Great expectations ahead of Australian GP

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Great expectations ahead of Australian GP

By: Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent

Story Highlights

  • Pirelli promises more action
  • Strategy will be vital
  • McLaren and Mercedes found more speed
  • The 2011 Rookies
  • Webber ready to win home GP

For the first round of the 2011 FIA (Federation Internationale de L’Automobile) Formula One World Championship teams have traveled to Melbourne, Australia, for the official season kick off after the Bahrain Grand Prix had been postponed due to the social unrest in the tiny Gulf kingdom. The Albert Park circuit has tight corners and chicanes and is a challenge for all drivers, and the sometimes unpredictable local weather has in the past contributed to thrilling races.

Melbourne is ready for the first race of the year
Melbourne is ready for the first race of the year

Photo by: xpb.cc

Formula One will be entering a new era, with new rules, a new tyre supplier, the return of KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System) and the 107 percent qualifying rule, and an adjustable rear wing to make overtaking easier, and the expectations ahead of the Australian Grand Prix are high. Albert Park will be a test for the new regulations and the new Pirelli tyres as well.

The adjustable rear wing

New this season is the adjustable rear wing, or Drag Reduction System (DRS) as the official name of the device is, and is designed to make overtaking easier. The DRS can only be activated when a driver is less than one second behind another driver, and only on a by the FIA pre-designated part of the circuit. It is estimated the system will give 8-10 km/h speed advantage, and combined with the extra power of KERS, it can be a powerful overtaking tool.

There is no question of race control being able to intervene

Charlie Whiting

FIA race director Charlie Whiting insists computers and software will control and activate the wing, and not the FIA or the race marshals. Whiting about the DRS, “Race control has no influence over the outcome of a race. The system will be armed automatically.” And added, “Cars will simply have to get within one second of the one in front, the system will be armed automatically and the driver can use it at the predetermined point. There is no question of race control being able to intervene.”

But Whiting also warned the system is designed to assist a driver, and a successful overtaking maneuver can therefore not be guaranteed. “It should be remembered though that the distance over which the system may be used is going to be tuned with the intention of assisting the following driver, not guaranteeing him an overtaking maneuver,” Whiting explained.

Today the FIA announced the overtaking zone in Melbourne has been extended, the zone will start just before the last corner that leads to the start-finish straight, and the detection zone starts just before Turn 14. A white line will be painted on the track to indicate where the overtaking zone starts, and Whiting earlier announced TV viewers will see an on-screen graphic displayed when the system is activated. The device will be de-activated when the driver hits the brakes.

The system may also be used without restrictions during practice and qualifying, but Mark Webber is one of the drivers who have voiced their concerns. “For qualifying, it is an added distraction and loading which we don’t really need. It is not helping the show -- it is another session where you want to do the ultimate lap time but everyone has the same tools to get that lap time, so why overload the driver? There is no real gain for doing it,” the Australian explained.

Pirelli promises more action

Pirelli has allocated the hard and the soft tyre compounds for the first three races of the year: Australia, Malaysia and China. The hard tyre will be the ‘prime’ tyre, the soft is designated as the ‘option’ tyre. Pirelli will mark the different tyre compounds with different colored Pirelli logos on the sidewall: wet - orange, intermediate - light blue, super soft - red, soft - yellow, medium - white, and the hard tyre gets a silver colored logo. Pirelli will also continue Bridgestone’s policy to leave at least one step between tyre compounds, therefore the yellow and silver colored Pirellis will make their debut in Australia.

Different colors for different tyres
Different colors for different tyres

Photo by: xpb.cc

The FIA has decided to give all teams one extra set of ‘prime’ or hard tyres this weekend, which can only be used during the first two free practice sessions, and have to be returned before the third practice session on Saturday.

Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery about Pirelli’s debut, “This is the moment that we’ve been building up to for more than a year now and it’s very exciting for all of us. Our tyres this year are designed to be different to what we have seen before in Formula One, but I think all the teams have managed to gather some useful information about them in testing.”

