After a long and turbulent winter, Formula 1 gets back in business this weekend at its traditional curtain-raiser event: the Australian Grand Prix.
Sunny Melbourne plays host to F1 for the 20th time in 2015, having welcomed its first race back in 1996. The Albert Park circuit has lost none of its charm or challenge over the past two decades though, and the drivers will be keen to shake off any remaining rust from the winter ahead of Sunday’s race.
Following his title victory in Abu Dhabi last November, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton enters the new season with his tail up, knowing that a third championship is well within his grasp. The German team appears to have lost none of its advantage from last year, gapping the field by over one second per lap during testing. Once again, it appears that Hamilton’s biggest rival could be just across the garage in the form of Nico Rosberg.
Mercedes aside, a great deal has changed ahead of the new season. Red Bull begins life without Sebastian Vettel in Australia, with ex-Toro Rosso driver Daniil Kvyat swiftly being promoted up in place of the German driver. Daniel Ricciardo (pictured) will want to kick off the team’s new era in style at his home race, whilst Vettel now finds himself at Ferrari, fulfilling a lifelong ambition by following in Michael Schumacher’s footsteps.
The man he replaced at Maranello, Fernando Alonso, will not be in Melbourne following an accident in testing, with Kevin Magnussen set to join Jenson Button in kicking off McLaren’s new era. The British team has reunited with Honda for 2015, but teething problems with the MP4-30’s power unit mean that any points finish on Sunday would be a welcome result at Woking.
Throw in Manor’s return and Sauber’s driver quagmire, and you can see that the opening race of the 2015 season has the makings of a classic. Here’s our full preview of the race.
2015 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points
Judging by pre-season testing, this year’s battle for the drivers’ championship will once again be contested by Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Although this is only the first race of the year and may have very little bearing on the title race – Rosberg won in Australia last year, Hamilton retired – it’s a good chance for one of the Mercedes drivers to get an early edge. Already, we are gearing up for another great on-track battle between these two, and an early treat in Melbourne would go down very well.
Psychologically, an early win in Australia could be crucial. If Hamilton can put together a winning streak to start the season, picking up where he left off in 2014, Rosberg would surely be left demoralized. If Rosberg could do the same though, the balance of power would tip again. The big thing to remember is that Hamilton has the momentum at the start of the year – it’s just a question of using it.
Who can stand out as the best of the rest?
Testing may have clearly shown that Mercedes will be leading the way in Melbourne, but the battle for second place is far harder to predict. Williams finished as the second-quickest team in testing, whilst Ferrari fared very well in Jerez and appears to have made serious progress over the winter. Red Bull is likely to be vying at the front of the field once again, whilst even Lotus made an impression in pre-season, making the race for P2 behind Mercedes a close one.
All of the teams have said the same thing: wait until Sunday in Melbourne before making a decision. And rightly so. Only then will we get a true understanding of the pecking order, but if we are to make an educated guess from testing, it appears that Williams could be leading the way. Who knows: a repeat of Spa last year for Mercedes, and all of a sudden, the race for P2 could be a race to win a grand prix. The fight is very open indeed.
The kids are alright
Four drivers will make their Formula 1 debuts in Australia on Sunday: Roberto Merhi, Felipe Nasr (well, maybe – see below), Carlos Sainz Jr. and Max Verstappen. At just 17 years old, Verstappen is by far the most inexperienced of the quartet, and will become the youngest ever driver to start an F1 race this weekend. The Dutchman has sparked controversy in F1 due to his age, but he isn’t worried about making his debut, believing that he is more than ready. Verstappen’s performances in testing and practice last year certainly suggest that he is, but a strong display in Australia would go a long way to answering his critics.
Merhi and Sainz will both be flying the flag for Spain on Sunday in Fernando Alonso’s absence, and both know that questions about their ability do remain. Sainz is only in F1 this year by virtue of Vettel’s move to Ferrari, whilst Merhi was drafted in at the last minute by Manor on a deal that is only for the “opening rounds” of the season.
As for Nasr? Well, read on…
Whose seat is it anyway…
The Sauber debacle leading into this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix has been nothing short of farcical. Put simply: Sauber needed money last year, so signed a number of drivers in a variety of roles; Giedo van der Garde was its reserve driver, but had a contract confirming he would have a race seat in 2015; the team signed Nasr and Marcus Ericsson anyway; van der Garde took the case to the Australian courts, who have now said he must race for the team.
Basically, Sauber has three drivers under contract for this weekend and only two cars to put them in. The end result of this mess is very hard to predict.
On Thursday, Sauber’s appeal against the court’s judgement on safety grounds was thrown out (a ridiculous argument), but now one final hearing is due for Friday in Melbourne, just two hours before FP1. Basically, Sauber may be running down the clock, but the court was interested to know what assets the team has in Melbourne, suggesting that direct action may be taken if need be.
Manor’s false start?
In better news, Manor Marussia F1 Team – or simply “Manor” as it’ll be known – is back in business. After going bust following last year’s Russian Grand Prix, the Marussia operation has been saved and has somehow managed to get to Australia for the first race of the year. Roberto Merhi and Will Stevens will be racing for the team in a modified version of the 2014 car, meaning that they won’t be competitive, but at least they will be on the grid.
Or will they? According to reports coming out of Melbourne, Manor is having problems with its engine software, meaning that its cars may not be able to take part in any of the sessions this weekend. By turning up in Australia, the team has secured itself last year’s prize money, but it will nevertheless be a disappointing start to the year if this turns out to be true.
— Ian Parkes (@ianparkesf1) March 12, 2015
— Tobias Grüner AMuS (@tgruener) March 12, 2015
Australian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures
Track: Albert Park
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:24.125 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Soft (Option); Medium (Prime)
2014 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2014 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:44.231
2014 Fastest Lap: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) 1:32.478
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T2 to T3
Australian Grand Prix – TV Times
Free Practice 1: NBC Sports Live Extra 9:30p ET 3/12
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1:30a ET 3/13
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 12:30a ET 3/14
Qualifying: NBCSN 2a ET 3/14
Race: NBCSN 12:30a ET 3/15