2014 Australian Grand Prix: Weekend Preview

After a long winter of eager anticipation, the 2014 season is upon us, as is the new radically different era of Formula One. It’s all change, as this weekend will mark the first race of the new turbo era, with 1.6 litre V6 engines make their debut. However, as I am sure you know by now, the powertrain has a number of tricks up its sleeve. This has left a number of teams in turmoil, with the Red Bull Juggernaut seemingly in trouble. Will Melbourne show the full extent of Red Bull’s problems and can Mercedes and Williams deliver on their winter form?

Image Credit: juokaz (via Flickr)

The Facts…

  • Melbourne has become the home of the curtain raiser. Albert Park has hosted the first race of the season every year since its debut in 1996, (except from in 2006 and 2010, when Bahrain had the privilege.)
  • The Albert Park circuit has 16 corners and is clockwise. 
  • Michael Schumacher has won the most Australian Grand Prix in his career, with four consecutive victories between 2000 and 2004. 
  • Lewis Hamilton claimed his first career podium in Australia in 2007 – His début race.  

Rewind 12 Months…

After the dominate display from Red Bull during the Sunday morning qualifying session, the majority of people believed that the race would be a Red Bull procession. Some suggested that the RB9 would share a dominance similar to that of the RB7, however, the outcome was very different. Kimi Raikkonen came from P7 on the grid to claim the first win of 2013, with Fernando Alonso finishing 12 seconds behind. Despite the hype, Sebastian Vettel could only manage P3, while Mark Webber’s Melbourne curse continued as he came home in P6, despite qualifying on the front row of the grid.

Mercedes; The Overwhelming Favourites

Despite a season when deciphering a pecking order is about as difficult as trying to explain trigonometry to a five year old, Mercedes are widely regarded as the team to beat in Melbourne. It was predicted that the 2014 regulations would play into their hands, but a magnificent pre-season campaign has seen Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg tagged as title contenders. With the limited knowledge of the full pecking-order, title favourites means Melbourne favourites. 
However, this time last year, Red Bull were in a similar position. A remarkable winter had cemented Sebastian Vettel’s position as title favourite and the RB9 was threatening to dominate in the manner which the RB7 did in 2011. Friday and Saturday supported this theory, yet with tyre wear proving to be the deciding factor in the race, Vettel stuttered. This, in a season when the evolution rather than revolution was the key to a successful winter. Hence, Mercedes cannot become complacent.
It is only Wednesday, but mind-games are already being employed. Christian Horner has today declared that their is in fact a possibility that Mercedes could win Sunday’s race by “two laps.” The Red Bull Team Principal suggested, “You could well see more domination. Perhaps not from us, but from Mercedes. Looking at Mercedes’ race simulation, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they finished two laps ahead of everyone in Melbourne. They have a massive advantage. What we know about Lewis is that he is extremely talented and naturally fast. And he’s in a good team, so he’s probably got to be the favourite going into the season.”
Mercedes undoubtedly have an advantage over their rivals. However, Horner’s overestimation is surly a deliberate ploy to add emphasis on the high expectations which will burden Mercedes this weekend. His suggestions may not influence the experienced figures, but it is the start of the mind games which Red Bull are so adept at deploying. This is not the first, nor the last case of the tactical physiological battle between F1’s most intelligent figures.

The New Era For Felipe

Melbourne marks the first race of this new era of Formula One, however, for Felipe Massa, the start of the 2014 campaign is even more poignant, as it marks his first race away from Ferrari since he joined the team in 2006. The Brazilian had some incredible high points in the scarlet red machine, as well as some monumental low points. While his former team appear to have an excellent package ahead of the new season, Massa will be equally confident that his new team will supply the machinery he needs to impress. Williams’ decision to curtail car development on the ill-fated FW35 early in 2013 seems to have paid dividend, as the FW36 seems to have the potential to return the team to former glory. As such, Felipe Massa is widely regarded as a strong candidate to claim a spot on the podium in Australia and perhaps challenge for that elusive first victory since the epic Brazil 2008.
“I’m confident because I think we have good people,” the Brazilian was quoted as saying by Autosport. “I really believe in this team and believe that they have the potential to be competitive and that they have the understanding to develop well. The correlation between the windtunnel and the track works and that is a good thing. Everything that we brought to the track worked. We are just at the beginning. There is still a lot to do and the work from the people in the team is on a high level.”
Melbourne could see Williams confirm their 2014 credentials – they may have been the most reliable team during the frantic winter period, but points are not awarded prior to the 16th March. However, they appear to be in good shape to complete the distance on Sunday and as has already been suggested, completing the full 56 laps could guarantee points, considering the sketchy-at-best reliability endured by most teams.
 

Enstone Apprehension…

While Red Bull’s dramatic return to reality has stolen the headlines this winter, Lotus appear to by the team in dire straights ahead of Melbourne. After failing to complete a race simulation run and with Romain Grosjean clocking the least number of laps of any driver, the team will surly consider Melbourne a success if one car manages to see the chequered flag. Its certainly a sticky patch for Formula One’s recent overachievers. 
Even their Technical Director, Nick Chester, is publicly recognising the difficulties and taking a pragmatic approach, (even if Pastor Maldonado is downplaying the issues.) “I think the first couple of races will be difficult,” he is quoted as saying by Autosport . “Hopefully when we get to race three, we’ll be in a much better position. It depends really on the fixes Renault Sport are going to bring and how quickly that comes in.”
Lotus have been unfortunate this winter. The issues with funding have evidently hampered their 2014 preparations, and in missing the Jerez test, they were always going to be playing catch-up. Once they finally unveiled the E22, they experienced the Renault woes that Red Bull had suffered in the first test, along with the failed exhaust upgrade package, which cost them an entire day’s running. Add to this, the untimely departure of Eric Boullier, (my number one Team Principal of 2013,) events have conspired against the team. A difficult first weekend of the season is highly likely and will demonstrate the effects of a turbulent winter.

Prediction Corner

Now, this is the part of the article I was dreading. With unreliability, countless drivers making their début with new teams and competitively untested powertrains, the only thing predictable about this coming weekend is unpredictability. If I was forced to name the winner, (it wouldn’t be Prediction Corner if I didn’t,) Nico Rosberg would be my favourite. Evidently, Mercedes look like the strongest team and while I disagree with Christian Horner in regards to the margin of victory, their winter form suggests that an early win is likely. However, Ferrari’s place in the pecking order is somewhat of a mystery and Williams are a reformed outfit. Predictions are worth very little at this stage.
Fantastic isn’t it!    

2014 will see a similar race weekend package as provided last season. The one change is that Weekend Preview’s will now be posted on Wednesday’s instead of the past Thursday slot. Stay tuned throughout the weekend for my usual in-depth analysis of events in Melbourne.

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