• Australian Grand Prix preview

Shut up and drive

Chris Medland March 14, 2013
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After a winter of stability in the regulations but changes amongst the teams, Formula One gets back to what it does best this weekend with the first race of the season; the Australian Grand Prix. After 2012 went right down to the wire it promises to be an even closer season if testing is anything to go by. Sebastian Vettel begins his pursuit of a fourth consecutive drivers' championship, while Fernando Alonso et al are primed to once again challenge for the title. Everyone starts from zero...

On Form

While a lot of attention has focused on his illustrious team-mates at Mercedes, Nico Rosberg has been quietly done the job required of him. After dispatching Michael Schumacher and taking Mercedes' first victory since its return in China last year, Rosberg topped the timesheets during testing in Barcelona. More focus has shifted towards Mercedes after Lewis Hamilton's arrival but Rosberg is settled at the team and has been keen to praise the new car, suggesting he is confident heading to Melbourne.

Out of form

All the signs point to it being a long, hard season for Caterham. The team isn't trying to hide the fact that its main focus is 2014 and the new regulations which will allow all the teams to start from the same blank sheet of paper once again, but in order to do that it has sacrificed this season. The new car is remarkably similar to the CT01 and is not likely to be upgraded until the European season, which means a scrap with Marussia is much more likely than scoring its first point. Caterham believes it was running more fuel than its main rival during winter testing and that the two will be evenly matched come Melbourne. We shall see.

Pastor Maldonado says the FW35 is the best car Williams has delivered © Sutton Images
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One to watch

Having won a race in 2012 Pastor Maldonado is not quite the same surprise package he was last year, but he's well placed to further enhance his reputation.Twelve months ago an impressive drive ended on the final lap when he crashed pressuring Alonso for fifth place, but consistency has been his aim since then and all the signs are that Williams has an even better car than last year to start the season with.

Talking points

Four in a row?
Sebastian Vettel became only the third driver in history to win three consecutive Formula One drivers' championships last season and this year he aims to move another step closer to Schumacher's overall total of seven titles. Both Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio turned three championships in a row in to more - four in Fangio's case and five in Schumacher's - and Vettel is favourite to follow suit. However, with the new regulations of 2014, this is Vettel's final chance to capitalise on the current series of Adrian Newey-designed cars before the competitive order could all change next year.

The silver cars
Two of the biggest question marks remain over both McLaren and Mercedes. McLaren has been relatively subdued during pre-season testing as it struggled to understand the MP4-28, a car which it has described as a departure from last year's design in order to increase its development potential. As a result Martin Whitmarsh admits the team has had a few "headaches" over the new car, but there were few signs of the one-lap dominance the team showed ahead of Melbourne last season too ... by contrast, Mercedes has looked quick over both one lap and a longer run, leading to a genuine belief that the team might have made a significant step forward with its new car.

Tyres
It was a topic 12 months ago and remains a topic again this year. Last year's tyres delivered exciting racing throughout the year and led to a hugely unpredictable start to the season as we saw seven different winners from the first seven races. The new Pirelli compounds are designed to be even more aggressive and cold conditions during winter testing gave the teams very little knowledge of both the tyres and their new machines. Once again it could be as much a case of who can handle the tyres best as it is who has the quickest car.

There will be five rookies on the grid on Sunday © Sutton Images
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Rookie risks
Only Red Bull, Ferrari, Lotus and Toro Rosso can boast unchanged driver line-ups this season, and of the remaining teams only McLaren, Mercedes, Force India and Williams have retained one driver. That leaves Sauber, Caterham and Marussia with all-new pairings and at least one rookie in each. Valtteri Bottas carries the highest hopes at Williams as he comes with very little funding, while Esteban Gutierrez has big shoes to fill at Sauber and an intimidating team-mate in Nico Hulkenberg. Giedo van der Garde has waited a long time for his F1 chance, while Max Chilton has been elevated quickly at Marussia and Jules Bianchi snatched Luiz Razia's seat after missing out on a drive at Force India. All will be hoping to prove they are worthy of a place among the elite, but they will first be judged against their team-mates.

Trivia

  • Albert Park staged two non-championship Formula Libre Australian Grands Prix in 1953 and 1956, although the cars ran around the circuit anti-clockwise
  • When Melbourne first hosted the race as the season-opener in 1996 it ensured Australia actually hosted back-to-back Formula One races as Adelaide had been the location for the final race of the 1995 season
  • Eddie Irvine holds the record for winning at Albert Park from the lowest starting position, having triumphed from 11th on the grid in 1999
  • With HRT having gone in to liquidation at the end of last season, this is the first year featuring a 22-car grid since 2008

Fast facts

  • This will be the 29th Formula One Australian Grand Prix - the race was first staged in 1985 at Adelaide - and the 18th consecutive year at Albert Park
  • Michael Schumacher holds the lap record with a 1:25.125 set in 2004
  • Out of 17 grands prix at Melbourne, the winning driver has gone on to win the championship on 11 occasions
  • Jenson Button has the most victories of the current grid at Albert Park, with three wins in the last four years

Circuit

Built around a man-made lake and using public roads, Albert Park is the perfect place to kick off the new season. While overtaking used to generally only occur at turns one and three, there are now more opportunities due to the two DRS zones occupying the preceding straights allied with rapidly degrading Pirelli tyres. An abundance of gravel traps rather than concrete run-off areas restrict the margin for error and any weaknesses in the cars will be exposed over the bumpy track surface.

FIA driver steward

Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan returns as a driver steward for the fourth time. Sullivan - who raced for Tyrrell in 1983 - also carried out the role in Hungary in 2012 and at the races in Germany and Singapore in 2010.

© ESPNF1
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Weather

The main issue for teams in pre-season testing was cool temperatures preventing the Pirelli tyres from working properly. While Friday is set to be dry and warm, qualifying on Saturday could well be hit by rain to keep the competitive order under wraps. Sunday also carries an increasing chance of showers, but just as importantly is set to be cool with a high of 19C forecast; hardly what the teams expected when the high last Sunday was 35C.

Betting

The relative stability in regulations gives us a better idea than many years, but the opening race of the season is still the toughest to predict. Unsurprisingly it's Vettel who is the favourite with the bookmakers at 11/4, while Alonso is expected to run him close and available at 9/2. Jenson Button is 11/2 while Hamilton is a somewhat slim 8/1, especially when you can get Rosberg at 16/1. The better value is with Romain Grosjean to finish on the podium at 5/1 or Pastor Maldonado to finish in the top six at 3/1.

ESPN prediction

With Red Bull and McLaren keeping their cards close to their chest during pre-season testing - much as both did in 2012 when McLaren started the season with the upper hand - and a threat of rain during the business end of the weekend, ESPN is backing Button to win once again at Albert Park.
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