This weekend’s Australian Grand Prix not only signals the start of a new Formula 1 season, but it also kicks off a new era for the sport.
After 12 days of pre-season testing, the F1 paddock heads to Melbourne and the Albert Park Circuit for a journey into the unknown. Some are better prepared than others, with the Mercedes-powered teams looking to have the early advantage.
Last season, the rules were relatively stable and the sport travelled down under with a rough idea of what the running order was. This season is the complete opposite following arguably the biggest regulations shift in the history of F1.
1.6 litre V6 Turbo engines replace the previous 2.4 V8s, downforce levels have been slashed and there is plenty of new technology to marvel over – including the new ERS system and brake-by-wire. It has levelled the playing field somewhat, giving those previously at the back a chance to catch up and those in the midfield to move up the grid.
The 2013 season opener was won by Kimi Raikkonen and the Lotus F1 Team, finishing 12 seconds ahead of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel, who of course went on to dominate the championship, rounded out the podium.
Melbourne has been the location of some incredibly memorable moments in F1 history, including Martin Brundle’s 1996 crash at turn three, Ralf Schumacher’s trip through the air in 2002 and Jenson Button and Brawn GP’s fairy-tale start to 2009 to name just a few.
The layout of the Albert Park Circuit is relatively straight-forward. It features a mix of medium speed chicanes, high speed kinks and short straights and has one of the lowest turn-angles of the year. Because of its characteristics, a high downforce set-up is needed.
It is also surrounded by unforgiving barriers and the weather can often cause chaos – with last year’s qualifying session being a prime example. The temporary 3.295-mile track is constructed between January and March. As it takes place on public roads, it has very low grip levels at the beginning of a race weekend. Strangely it has a very smooth surface and isn’t too demanding on the tyres.
The lap kicks off on the medium-length pit straight with the pit lane and exit to the right. The first corner is one of the tightest on the track and often causes first lap accidents – most recently in 2010 and 2012. The right-hander used to be taken in third gear but with the new V6 Turbo power-units and 8-speed semi-automatic gearboxes look set to change that.
Turn two is a flat-out left-hander that leads on to a long straight. Getting the first turn right is crucial to carry speed through the second corner and onto the straight. The third bend is a slow right-hand hairpin and is one of the best overtaking opportunities on the circuit due to the heavy braking zone.
Turn four is a medium speed left before a flat-out right that leads on to a short and curving straight, which is where the first sector ends. The sixth and seventh corners make up a right-left chicane that is followed by a fast kink- this is where Pastor Maldonado dramatically crashed out of the 2012 race after losing control over the kerbs.
A short straight follows before another right-left chicane. A good exit from this tricky section is important for the long and curving straight that follows. This is where the second sector ends. The 11th and 12th turns are arguably the trickiest of the lap. They make up a high-speed left-right chicane that is particularly challenging in the wet.
There is a little room for error on the exit with a large and flat kerb, but if a driver strays onto the grass it is easy to lose control of the car on the bumps. Another long and curving straight follows before the heavy braking zone for the 13th turn. It is a 90 degree bend and can provide some overtaking, but the final sector is rather narrow.
Turn 14 is a mid-speed right before the turn 15 hairpin, a left-hander that used to be taken in second gear. The final corner is a long and tricky right that leads back on to the pit straight, with the pit entry on the inside.
Due to the smooth track surface, Pirelli has allocated the medium prime tire and soft option tire for the race. The track demands a very responsive car because of its many chicanes but also requires one that can ride the kerbs and has good stability under braking.
The new F1 season looks set to be an unpredictable and dramatic one with new technology, new drivers, new tracks and a potential shake-up in the competitive order. It could be a real classic; there hasn’t been a buzz like this around the sport in quite some time.