Australian Grand Prix: Pre Race Thoughts

G’day maaate, welcome to the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship in Melbourne Australia. It’s the 20th year running that F1 returns to the 5.303km circuit at Albert Park. Running clockwise for 58 laps, Albert Park is a brilliant mix of big braking points and smooth running corners. At an average speed of 213 km/h, this one is considered a medium speed track with “only” 65% of a lap spent at full throttle. The hard braking zones, with turn 13 being the heaviest offer a good opportunity to recharge the ERS. Brakeware has a stronger focus in strategy, with teams’ favouring a higher downforce set up carrying an advantage. Doing it’s best to imitate the outback, the bumpy and dusty Albert Park circuit is a demanding track, with overtaking even with DRS proves to be difficult. Turn 3 appears to be the best opportunity for overtaking, but expect some challenges out of the final corner. The tyre allocation for the weekend is the soft, option, and medium, prime Pirelli compounds, with a two-stop strategy being expected. Track temperatures were a warm 38°C for the beginning of Q1, dropping by 10°C by the time Q3 rolled around. The opening qualifying session saw Lewis Hamilton set 1:26.327 to steal pole position by 0.594s, ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg. Williams’, Felipe Massa took P3 with a 1:27.718, indicating that the Grove based team remain the best of the rest compared to the Silver Arrows.

Mercedes refuse to loosen their strong hold on the championship, with the F1 W06 consistently setting a quick pace over the weekend. As the session begun both Hamilton and Rosberg were slippy on the medium compound tyre, with the rear occasionally stepping out. After a few laps were on the board however, the tyre temps and pressures settled in, and Mercedes quickly took their familiar spot at the top of the timesheets for Q1 and Q2.
Hamilton was unchallenged in the final session, setting his 1:26.327 with more than 5 minutes to spare. Rosberg did a bit of maintenance to the grass in Q3, running wide in turn 15 after an unusual lock up in the middle of the apex. With no time set for the German, the pressure was on for Rosberg to deliver a challenge for pole. Unfortunately, Rosberg’s 1:28.510 was comparatively slow to his teammate, settling to line up P2 ahead of tomorrow’s race.

Williams F1 Team played leapfrog with the two Ferraris’ throughout qualifying, though once again held their own in the final moments of the session. Felipe Massa ran a good session in the FW37, remaining just behind the Mercedes both on the medium and soft compound tyres. It was with apparent ease that Massa set a 1:27.718 for P3. Valtteri Bottas took the role of Flying Finn in qualifying, being the stronger of the two in Q1 and Q2, slipping comfortably into P2 in between the Silver Arrows. Painfully, it was Q3 that didn’t come together for Bottas after suffering a lock up on turn 1 of his first flying lap, followed by massively missing the apex of turn 3. After several more attempts to put a lap together, it was the bumpy entry of turn 16 that mocked the FW37, sending Bottas wide and spoiling what was a strong lap. As a result, the Williams is slightly out of expected position in P6 with 1:28.087.

Ferrari must get up very early in the morning as the Scuderia’s haven’t looked this strong since the 2008 season. The SF15-T was not only quick, but maintained bite throughout the session, remaining competitive in the latter end of Q3 where the Ferrari fell away last season. The highly anticipated arrival of Sebastian Vettel to partner Kimi Raikkonen makes the driver line up a fan favourite, and it would appear that Seb’s cheek is well matched with Kimi. “Sebastian, what kind of Ferrari have you got ahead of tomorrow’s race?”, “A red one…”. Neither Vettel nor Raikkonen are strangers to the sharp end of the timesheets, with a P4 and P5 for the team, a podium definitely isn’t out of reach.

Local hero and Red Bull’s new front man, Daniel Ricciardo received cheers every time he crossed the line from the Webber Grandstand. After suffering from an early engine change on Friday, Ricciardo recovered to run consistently on Saturday in Q1 on the medium compound tyres, before flinging himself into P6 to see him pass through to the top ten shoot out. Shaving a few tenths off the Q2 time, Ricciardo set a 1:28.087 as the checkered flag fell briefly putting the Aussie in P3, before being bumped down to a relatively competitive P7. Daniil Kvyat was last out in Q1, making his first appearance with less than three minutes remaining in the session. It was a disappointing first outing for Kvyat stepping up into the Red Bull seat as handling issues and an over enthusiastic throttle that had plagued FP3 carried through into Saturday afternoon. Unable to make the cut, Kvyat battled the RB11 for 1:29.070, an improvement from 1:30.402 in Q1, though still considerably off the pace. The Russian lines up P13 for tomorrow’s race.

