The Australian Grand Prix, postponed from its usual season-opener slot due to the Commonwealth Games, is the last of the early flyaway races. After Melbourne the F1 circus returns to Europe but for this weekend the action takes place at the...
The Australian Grand Prix, postponed from its usual season-opener slot due to the Commonwealth Games, is the last of the early flyaway races. After Melbourne the F1 circus returns to Europe but for this weekend the action takes place at the popular Albert Park street circuit. Will Renault continue its winning ways or can someone else take the glory?
Melbourne is one of the longer circuits on the calendar at 5.3 kms, and its non-permanent status as a track means it's initially very dusty and dirty. It requires high downforce and is a "stop-and-go" type of layout that is demanding on the brakes. The slightly later date of the race means temperatures will be cooler than usually expected in Melbourne.
"The character of the Albert Park circuit is very different from Bahrain and Sepang," said BMW Sauber technical director Willy Rampf. "The layout of the circuit means that brakes are placed under serious loads in Melbourne and we will therefore focus heavily on braking stability when it comes to car set-up."
It's not a particularly abrasive track for tyres, although some graining can occur. "We anticipate that the medium to soft compound range of these tyres will be competitive in the expected cool conditions and on the relatively smooth track surface," said Bridgestone technical manager Hisao Suganuma.
Melbourne is popular with the drivers and Renault's Giancarlo Fisichella was the winner of the race in 2005. The Italian, who also recently won in Malaysia, is aiming to repeat his success and be on the top step of the podium again. "I have a great feeling here, I won last year, and I am hoping to do the same again!" Fisichella remarked.
"This is the last flyaway race, and it is very important to score lots of points early in the season. I think Renault will be very competitive in Australia, and I am going for the win. I want to arrive in Imola, one of my home races, with a very strong position in the championship."
Honda was not quite up to the level of competitiveness in the first two races that some perhaps expected but Jenson Button was on the podium with third place. Teammate Rubens Barrichello has had a difficult start to the season but after recent testing he is optimistic that things will improve.
"Despite the weather, we achieved some good work at the Vallelunga test last week and I was encouraged by the new ideas that we tested," the Brazilian commented. "So I'm really looking forward to getting to Melbourne, our car seems to be strong in all areas at the moment, and I think we should enjoy the weekend."
Kimi Raikkonen's bad luck struck in Malaysia when he was forced to retire on the first lap after contact with the Red Bull of Christian Klien. Teammate Juan Pablo Montoya came home fourth but it wasn't a particularly enthusiastic performance from McLaren all weekend.
Mercedes chief Norbert Haug outlined the stress on the engines in Melbourne. "For the engines, the track is even more challenging than the circuits in Bahrain and Malaysia. More than 70 percent of a lap time at Albert Park will be run under full throttle; this means almost three quarters of a lap."
At Sepang no less than five drivers were penalised with grid demotion penalties for engine changes, three of them being Ferrari-powered. Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher fought from the back of the grid and the midfield to finish fifth and sixth respectively and Ferrari is confident it has solved the problems for this weekend.
"Ferrari is competitive once again and the others will have to take us into consideration," Schumacher asserted. "(Albert Park) has also been improved from a safety point of view and this only increases my desire to dispute the race. In any case, I like this circuit and I expect a better result than that of Malaysia."
Jacques Villeneuve scored BMW Sauber's first points of the season in Malaysia with seventh place and the team did seem to have made a step forward. The reliability has not been great, as Villeneuve retired from the first race with an engine failure and teammate Nick Heidfeld did likewise at Sepang.
Villeneuve is perhaps a little apprehensive about this weekend's race. "The circuit in Australia is another that's heavy on engines, and this will be my second race with the engine I used in Malaysia," he commented. "So we'll have to exercise a certain amount of caution during the weekend."
Toyota initially looked quite strong at Sepang but Ralf Schumacher suffered the demotion penalty due to an engine failure in qualifying and had to start from the back. He managed to fight his way through the field to score the last point in eighth. Toyota has struggled to get the tyres up to optimal performance but is improving.
"The Malaysian Grand Prix was a big improvement on Bahrain because we were able to get more heat into our tyres," said technical director Mike Gascoyne. "We suffered in Malaysia because of Ralf's engine change and set-up issues with Jarno but now that we have our season back on track we've got to look to have a competitive weekend."
MF1 managed to get both cars to the finish line in the last race and there were some interesting little battles between the team and fellow tail-enders Toro Rosso and Super Aguri. MF1's Christijan Albers did not fare well at Albert Park last year and is hoping for a better result this time around.
"Unlike Tiago (Monteiro, teammate), my first memories of this track are not so nice!" Albers remarked. "I retired with transmission problems after only 16 laps, so I'd rather forget about that. But I'm really looking forward to this year's race, and fighting alongside the team to get some more performance out of the car."
Renault is setting the benchmark so far this year while others have been beset by problems. Without Raikkonen's retirement in Malaysia or the Ferraris engine penalties, the picture may not have been so clear-cut. But it was in the early season last year that Renault gained its championship advantage and for the moment it looks like a similar scenario.
We all know how quickly things can change and with only two races gone it's far too early to think about predicting serious title contenders. However, if Renault's rivals want to prevent the reigning champions gaining an early advantage again, someone else needs to be on the top step of the podium in Melbourne.