Friday, 16 March 2012

Melbourne Preview: So many questions

Questions, so many questions.

Every year it's the same. In the build up to a new F1 season questions pile up. And only in the first race weekend do we begin to get some answers.

Credit: Thomas Reynolds / CC
And this year is no different in the number of questions that have accumulated. Who can stop the Red Bull? And more to the point who can stop Sebastian Vettel? Can Mark Webber start giving his team mate more to think about? Is the McLaren as close to Red Bull as is assumed? Is the Ferrari as bad as people think? Is this the year Mercedes finally step up? Are any of the Merc's innovative features a silver bullet? And if so what can either their drivers do in turn? What about Lotus, and will Kimi Raikkonen capture his glories of old? Who of the tight midfield scrap will come out on top? Will 2012 be the year that Caterham leave the backmarkers and join the peleton? Have the competitive gaps between the cars diminished since last year? How will the new spec Pirellis change things?

However, Friday's running around Melbourne's Albert Park didn't go far at all to answering any of these. Both practice sessions featured adverse elements, and the track dried gradually throughout, meaning the timing screens revolved like the display on a fruit machine and supremacy in laptime owed mostly to throwing caution to the wind and running late in the session rather than to offering any insight on the pecking order.

Michael Schumacher and Mercedes
are the talk of Melbourne thus far
Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
But it was the Mercedes that were the talk of the town, for a few reasons. One is, Michael Schumacher topped the charts in the second session, and looked a lot more like his old self throughout, in and out of the car, than we've been used to in recent times. Grist to the 'can Schumi recapture his old form' mill. And while the lap times need to be taken with a shovel load of salt, the Mercs were persistently near the top of the screens, seemingly making good on their pre-season promise of a forward step. And the myriad of mod cons on the car continued to encourage chat, in particular its apparent DRS-activated F-duct on the rear wing. While none of it is a double-diffuser style differentiator so far as anyone can tell, and still few expect a Mercedes to be on pole in Melbourne, it all appears to add up to something good.

Elsewhere, all at McLaren continued to make happy noises, those at Ferrari are coy (I have a hunch, not really based on anything, that the Scuderia won't be as bad in the early races as some are predicting - though the car continued to look a bit untidy out on track today and rumours swirl of a fundamental upgrade being on the way for the Spanish round) and, surprisingly, Red Bull seem downbeat. Indeed, Vettel has gone so far to say that he 'wasn't happy' and he'll have to go 'a lot quicker tomorrow'. Curious.

The Albert Park circuit, running throughout parkland on public roads, is rather unusual, and this has led some to say that not even this weekend will be a reliable guide to 2012 form, with that awaiting more at Malaysia and China. Despite this, Albert Park's record as a predictor for the destination of the drivers' championship at the end of the year is actually a very good one. Indeed, it can be argued that no eventual champion has been beaten in a straight fight at Albert Park since the track appeared on the calendar in 1996 and almost every year has looked the quickest out there at the Australian round.

With all of this, it's also worth remembering that for as long as Formula One cars have made their way around Albert Park, Adrian Newey cars have gone well there invariably. The Newey-influenced Williams dominated qualifying here in 1996 and 1997, and then in subsequent years the Newey McLarens tended to have the place to themselves. And in the past two years Vettel and Red Bull have been the quickest by a margin (and they were top of the 'non-double diffuser' runners here in 2009). The reason for this is most likely simple: the parkland track is low on grip, and therefore requires plenty of downforce especially at the rear. And that suits an Adrian Newey car just fine. Even if the 2012 season turns out to be a closer fight than 2011 generally, don't bet against a Bull for the pole here.

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