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Australian Grand Prix Preview: What To Expect at Albert Park

Jaideep Vaidya@@jaideepjournoAnalyst IMarch 6, 2011

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 28:  Red Bull Racing mechanics are seen during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at the Albert Park Circuit on March 28, 2010 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

So after a politically-induced delay, the 2011 Formula One Season finally kick-starts on the 27th of March—albeit on a different continent altogether. The Australian Grand Prix has always been the traditional season-opener, excluding 2006 and 2010, ever since the event moved from Adelaide to Melbourne in 1996. The fact that Melbourne will host the premiere of the 2011 season seems fitting, after the events (or non-events) that transpired in Bahrain.

Melbourne, however, should find itself lucky to even be on the 2011 Formula One calendar after calls to scrap the event following poor response in the last few years.

Last year’s event at Melbourne’s Albert Park cost the Victorian government A$49.3 million compared to the A$3.2 million in 1999. Dwindling attendance has seen the numbers fall from a record 401,000 in the inaugural 1996 edition to just 305,000 last year. However, last year’s race did see the highest attendance in five years.

But due to the shifting of the start time to 5PM local time to suit European TV audiences, the race incurred losses and eventually drew flak from all corners—the frustrated Melbourne tax-payers, an indecisive mayor and even the drivers who criticized the poor visibility at twilight.

Whether the Victorian state government will renew the contract for an Albert Park Grand Prix after the current deal until 2015 expires has to be seen. But one thing is for sure, Melbourne sure doesn’t disappoint when it comes to pure entertainment.

So what can we expect this year?

Track and Conditions

The Albert Park street circuit is widely regarded as one of the fastest circuits in the world, coupled with a consistent placement of 16 corners in a track design that features long straights, sweeping curves and tight chicanes.

The circuit has barriers in close proximity, especially on Turn 1, which has played host to a number of high-profile incidents in the past. Albert Park’s wall-lined confines, an ultra-slippery temporary track surface combined with fickle local climate offers unique challenges and ensures plenty of action and drama for the spectators.

Melbourne is a city where you can experience "four seasons in one day." The conditions last year were overcast with rain. This year, we could see a bright, sunny day for all you know.

Last Year's Strategy

Jenson Button claimed an emphatic victory in the 2010 Australian GP thanks to an inspired tyre strategy call from the then-defending World Champ himself.

In an overcast incident-packed race, starting on intermediate tyres, Button was the first to take the gamble to go out on the slicks and it ultimately paid off.

Pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel exited the race on Lap 26 after a rear brake failure, while Lewis Hamilton's charge through the field was halted by a switch to new option tyres. Robert Kubica held on for P2 on one set of tyres while Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso also nursed a set of soft tyres for 50+ laps around Albert Park to take P3 and P4.

This Year's Strategy

In the previous seasons, a driver’s lap times would generally improve as the race progressed due to the lessening fuel load. This season we will see the opposite—greater tyre degradation will outweigh the fuel effect and lap times will deteriorate—hence placing more importance on a driver’s ability to manage tyre wear and on his team’s ability to pick the optimum tyre strategy. One-stop races will be passé, with two or more stops becoming the norm. 

Last year Bridgestone brought medium and super-soft tyres, and drivers complained the latter wore out too quickly. This year, Pirelli have revealed that they will take their hard and soft tyre compounds to the opening four races. The hard compound will be the prime tyre, while the soft variant will be the option.

Preseason tests have revealed that Pirelli’s tyres are much less durable than the Bridgestones. Drivers observed heavy wear in even the harder variant. Also, tyre wear was observed to be inconsistent, especially the rear tyres. Excessive wear in the rear tyres makes the car over-steery.

Pirelli were particularly disappointed with the decision to cancel the planned Bahrain test. They felt the higher temperatures would have given a clearer picture of the tyre performance we can expect at the opening rounds of 2011, where durability of their hard and soft compounds is expected to prove greater than that seen in the cooler climates of the Spanish tests. But whatever transpires in Melbourne, it’s clear that tyres will take centre stage this year.

Notable Incidents

The Melbourne track, with its limited run-off and tricky braking zones, tends to invite incidents. Melbourne often produces stop-start races with several safety car interruptions. Weird things happen in Melbourne—it tends to be a race of high attrition and crazy incidents.

The inaugural race at Albert Park in 1996 saw Jordan’s Martin Brundle launch into the air in the first lap and have a spectacular barrel roll into a sand trap at Turn 3, causing his car to break into two. The race was re-started.

In 1998, McLaren’s Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard finished in a one-two. But the result was clouded with controversy when Coulthard pulled over with two laps remaining to allow Häkkinen to pass through, honouring a pre-race agreement between the pair that whoever made it to the first corner in the lead on Lap 1 would be allowed to win.

The 2001 edition was struck by tragedy in when a flying tyre from a crash between Williams' Ralf Schumacher and BAR's Jacques Villeneuve flew through a gap in the barrier fence and killed a 52-year-old volunteer track marshal, Graham Beveridge.

In 2006, Fernando Alonso took his first Australian win in an accident-marred race that featured four safety car periods.

In 2008, Lewis Hamilton won from pole in a chaotic race that featured three safety car periods. None of the six Ferrari-powered cars made the finish in the blistering heat, and there were also the fewest number of finishers in a Formula One race since the 1996 Spanish Grand Prix.

The 2009 edition saw a bizarre occurrence of events when Toyota's Jarno Trulli was given a 25-second penalty for passing Lewis Hamilton for third place under yellow flags during a safety car period, which promoted Hamilton into third.  However, Hamilton was later disqualified and docked his points for "deliberately misleading stewards," with Trulli reinstated in third.

Previous Winners

Albert Park has been a happy hunting ground for Ferrari and McLaren, who have won here six and five times, respectively.


Year

Driver

Constructor

2010

Jenson Button

McLaren Mercedes

2009

Jenson Button

Brawn-Mercedes

2008

Lewis Hamilton

McLaren Mercedes

2007

Kimi Räikkönen

Ferrari

2006

Fernando Alonso

Renault

2005

Giancarlo Fisichella

Renault

2004

Michael Schumacher

Ferrari

2003

David Coulthard

McLaren Mercedes

2002

Michael Schumacher

Ferrari

2001

Michael Schumacher

Ferrari

2000

Michael Schumacher

Ferrari

Predictions

After the Jerez, Valencia and Barcelona rounds of testing, it is pretty clear that Ferrari and Red Bull have the edge so far. Just in terms of mileage, they are way ahead of rivals. Ferrari have covered almost 7,000 kilometers, while Red Bull have burned 6,100 kilometers worth of fuel. And aside from an oil leak at the first session in Valencia and a few niggles in Barcelona, the Ferrari 150° Italia has boasted remarkable reliability. Red Bull’s RB7 too has run into very few issues.

The pace of both teams has been strong and consistent, with Red Bull leading the way. There’s no surprise that both appear quiet confident, especially with further upgrades coming before Melbourne.

McLaren, who boast of a good record here, just don’t seem to have the pace of the two front-runners. McLaren are way down the mileage order—ninth of the 12 teams—having racked up around 3,200 kilometres with the new MP4-26—less than half Ferrari’s tally.

Two Red Bulls and one Ferrari on the podium for me.

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