of the Q1 session was compromised by Maldonado failing to move out of the way into turn 3 due to wheel spin. It was no surprise however that Alonso quickly recovered and made it through to the subsequent sessions. Despite being one of the driver’s to temporarily top the time sheets in Q3, the Ferrari veteran eventually qualified P5 with 1:45.819. Kimi Raikkonen despite being back on familiar ground seems less familiar with his new package. The Iceman appeared to still be struggling with the torque of the Ferrari, and in wet track conditions spun out at the end of Q2 while attempting to avoid traffic on a flying lap. The Finn would be less than impressed therefore with his best lap time of 1:44.494 only being good enough for P12. Though due to Bottas’ gearbox penalty, Kimi moves up to P11 on the grid.

In a rare turn of events, both Toro Rosso drivers made it through to Q3. Vergne and Kvyat wasted no time to make the most of the wet conditions, appearing a lot more comfortable with the package than during practice sessions. Jean-Eric Vergne put in a strong start to the season qualifying in P6 with a 1:45.864 on the intermediate tyres in wet conditions. However, slightly stealing the spotlight was team mate and rookie driver Daniil Kvyat who outshone a number of world champion drivers in his debut qualifying session. Despite a few offs at turn 9, the Russian driver set a flying lap time of 1:47.368, only 1.5 seconds behind his team mate, and good enough for P8.

The Force India VJM07 looked comfortable on the Albert Park Circuit despite the wet conditions of qualifying. Hulkenberg, who returns to the Force India seat after a season away got the most out of the package compared to his team mate, making through to Q3 to set a final flying lap of 1:46.030 to split to two Toro Rossos’ in P7. Perez struggled with the track conditions during Q2 and couldn’t maintain control of his VJM07 long enough to set a competitive lap time, along with a poorly timed change to intermediates, the best the Mexican could manage today was 1:47.293 for P16.

The new Williams package looks to be one of the more reliable cars on the grid for the start of the championship season. The FW36 with a Mercedes power unit has been strong throughout practice and when on a dry track. However, once rain hit Albert Park, Massa noticeably lost control over the car and slid through most the the twisty back half of the circuit. Despite losing the back end of the FW36, the Brazlian still managed a 1:48.079 to start P9. Bottas, while keeping his Williams more inline suffered from gearbox issues which slightly hindered his lap time, with his best result being 1:48.147 qualifying P10 to round out the top end of the grid. However a decision by the team to change his gearbox will see the Finn start P15.

Sauber’s performance in qualifying was not as strong as would be expected with a Ferrari power unit. New addition to the team, Adrian Sutil had a relatively smooth session inQ1, but struggled in the wet conditions failing to make it out of Q2 with a flying lap of 1:45.655 in the intermediate tyres. The German qualified P14, but will start P13. Gutierrez was plagued with a very challenging qualifying with possible residual gearbox issues from practice early today. The Mexican’s C33 during practice had issues selecting gears, and resulted in a lot of time spent in the garage. Though out during most of Q1, Gutierrez’s C33 couldn’t push for a flying lap to get him to the next session. Qualifying in P19, Gutierrez will start from P21 on the grid after a gearbox penalty.

Kamui Kobayashi’s return to Formula 1 for Caterham has got off to a positive start with the Japanese driver making it through to Q2 in his CT05, a feat not usually achieved for the team. The ever popular Kobayashi eventually qualified P15, but will tart P14 Team mate Marcus Ericsson was yet another rookie driver to impress during qualifying, while appearing confident in his drive the Swede unfortunately failed to make it out of Q1 and will start P19 (though qualified P20).

The usual subjects were eliminated in Q1. However, Max Chilton’s MR03 Marussia did manage to out qualify his team mate Jules Bianchi for only the second time since their entry into Formula 1 last year. Chilton perhaps felt a boost of confidence in this years car* managing a flying lap of 1:34.293 ahead of Bianchi’s 1:34.794. Unlike last season, neither Marussia will start from the back row with Chilton and Bianchi P17 and P18 respectively.

In what may be a sign of things to come on race day, Lotus had a disastrous qualifying session after such a positive performance last season. The new E22 has been plagued with issues throughout testing and practice, with Grosjean feeling the car is almost undriveable. Grosjean was the only Lotus to make an appearance in qualifying as Maldonado broke down in FP3 and as a result failed to make it out in today’s session. The Frenchman did all he could to get the E22 to perform, but after only six laps a spin into turn 13 saw him out of Q1 to qualify with a 1:36.993 and in P21, though due to Gutierrez’s penalty Grosjean will not be on the last row.

With a dry race expected anything can happen during the race, though a reliable package is going to be key. Fighting to make up positions, Vettel will undoubtedly give it his all to the point where he will most likely suffer a gearbox or engine failure. I can’t see the reining world champion adhering to team orders to conserve tryes or keep the engine cool, but that is just who he is. The Mercedes is definitely the most reliable power unit on the grid, which will favour Hamilton and Rosberg from the start, but also Williams and McLaren’s Magnussen. The only thing that is a sure prediction for the season opener is this race will be lunatic.

– Alex

* Or perhaps a boost of confidence because I asked him for a photo earlier that day, surely that counts for some of the 0.501s advantage.

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