It’s Australian Grand Prix race week and we preview the 2018 Formula One curtain raiser at Melbourne’s Albert Park Circuit.
The time has come, Formula One is back and the winter holidays – well, summer for the Southern Hemisphere – are over. This weekend we will be jumping into the unknown, with a brand new season which is shaping up to be like nothing we’ve ever witnessed before.
Ten teams, twenty drivers will all commence battle on the fast, flowing streets of Albert Park, in what will be the 33rd Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix on Australian soil, the first of those on the streets of Adelaide in 1985 – and the 23rd GP hosted on the Melbourne Parklands layout.
Two four-day tests at Spain’s Circuit de Catalunya provided the only opportunity for teams to understand their cars ahead of the new season – the focus traditionally on reliability rather than outright pace, with Mercedes racking up the most miles in pre-season testing. 4,481km in total between Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Although, it was the Ferrari’s of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen that looked quick from the outset, between the pair, they topped the time-sheets in four of the days, waving the flag for the ‘Prancing Horse’.
Red Bull Racing also ran up the front throughout the test, though didn’t reveal too much truth on its new RB14, playing their cards close to their chest. It was the glimmer of positivity in Daniel Ricciardo’s eye at the conclusion of the final test that suggested there may be more to come from Red Bull, and we may just be looking at a three horse fight at the head of the field come Melbourne.
Aussie, Ricciardo, will be looking to kick start his 2018 campaign with a victory on home soil. The Western Australian is currently a key player in the driver market with his current contract at Red Bull due to expire at the end of the season, leading to suggestions he could join Mercedes or Ferrari next year.
Riccardo however, has downplayed any talks and is keen to bide his time to see how the RB14 performs this year before indicating whether he wants to stay or leave the Milton Keynes operation.
One of the major talking points out of the test was McLaren, and, well, the continuation of their woes. After divorcing with Honda at the back end of last year and switching to Renault power for this season, the team hoped for a clean slate and a fresh start in the form of their 2018 campaign.
However, they had a troubled two weeks of pre-season testing with a raft of problems marring the Woking-based squad, including wheel nut failures, battery problems, loose exhausts and overheating bodywork – leaving preparations on the back foot.
But as the season opener approaches, McLaren racing director Eric Boullier is confident the team has addressed its reliability concerns and believes the problems have been resolved.
“We didn’t have the reliability we had hoped for in winter testing, but all the issues we faced have since been addressed back at the factory,” said Boullier.
“There’s a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes to ensure we leave no stone unturned in our quest to extract the maximum pace we can from our new package from the first race.”
With McLaren in unknown, the real question is what’s the situation in the mid-field like?
Haas, Toro Rosso, Renault and Force India all showed strong signs throughout testing, with a firm playing field well and truly established. A definitive structure though to that playing field is yet to surface, with most teams eagerly awaiting this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix to properly gauge themselves in competitive trim to the other squads.
“I’d like to think we can fight for points in Melbourne,” said Force India driver Esteban Ocon.
“We had a really solid second week of testing in Barcelona. I feel comfortable in the car and it’s very consistent. We have new parts coming for the race so hopefully that’s another performance step.”
Team mate Sergio Perez added: “I want this to be my best year in Formula One and I want to be back on the podium. During testing we saw that all the midfield teams are quite close together in terms of performance…Let’s see what happens.”
Williams were a team who flew dramatically under the radar during pre-season testing, and not in a good way. Languishing near the bottom of the time-sheets, and quite often slowest of the lot, the UK outfit has been struggling to get to grips with its Mercedes-powered FW41.
Technical chief Paddy Lowe admitted the new car is struggling with corner entry and stability, something the team needs to get on top of it its to move up the grid.
“The limitation in the car at the moment is corner entry and stability,” Lowe explained during the Barcelona test.
“I mean, that is quite often the limitation in a car to be honest, but it’s particularly exaggerated at the moment with what we’re running.
“I think if we can unlock some progress there, we will find a lot more lap time than we’ve got at the moment.”
The added factor of a rookie in one of the team’s seats doesn’t make things easier, with drivers Lance Stroll and F1 debutant Sergey Sirotkin both looking to improve and take a step forward at Melbourne from their position in testing.
“I can see your halo….”:
The halo – and no, not the song Beyonce sings.
2018 sees the introduction of the halo cockpit protection system, a topic that has been of plenty discussion in recent months. It may have come under heavy criticism, with even Mercedes team principle Toto Wolf saying he would “take it off with a chainsaw” given half a chance, but undeniably, the incentive behind it is nothing more than improving the safety for drivers.
Driver protection is something the FIA take very seriously, though the device does have its negatives. Teams have had to implement a reinforced chassis, especially around the area that the titanium structure is secured to the car.
According to Mercedes, the halo is capable of holding the weight of one of London’s double decker busses – that’s equivalent to 12 tonnes balancing on a 7kg metal frame. The reason behind this, is to ensure it would be strong enough to withstand the type of event that it’s designed to protect the driver’s head against.
Haas’ Kevin Magnussen voiced fears earlier this week when speaking with Motorsort.com, that fans are “not going to have a clue” which driver is behind each team’s halo device at the start of races this season.
Pierre Gasly, Fernando Alonso and Max Verstappen all echoed Magnussen’s view when asked by Motorsport.com on the topic. All considered, the halo is here to stay.
Speaking ahead of this weekend’s curtain raiser, Mercedes team principle Wolf admitted Ferrari and Red Bull are not far off Mercedes, and expects to see a three-way fight between the trio of marques this season.
“Now, it’s time to find out what we’ve got: like the old saying goes, when the flag drops, the bullsh*t stops,” added Wolf.
“Last year, the competition was very close and there was no moment where we could afford to relax. Ferrari put up a very tough fight and we had a proper battle between silver and red. This year promises to bring an exciting three-way fight between us, Ferrari and Red Bull.
“Everyone in Brackley and Brixworth has worked extremely hard over the past months to make sure we enter that fight with the best machine possible. Both our drivers seem reasonably happy with our new car, but it remains yet to be seen how well it performs when driven in anger.”
Tyres are also the talk of the paddock, with the Ultrasoft compound appearing to be the rubber of choice for teams ahead of this weekend.
Of the three compounds available for Albert Park, the purple-walled Ultrasofts are the softest, with all ten teams electing to have the majority of their allowed 13 sets as Ultras.
Mercedes, Williams and McLaren have each opted for nine sets on both its driver’s cars, the remaining allocation split amongst the Soft and Supersoft compounds.
Ferrari have chosen to go with only seven sets of Ultrasofts, leaving them with three sets of each of the the other two compounds.
AGP Fast facts:
- First Grand Prix: 1996
- Number of laps: 58
- Direction: Clockwise
- Circuit Length: 5.303km
- Race Distance: 307.574km
- Lap record: 1:24.125 (M. Schumacher, 2004)
- 2017 race winner: Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari)
- Biggest event attendance: 1995 (401 000)
- Longest straight: 843m
- Top speed: 328kph
- Average speed: 207kph
- Altitude: 9m above sea level
Opening practice for the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix begins on Friday at 1200 local time with a 90 minute session, followed by another hit out later in the day and a final one hour practice on Saturday morning.
Qualifying begins at 1700 on Saturday, while lights out on Sunday for the first race of the season is at 1610.