We’re aiming for between two and three pit stops

Paul Hembery

Hembery is adamant the new tyres will provide more action, “We’re aiming for between two and three pit stops in Australia, which in some ways is against our company DNA as our road car tyres are designed to be as durable as possible.” And added, “But Formula One is a very different case, because our remit from the teams and promoter was to provide entertainment. With that in mind, we’re just keen to get going now and it will be fascinating to see exactly how the drivers and teams are going to use our tyres to employ different strategies during the race.”

He also predicts the tyres will lead to new race strategies, “We’ve noticed a few differences between the teams already in testing, and it’s going to be very interesting to find out exactly how that translates into a race situation.”

Strategy will be vital

Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali thinks strategy will be ‘absolutely’ vital this season. Especially the tyres are an unknown factor according to the Italian. “From what we have seen in winter testing, these tyres are very different to those we used in the past. Therefore, we have to adopt a fresh approach and clearly, from what we have seen so far, the number of pit stops required to complete a race distance competitively will be higher than before “ he said.

Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali

Photo by: xpb.cc

A well executed pit stop is also very important according to Domenicali, “This is significant in terms of teamwork at the races, because more pit stops means the role of team members becomes even more important in terms of deciding the final outcome of the races. A further impact of having more pit stops is that possibly qualifying and therefore grid position will be less important than in 2010. In simple terms it is more likely that a car that has not set the fastest time and taken pole position can still go on to win the race. It will be absolutely vital to have the right strategy in order to win the race.”

Jenson Button warned that overtaking will ‘shock’ the fans during a media meeting in Melbourne. “I think you will see so much overtaking in the last stint here that it will shock everyone. It is going to go to the last corner in this race, which is great,” the Briton said. So, what is the most important thing in Melbourne? “For me the last stint is important to look after the tires -- the first two or three not so much because the important thing, as everyone knows, is to stop one lap before everyone else. If you do that you will overtake them because you will put new tyres on and go three seconds per lap quicker, said Button.

It will be absolutely vital to have the right strategy in order to win the race

Stefano Domenicali

He’s also convinced strategy will be very important this year, “The main thing is who is going to be brave enough to stop the earliest, because you might think you have made a lot of ground up after the first stop, but you could lose it all again on the last stop or last stint. It is a balancing act and it is going to take a few races to work out what the best strategy is.”

Fernando Alonso also thinks the new rules will change everything this year, “It is always a challenge when you have regulation changes. You have many new things to test and learn about and me and Felipe [Massa] did enough mileage to understand everything we needed to.” And added, “A new Formula 1 starts here in Melbourne. We will have to remain very focused and very concentrated on the strategy, because that will play a big part in the final result, while Qualifying will have a bit less value than last year.”

Grand Prix Australia, Albert Park, Melbourne

Albert Park Circuit Melbourne, Australia
Circuit length 5.303 km
Direction Clockwise
Corners 16 turns
Longest straight 735 m
Total number of race laps 58
Total race distance 307.574 km
Top speed 305 km/h
Average speed 225 km/h
Gear changes 60 per lap
Tyre wear Medium to high
Tyre compounds Hard [Prime - Silver] / Soft [Option - Red]
Brake wear High
Downforce level Medium to high
Lap record M. Schumacher - Ferrari - 1:24.125 (2004)
Speed limits in the pit lane 60 km/h during practice sessions - 100 km/h during qualifying and race
FIA race stewards Johnny Herbert (GB), Paul Gutjahr (CH) and Steve Stringwell (GB)

Melbourne weather forecast

Day Forecast Min Temperature Max Temperature
Friday Cloudy in the morning but dry, cool 13C 18C
Saturday Cloudy with light rain, later sunny but cool 13C 20C
Sunday No clouds, sunny all day but cool 13C 22C

McLaren and Mercedes confident they found the right speed

During the pre-season testing days McLaren drivers Button and Lewis Hamilton had to admit their car was off the pace, which has now led to some radical design changes for the McLaren MP4-26, in a last-minute bid to get up to speed. Team principal Martin Whitmarsh, “We have I guess, with some risk, made some fairly dramatic changes to the car and those changes we will see in Australia. So there is some risk in that, but I think it was the right thing to do and we’re hopeful that that risk comes off and the car is a lot more competitive in Australia.”