The Toro Rosso’s were another surprise challenge in qualifying with both drivers finishing inside the top ten after Q1. Carlos Sainz’s pace in the STR10 impressed in in qualifying, despite spinning at turn 4 after dipping a toe on the grass. Sainz controlled the Renault powered Toro Rosso to put together flying lap after flying lap. It was no surprise therefore that the rookie made it through to the top ten shoot out to piece together a lap of 1:28.510 on the soft tyres. Just 0.2s off big brother, Daniel Ricciardo, Sainz lines up P8. The youngest on the grid had a lot to prove in his debut qualifying session, to which he delivered. Max Verstappen was similarly quick on the pace in Q1, with his performance leaving Helmut Marko unphased. However his session came to an early end after complaining over the radio that there was something behind his right shoulder, the rookie held the STR10 together s best he could for a 1:28.868, just missing out on the top ten shoot out in P12.

The new and improved Lotus F1 Team were a happy addition to the top ten shoot out, proving that the switch to Mercedes power at the end of last season was a good decision. Although Maldonado had to battle with understeer, and then oversteer on his flying lap in Q1, the Venezuelan kept it together and soon the E23 behaved. Both Grosjean and Maldonado were quicker than the Red Bulls and Toro Rosso’s in Q2, indicating the the E23 is more than ready to put up a strong fight. The Enstone based team appeared to suffer most from the 10°C drop in track temperature, losing pace in the back end of Q3. So it was P9 for Grosjean and P10 for Maldonado with 1:28.560 and 1:29.480 on the soft compound tyres.

Sauber’s weekend so far has been a touch dramatic, with car issues during practice and you know, the whole issue of seemingly having 3-drivers signed to a 2-seat team… Putting the paddock drama to one side, Felipe Nasr was something of a dark horse on Saturday, out-qualifying his teammate by 5 grid positions. In the final moments of Q2, Nasr set a competitive flying lap of 1:28.800, briefly seeing the rookie inside the top ten. Although it was the two Lotus’ final effort that bumped the Sauber down to P11. Markus Ericsson’s new outfit is at least, more competitive than a Caterham… Unfortunately for the Swede the best the C34 could offer him didn’t even dip below the 1:30s. A difficult final flying lap for Ericsson put together 1:31.376 for P16.

Force India were absent for the Q1 and Q3, resulting in both Hulkenberg and Perez being literally absent in Q3. Despite having the advantage of a Mercedes power-unit, the VJM08 lacked both pace and bite into the corners. In an uneventful Q1, Hulkenberg and Perez managed to remain out of the dropzone to progress to the second session. And while it was a improvement on both times, 1:29.208 for Hulkenberg and 1:29.209 for Perez were the best the duo could muster for P14 and P15 respectively. In an effort to find a silver lining, at least Hulkenberg and Perez appeared consistent with each others lap times, even if it was three seconds off the pace to the leaders.

The issues keep on coming for McLaren Honda, with Button and Magnussen rounding off the grid. Considerably down on power, Button and Magnussen posed little threat even to Sauber, only managing 1:31.422 and 1:32.037 respectively, a massive 1.5s off the pace to progress through the grid. Manor F1 Team have put in an incredible effort to make it to the season opener on Australia. Unfortunately for the team, a software issue has plagued Manor over the course of weekend, resulting in yet another session that both drivers’ were forced to sit out. It was therefore, “no time set” for Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi in qualifying.

So Mercedes remain in a league of their own ahead of tomorrow’s race, while a surprising battle between the Williams and Ferrari is emerging. It remains to be seen if Ferrari can hold out to make the distance competitively, or if the Scuderia will fall short on the demanding circuit. Williams will no doubt be a worthy adversary, being strong both in terms of pace and aero setup. Further back in the grid, we can expect battles between the Red Bulls, Lotus, and Toro Rossos for a tantalising cocktail of vetran and rookie skill. McLaren, aside from Manor have the biggest challenge ahead of them, with their aim likely to be to finish the race without sacrificing an engine. Adding to excitement, the locals predict rain for race day, but it is Melbourne in March, could be either blazing sunshine of absolute downpour… Either way, the season opener will be top show.

– Alex

Ps. It’s good to be back.

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