F1: Australian Grand Prix Preview

Max VerstappenThe Mercedes team of reigning Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton will anticipate starting the new season with victory at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix (Race: Sunday, 05:00 GMT, live on Sky Sports F1).

Hamilton beat his teammate Nico Rosberg to last season’s championship and pre-season testing times suggest that the same two drivers are likely to contest this year’s title. With a fairly consistent rule set, Mercedes still look to have a clear pace advantage.

The most visually obvious of the changes occurs towards the front of the cars, where new regulations have brought about safer and more aesthetically pleasing front wings. Otherwise, the cars are largely similar to last year. The Manor team (formerly Marussia) will actually begin the season with a modified version of last year’s chassis.

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There have, though, been a number of changes at team level. Manor survived thanks to new investment, but Caterham have folded. Honda have returned to the sport in league with McLaren, ending the latter’s 20-year partnership with Mercedes, while the Lotus team have switched from Renault to Mercedes power after enduring numerous problems last year.

On the driver front, Fernando Alonso left Ferrari to join McLaren, although he will not be involved in Melbourne after suffering a concussion in a crash during testing. Sebastian Vettel has moved to Ferrari in his place, with Daniel Kyvat in turn taking Vettel’s seat at Red Bull. Carlos Sainz Jr., Felipe Nasr, Max Verstappen (pictured) and Roberto Merhi will all debut this year.

The Circuit

The Melbourne Grand Prix circuit, located in Albert Park, has played host to the Australian Grand Prix since 1996. It is a medium to high downforce street circuit, with a smooth surface and relatively low grip levels.

Pirelli will bring their soft and medium compound tyres to the season-opener, mirroring their selections from last year’s event. Current weather forecasts suggest that it will be a cloudy weekend, with the possibility of some light showers in the hours leading up to Sunday’s race.

Qualifying

There seems little doubt that Mercedes are still the quickest team in both qualifying and race trim. Their fastest lap during the final pre-season test in Barcelona was some 0.7 seconds quicker than any other team running on the same soft tyres used by Rosberg on that lap. It was even 0.3 seconds faster than any other team managed on the quicker super-softs.

Hamilton has thrice (2014, 2012, 2008) qualified on pole position in Melbourne and has out-qualified his teammate of the time in each of the last four Grand Prix at the circuit. Rosberg did win the intra team qualifying battle over the course of last season, but Hamilton was the fastest in Australia last year and can be fancied to head the field on Saturday again.

The Race

Mercedes’ pace advantage also extends to race distances, with estimates based on long-run times during pre-season testing suggesting that they are anywhere from 0.8 to one second a lap quicker than their nearest competitor in race trim. They also showed good reliability, completing more laps than any other team across the three pre-season tests.

Rosberg took the honours in last year’s Australian Grand Prix following Hamilton’s early retirement due to engine problems. Hamilton otherwise has a strong record at the circuit, having won the race in 2008 and finished on the podium on a further three (2012, 2011, 2007) occasions. He looks well-placed to begin this title defence with victory on Sunday.

Williams were Mercedes’ closest competitors during pre-season testing on two circuits that the team felt were not ideally suited to their car. They are therefore confident of showing even better pace during the opening rounds of the championship, which should give their drivers Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa a good chance of fighting for podium finishes.

Bottas was, alongside Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, one of the breakout stars of last year, finishing fourth in the drivers’ championship on the back of six podiums and just two non-points-scoring finishes over the course of the season. He came fifth at Melbourne last year and will be confident of starting the new season with a top-three finish on Sunday.

Kyvat became the youngest points scorer in Formula One history when he finished ninth for Toro Rosso in last year’s Australian Grand Prix at the age of 19 years and 324 days. But his record could come under threat from the team’s new recruit Verstappen, 17, who will at the very least become the youngest driver ever to start a Formula One race this weekend.

Toro Rosso showed well on long runs during pre-season testing, running at a pace that would suggest they are currently the fifth-quickest team. Verstappen’s car-control and measured approach drew plenty of admirers. With a good chassis underneath him, there is every chance he could mark his Formula One debut with a points finish on Sunday.

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