Tuesday 10 March 2015

Melbourne Preview: Plus ca change...

Such is the speed that F1 moves on, and so rarely do its protagonists look back the way, it's easy to forget that the fraternity heads to Australia to kick off its latest annual campaign in a very different frame of mind than when it last did 12 months ago.

"2014 Melbourne Grand Prix (From Eureka Skydeck)" by Chris
Phutully - https://www.flickr.com/photos/72562013@N06/
13186495033/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia
Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2014_
Then no one really knew what to expect. The sport had just undertaken probably its grandest alteration ever. Matters, not just in competitive order but also in how racing would be done, threatened to be very different. Perhaps unrecognisable.

Yet while last year's Melbourne season-opener felt like a gigantic leap into the unknown, what awaits us this time is expected to be of the familiar sort. Indeed so familiar that even last year most in advance felt confident that it would happen even among all the other flux. The fight for the win in Australia this weekend should - reliability willing - be a very private Mercedes matter.

Year-on-year regulation change this time is modest, and it's not that those behind haven't progressed, indeed on the contrary nearly all those teams have made noticeable forward steps. It's just that so far as we can tell Mercedes moved forward itself about as much. Few came away from pre-season testing this time with reason to think Merc's pursuers are significantly closer than was the case in 2014.

Therefore just like we grew very accustomed to last year that means Lewis Hamilton versus Nico Rosberg for race victories and the drivers' title. Many reckon that the smart money is on Lewis this campaign, that last year was Nico's chance and that with his feet further under the table and the assurance of a second world title just won Lewis will be yet stronger. Certainly he ended last season in Abu Dhabi looking a more rounded driver and rounded individual than at any point since his stellar debut campaign in 2007. It felt too, rather than a peak being scaled, like a launching pad for the Lewis-Merc partnership.

But we've thought this sort of thing before about Nico getting put into his box; indeed we've been anticipating a Lewis whip hand ever since the two first became team mates in early 2013 and it's never really happened. Furthermore the odd murmuring has the German's testing form being slightly the better. Certainly both will be keen to set early momentum in Melbourne - you could make a coherent case that Nico's 25 point advantage from Australia did a lot to colour most of last year's drivers' championship fight.

The view that most expect the rest will
get of the Mercedes this weekend
Photo: Octane Photography
But if the top two in whichever order looks set fortunately the matter of who is next up is intriguing. While testing indicated that Ferrari, Red Bull and Williams are in the mix for best of the rest it didn't give us a definite sense of their order. Indeed, adding to the intrigue, of the three Williams almost beyond doubt has the best power unit but possibly the weakest chassis. Red Bull probably has the weakest power unit but its chassis is likely again to be a standard bearer. Ferrari is between the two on both. But around Albert Park few of the turns are fast and none are long, which may play into Williams' hands relatively speaking this time.

The next bunch of cars after that also are tightly packed, and just like with the bunch ahead there isn't a consensus on the likely order of Lotus, Toro Rosso and Sauber. Also like the group ahead each start the campaign with some reason for optimism, particularly when compared to last year's effort. Force India appears to have a solid base too but may suffer initially from starting its 2015 running late. As for Manor, the probability is that its cars will be off the back of the pack - getting within 107% of the pace may even be a struggle - but still few presences in Melbourne will be as popular.

Which leaves McLaren. The conspicuous outlier. Like all other teams the Woking squad will not have been sitting on its hands since the end of the second Barcelona test, which is just as well for its own sake as on the basis of testing getting out of Q1 and making it to half distance in the race will if anything represent a triumph. And we've seen in the past that some teams can transform themselves and for the better between the final test and the first race. Red Bull was thought if anything more hopeless this time 12 months ago but when it got serious Daniel Ricciardo qualified on the front row and then finished second in the race (on the road at least, before a disqualification). And McLaren itself has a previous for this kind of thing; in 2011 when it had a woeful pre-season - the car unreliable and far from the pace - after abandoning its troublesome 'octopus' exhaust it suddenly found credibility and Lewis Hamilton finished the opening round in second.

It would be a surprise if similar happened again this time, but there at least is potential. The chassis looks the business so a lot depends on whether the Honda power unit can suddenly be made to work. But the team itself has warned that instead the start of the European season is a more likely scene for McLaren starting to do itself justice.

Jenson Button - who leads the McLaren effort -
has a good record at Melbourne
Photo: Octane Photography
Whatever the team does too it'll have to do it without Fernando Alonso, who ordinarily can be counted upon to paper over some cracks. In Jenson Button however it has a driver who has won at this venue three times.

This ability to change between testing and the opening race applies to all other teams too; indeed many will have a big technical upgrade planned. Plus interpretation of testing while good still can be fallible. Things following Melbourne's qualifying session could look very different to what is assumed right now.

We can add to the conundrum that this particular track is unusual. The semi-permanent circuit around Albert Park, not used in the rest of the year, and with an unusual layout of shortish straights separated by short and sharp turns, can give bum steers for which cars are likely to work well for the measure of the season. One thinks of McLaren here last year getting a double podium (eventually) and leaving Australia in the lead of the constructors' championship (kid ye not), which could hardly have been less of a portent. So even if Melbourne disappoints some, they will cling to this as their possible salvation. The grand sweeps of Malaysia's Sepang circuit awaiting two weeks later offers a very different challenge.

The Albert Park track also offers its own challenge of nearby walls which can punish errors, plus a resultant higher than usual likelihood of safety car appearances. These too can increase the chances of unusual results, as can that reliability is likely to be at its weakest in the early part of the season.

And beyond this all will be glad to be back to the proper business. Not just because the Melbourne venue is one wherein the locals (well, most of them anyway) are very glad for the sport to be there and the atmosphere is both welcoming and electric. Not just either than this atmosphere, as well as the weather most likely, will be warmer than those experienced slogging around test venues. But most of all that in another matter that doesn't change, in our opening qualifying session and race we'll get our first substantive answers to the questions that have been nagging us for months - those of who's hot and who not. As one of the sport's favourite - and notorious - phrases tells us in not so many words, come that point when the on track action is for real the fronts that have been carefully put up suddenly will fizzle to nearly nothing.

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