Monday 14 March 2016

Melbourne Preview: Unknown pleasures

When the flag drops, the b******t stops. OK, F1 races aren't started by flags anymore, so in that sense this aphorism is showing its age. But the fundamental at its core holds firm. And never more so than at the first race gathering of an F1 season.

The Albert Park track in Melbourne is a highly popular venue
By Chris Phutully -
72562013@N06/13186495033/, CC BY 2.0,
Teams love to create the impression that they know what's going on, that they have incredibly accurate models and intelligence to channel pre-season testing into a coherent competitive order. And from the various analyses that spring up as well as the more general mood music, us watching on can get a broad sense of who's hot and who's not before it's all done in anger too. But really it is not until the actual hour of qualifying for the opening round that we get our proper confirmation, and that goes for the teams us much as the rest of us mere mortals. At that point the bluster of testing, and its various accompanying health warnings that we don't know the respective programmes, fuel loads, extent that the engines are cranked up among the many other things that can influence lap time, fizzles away. The stopwatch suddenly will be much harder to deny.

And it is that which is before us this weekend in Melbourne for the start proper of the 2016 campaign. Almost no matter what happens to the formula, it's hard to think how that will ever be different. Or anything other than tantalising. And that goes for everyone.

There are no shortage of tantalising questions that Melbourne will go a long way to resolving too. These go right to the top - what of Lewis Hamilton vs. Nico Rosberg, and particularly the latter's fine form of late 2015? Has Nico really found something, or was he merely performing better when the pressure was off? Or had Lewis relented by a small but vital amount with the title in his pocket?

The state of play between Lewis and Nico
is a great imponderable
Photo: Octane Photography
What of Ferrari? Few deny that the Scuderia is closer to the imperious Merc than 12 months ago, but how much closer? Some of those post-testing analyses mentioned suggest it could be neck-and-neck, or not far off it. And might Ferrari not all be about Sebastian Vettel? Might Kimi Raikkonen be transformed now apparently with the responsive front end that he craves?

What of the rest too? Williams seemed confident at the end of Barcelona pre-season; Rod Nelson even spoke of getting with Ferrari. The Toro Rosso looked fantastic in Spain and will get a boost compared with last season with the year-old Ferrari engine, in the early rounds at least. Force India and Toro Rosso's elder sibling Red Bull may also be somewhere in the mix for best of the rest.

What too of McLaren? The team heads to Melbourne with a "number of unknowns" by racing director Eric Boullier's own confession, as it didn't get through its full testing programme in pre-season. It already had admitted that there will be aero pieces debuted in Melbourne that were not ready for testing. But as ever much will depend on where exactly the Honda unit has got to; Barcelona running suggested there remains a deficit in top speed, of something like 20km/h. The question remains precisely as before of when exactly it can get a unit something like on terms with the Merc and Ferrari.

How close has Ferrari got to Mercedes?
Photo: Octane Photography
Slightly tempering the points above however is that Melbourne may not tell us the entire story. It remains rather an atypical track, one on public roads through parkland with a low grip surface. Indeed it is a circuit that can rather accentuate the differences between cars in that it rewards the machines that have their downforce (especially at the rear, given the track's many acceleration zones) and set-up in order. Last year the Mercs ran away arguably more than they did anywhere else - the quickest not in silver then was a whole 1.4 secs off Lewis's pole time… Therefore the 'bluster of testing' may indeed carry for a little longer after the Australian gathering, to the more standard challenges of Bahrain and China next up. Or perhaps for those under-performing it merely is the denial phase to be got through during the F1 equivalent of the grief cycle.

Yet there a few better places to start a season than at Melbourne. The event is in the midst of a vibrant city whose residents (mainly) are delighted to have the race and to pack out the spectator areas. In more than ways than one it'll provide sharp relief from the sport's dank winter.

F1 this time also has a few conspicuous unknowns even beyond the competitive order. We are getting the revised qualifying system after all, that in which rather than the previous system of taking drivers out in two great chunks instead after a few minutes of running in each of the three sessions will remove the pilots incrementally at 90 second intervals, until we have a pole-winner. Expect therefore to see drivers out on track for longer (which is good) as well as for a greater importance of getting your first flying lap right.

Drivers also now have a wider selection of tyre compounds in a more complex system and quite how that will all play out, or even getting your head around it in a more general sense, is currently beyond the ken of plenty. Such things have a tendency to settle in time, but the early days could well have some rather madcap outcomes. You can add to this that the teams selected their compounds not knowing this quali system was to be in place.

Rather under the radar too is that now after a long period of deliberation and incremental change this year we have finally a severe restriction on what the drivers can be told via their pit-to-car radios. This is to the point that one team's technical director said to James Allen that they "can't tell the driver anything". Some such as Toto Wolff already are talking the language of the apocalypse; it'll be fascinating to see how drivers respond in terms of managing tyres, fuel and the like, particularly again in the early races as all have to adapt.

And this is all in addition to the many habitual variables of an Albert Park race. The track is characterised by nearby walls that can punish errors, plus greatly increase the chance of safety car appearances (there's a chance of around 50% of a safety car period here). These too can increase the chances of unusual results. So often can that reliability is likely to be at its weakest in the early part of the season - to the point that this result sometimes goes a long way to deciding all-important constructors' placings for the entire season for teams towards the back - although reliability looked generally good in the cool of winter testing.

Once again, there will be a lot of
attention on the Pirelli tyres
Photo: Octane Photography
Rain isn't unheard of in this meeting, though current forecasts suggest Friday running is most likely to be hit rather than quali and the race. The same forecasts suggest temperatures may be on the cool side, which in the past has created problems with tyre graining here, and these two factors may aid those who have leant more towards the supersofts in their selections, such as Hamilton and the two Williams drivers. The Barcelona consensus too was that this year's brand of Pirellis aren't as long-lasting as last year's. The probability of safety cars plus the relative difficulty in passing at this track errs runners back towards fewer stops however. Last year most went for a one stopper when only the medium and soft was available. As outlined already, the likelihood is that the first round will have rather a lot of variation, and confusion no doubt, as the whole thing settles.

There still are some good things about F1, not least that as we stand before the opening round rather a lot is unknown and unpredictable. More so than usual indeed. It's easy to miss such positivity though given the inevitable attention given to criticisms made by high profile figures such as the commercial rights holder and the world champion. Expecting that sort of thing to stop in Melbourne or anywhere else for that matter is rather too much to expect though.

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