He’s now convinced McLaren will be faster than we have seen in testing, “I want us to be significantly quicker and I believe we’ve implemented some changes which are aimed at making the car over a second quicker than it was in the tests.” The McLaren engineers have designed a completely new floor and the complicated forwards pointing exhaust system has been replaced with a more traditional exhaust system layout.

Martin Whitmarsh and Jenson Button
Martin Whitmarsh and Jenson Button

Photo by: xpb.cc

“Exhaust systems have become quite a lot more extreme on quite a lot of the cars. I think we in particular had a very extreme solution, but I think that they were not delivering, in my opinion, sufficient benefit for their complexity,” Whitmarsh said. He also denied the MP4-26 was plagued by fundamental design flaws, “I think the car fundamentally isn’t a bad car. I believe we need to unlock the exhaust-blowing potential and we had some very creative ideas -- some of which could have worked spectacularly well. But in order to have worked spectacularly well they had to sufficiently durable to be raceable and frankly some of our solutions weren’t and that’s why we had to go back a little bit”

Mercedes also had problems during pre-season testing, and like McLaren they had problems finding the right speed. But after Mercedes tested their latest car upgrades last week, the Silver Arrows team is surprisingly confident about their chances in 2011. “Mercedes has done a huge step forward with this year's car, it's a very performance-orientated car and it has paid out. I think this year our target and our realistic possibility is to fight for podiums and if things go very well, maybe to win a race,” seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher said.

The 42-year old German is now convinced his team can fight with Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Renault. “I see a good opportunity that we might be able to fight for that position, to be the second fastest.” And Schumacher’s prediction for weekend? “It's up to us to prove it and I think we have a good opportunity to [do so]. Nevertheless, we should not overestimate the things and see the truth and that is that Red Bull is most likely the team to be beaten,” he said.

The 2011 Rookies

Four drivers will make their Formula One debut in Melbourne: Sergio Perez, Paul di Resta, Jerome d’Ambrsio and Pastor Maldonado.

21-year old Mexican Perez will drive for Sauber this season, after a financial injection from his Mexican sponsor TelMex. “I have dreamed for many years of competing in my first Formula One Grand Prix, and now it is going to happen. I am excited and I am very much looking forward to it. It will be a weekend during which I have to adapt quickly to many things,” he said.

Sergio Perez, Sauber F1 Team
Sergio Perez, Sauber F1 Team

Photo by: xpb.cc

He also knows it won’t be easy for him, “I cannot imagine yet how it will be for me when the lights go out on Sunday, but I can’t wait to find that out. I have never been to Australia before. Of course, I have checked the circuit lay-out and other things. I understand it is a tough track, very challenging and not easy to find the limit, so it will be hard.”

Another driver who also secured a race seat thanks to his sponsor, is Venezuelan Maldonado. His sponsor energy company PDVSA reportedly paid $15 million to Williams team. The 26-year old Maldonado who won last year’s GP2 championship crown, is equally eager to start his first Formula One race ever. “I feel more than ready to start my first season in Formula One. I am now just looking forward to going racing. It will be a very exciting moment. My aim this weekend is to get a solid finish, and to score some points,” he said.

Di Resta won last year’s DTM (Deutsches Tourenwagen Masters) and after a long flirt with Formula One he finally landed a seat at the Force India team after being appointed to test and reserve driver last year. Asked about his goal this weekend the 24-year old di Resta replied: “I am open minded and will be concentrating on performance, getting the best out of the car on the Friday and Saturday to see what areas we need to improve as a team for the race. As for my personal expectations I am going to be realistic and gauge how it goes over the weekend and focus on the job in hand.”

