Formula 1: 2013 Australian Grand Prix Preview
The Australian Grand Prix marks the return of Formula One after a long and somewhat painful absence.
We haven't seen the cars racing since last November, and it'll be fascinating to see what the designers and engineers have done over the winter.
Sebastian Vettel, last year's champion, will start off as the default "man to beat" this time around, but strong challenges are expected from the likes of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.
HRT's owners have done the decent thing and put the team to bed permanently, so we'll have a 22-car grid for the first time since the start of 2008.
Sergio Perez is having his first go in a true front-running car. Felipe Massa will no doubt be "driving for his future" before the end of first practice and many eyes will be on Nico Rosberg as he goes wheel-to-wheel with new teammate Hamilton.
There's so much to look forward to. It's like having a second Christmas, isn't it?
Albert Park, Melbourne
The venue for this weekend's race will again be Albert Park.
Named in honour of Queen Victoria's husband, this picturesque pocket of Melbourne has been a public park since 1864. It first hosted an Australian Grand Prix in 1953, and its first world championship event was in 1996.
F1 has come there every year since.
The track is semi-permanent (not used as a race track all year round), and something of a mix between street circuit and road course. It's filled with run-off areas, organic-looking corners and plenty of high-speed sections, but the walls are never far away.
A Lap of the Circuit
A lap begins on the pit straight (known as Albert Road to the local motoring public), and the run down to Turn 1 (Brabham) is of average length.
Turn 1 itself is a tricky right-hander, and one of the few genuine overtaking spots on the circuit. With that said, it's not great for passing, even with the aid of DRS—it's often more of a set-up point for a move a few corners later.
Turn 2 (Jones) is a left-hander immediately following Turn 1 and is as much of an acceleration zone onto a straight as it is a corner. You'll often see a few back ends sliding around this turn, as the drivers try to get on the power as quickly as they can.
Next up is a shorter straight, which has always seemed good of a passing spot as the pit straight. It's very common for cars to exit the first two corners close together, setting up plenty of opportunities.
This is especially true on the first lap.
Turn 3 (Whiteford) is a tight, slow right-hander where most of the moves made down the straight succeed or fail. Defending into (and out of) this corner is quite easy, and it's unusual for a door to be left open on the inside, though drivers can and do pass around the outside.
But watch out for silly little low-speed crashes. If a race goes by without someone losing at the very least a front wing here, then everyone deserves a big round of applause.
Oh, and big crashes are possible too—Martin Brundle's in 1996 being the most spectacular.
Out of Turn 3 is a short run down to Turn 4, where the cars have to quickly flick across the track to get onto the right line for this left-hander.
This corner looks a bit "artificial" compared to the rest of the track. When F1 isn't in town, this piece of track and the tarmac run-off areas either side resume their duties as a car park.
You can even park on the racing line if you like—if you look at it on Google Maps, someone was doing just that when the plane passed over.
Turn 5 follows shortly after, a near-full-throttle right-hander leading into a short, wavy straight.
The trees surrounding the circuit close in on either side here, and the track surface is mottled with shadows, making braking for Turn 6 (a slower, quite tricky right-hander) a little bit tougher.
This is one of the slowest corners on the track, but you'd have to be very brave (or incredibly stupid) to try to overtake here.
Turns 7 and 8 (Lauda) are a left-right sequence which appear to be little more than an acceleration zone. But it's wise to be cautious—it was here that Pastor Maldonado hit the wall on the final lap last year, ruining an otherwise excellent drive to what would have been a sixth place finish.
A short straight comes next before more braking, this time for the tight right-hander of Turn 9 (Clark). Overtaking isn't impossible here, and you might see a move or two on the opening lap.
Turn 10 joins up with Turn 9 to form a chicane of sorts. It's an opening left-hander which leads the cars out onto the wall-lined back straight.
The track runs alongside Albert Lake (fans watching will see it, but the drivers won't) in a long left-hand arc towards the best corners Albert Park has to offer.
Turns 11 and 12 make up a high-speed left-right chicane, taken very quickly and with little room for error.
Assuming everything went well, the cars are sent on their way down another straight, which has a little right-hand kink halfway down.
Overtaking is a possibility into the next corner, the 90-degree right of Turn 13 (Ascari). Cars will typically pull out from behind a rival just after the kink on the straight and have a go down the inside.
A short straight follows, before the fast right-hand Turn 14 (Stewart), and seconds later, racers must break for the tight left of Turn 15 (Prost). In practice you'll see a lot of cars overshooting or just getting it wrong here, but there's a nice escape road for them. By the time the race comes around, everyone usually has it worked out.
The final corner, Turn 16, is a medium-speed right. This is one of the most important corners on the circuit, and the pressure to get the power down early often results in some sliding back ends.
The finish line is roughly halfway down the straight.
The pit entry is on the inside of Turn 16, and the exit is before Turn 1.
Tyres and DRS
The Albert Park circuit is semi-permanent, which generally means the track will start off on Friday with poor grip but will improve as more and more rubber is laid down over the course of the weekend.
The tyre compounds are all a bit softer this year, and the performance gaps between each are set to be wider too. Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembrey said:
All the compounds and constructions have changed for 2013, and the drivers should notice a wider working range and a bigger window of peak performance. The performance gaps between the compounds are also larger, which means that teams have a greater opportunity to use strategy to their advantage by exploiting the consequent speed differentials.
So tyres look set to play an important role—even more so, perhaps, because the temperatures during preseason testing were very low, and no one is quite sure how the tyres will behave in a warmer environment.
Pirelli are supplying the red-marked, super-soft and white-marked medium compound tyres for this weekend's race.
That should give us a fairly big performance gap, and we'll see a few "top teams" burning sets of super-softs just to ensure they get through the early rounds of qualifying. Two stops was the most common strategy last year, but we might see more of a mix between two and three in 2013.
Melbourne had two DRS zones last year, and they'll be retained for this season's race.
The first zone runs the length of the pit straight, and the second covers the straight between Turns 2 and 3.
The single activation point (the point at which a chasing car must be less than one second behind another) is just before Turn 14.
If you're stuck in the Northern Hemisphere, shivering through the tail end of winter, then this won't be comfortable reading.
Temperatures look set to be on the high side of 20-degrees Celsius (around 70-degrees Fahrenheit) from Friday to Sunday. It's likely to be dry, but some forecasters say we could have a heavy shower or two at some point on Saturday or Sunday.
As always, the Australian Grand Prix weekend will consist of three free practice sessions, qualifying and the race.
All times given are Melbourne local time. Formula1.com has a handy tool to convert them to your own timezone.
Enjoy the weekend!