I am open minded and will be concentrating on performance

Paul di Resta

Belgium d’Ambrosio was already test driver for Marussia Virgin, but has been promoted to regular driver alongside the experienced Timo Glock. “Sunday will be a big day for me. “I’ve had the best preparation I can imagine with so much running in all of the pre-season tests. I’ve also spent plenty of time in the simulator to prepare for Albert Park specifically. I’ve also spent the weeks since the last test in Barcelona really consolidating my fitness and I’m ready to start racing now,” he said ahead of the Melbourne Grand Prix.

The reigning champions: Red Bull Racing and Sebastian Vettel

Red Bull won the Drivers’ and Constructors’ championship last year, and without a doubt they will vigorously defend both titles. Red Bull has been tipped by many as the fasted team, but good testing results are no guarantee for good race results. Vettel recently signed a new contract with Red Bull, and it will be no surprise the youngest world champion ever is very confident ahead of this weekend.

Current world champion Sebastian Vettel
Current world champion Sebastian Vettel

Photo by: xpb.cc

“We have a common target and we've achieved a lot together in the past, racing against the best teams and drivers out there. My number one priority is to win races and to be at the top of the field,” Vettel said today in Melbourne.

And added, “It all starts from zero again, we're excited, we've had enough of testing and we want to go racing again.” The 23-year old German is happy with the new RB6, “The car has been reliable from the first test onwards but if that's enough we don't really know. The strongest package in general is still able to win races so in that regard nothing has changed. The name of the game is still the same, and surely our target is to continue the way we finished, so we'll try to carry that momentum into the first race.”

Webber ready to win home Grand Prix

After a troublesome season last year, local hero Australian Webber is poised to leave the troubles behind him, and he’s aiming for a win during his home Grand Prix. “I’m ready to go racing now, sick of the talk about it. We just need get on the track and see where everyone stacks up when the gloves are off. We had a phenomenal season last year [and] we're the hunted now. Obviously Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Renault -- all those big boys -- are all going to have a crack at us now to put us back down the order again,” Webber said.

I'm ready to have another bloody good crack at it!

Mark Webber

Webber had a collision with Hamilton last year, and ended up on ninth place and was also reprimanded by the stewards. “Personally for me I want to get out there and execute a really clean weekend and hopefully the rest will take care of itself,” the 34-year old driver said. And added, “It's clear that the Australian Grand Prix is important to me, that's obvious. It's human nature that you always want more, and it would be great to put [the Australian GP] in amongst a Monaco Grand Prix and a Silverstone Grand Prix. I'm ready to have another bloody good crack at it!”

All set for Melbourne

With the changes in regulations and the introduction of the DRS it is impossible to predict the outcome of the Australian Grand Prix. Many factors will play a role, the new tyres, team strategy, experience and even the weather could determine the outcome of the first race of the season. Drivers have complained about the use of the DRS, and also complained about the fast degrading Pirelli tyres.

Many believe the workload in the cockpit has increased to a point where it is no longer acceptable, and Vettel even indicated a driver strike could be a last resort to wake up the powers that be and warn them drivers are not robots who have to push more and more buttons to get their car to the finish line. For the drivers and teams many things have changed, and spectators will have to get used to the new Formula One.

There is no guarantee the new regulations will provide more excitement for the fans, and some fans are even wondering why on earth Formula One needs more excitement to start with. But on the other hand, last year’s classic season is also no guarantee this season will be just as thrilling, and perhaps the new regulations will offer extra thrills and spills.

Follow all the action on the renewed Motorsport website this weekend, with daily reports, the latest news and results, photos and everything you want to know about the 2011 Australian Grand Prix.

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Series GENERAL , F1
Tags australian grand prix, mclaren, melbourne, mercedes, paul hembery, pirelli, red bull, stefano domenicali