For the first time since this event moved from Adelaide to Melbourne in 1996, the Australian Grand Prix is not the opening round of the Formula 1 World Championship. The reason for this is to avoid a clash with the Commonwealth Games as there...
For the first time since this event moved from Adelaide to Melbourne in 1996, the Australian Grand Prix is not the opening round of the Formula 1 World Championship. The reason for this is to avoid a clash with the Commonwealth Games as there would not have been enough hotel rooms to cope with both events at once.
It is also a fair assumption to make that some Melbournians would have been annoyed at having to chose between attending a day at the Grand Prix or the athletics competition, because like all Australians, sport is a key part of their life. "Melbourne is a special place when it comes to sport," reckons Michael Schumacher's race engineer, Chris Dyer.
And why would Dyer's opinion be relevant on this subject? Because the thirty-eight year old is an Australian national, whose family lives just over a hundred kilometres away from the city that hosts the third round of the Formula One World Championship. "I think one thing about Melbourne is that it has a very strong sporting heritage and it doesn't matter if it's the grand prix or Australian Rules Football, or a one day cricket match, the whole city is always behind it."
Dyer has had to wait a few weeks longer than usual for his annual home visit. "It's still my home grand prix, so I don't mind what time of year it takes place," he says. "From a work point of view, I guess in some ways it might make it a little easier than normal, because the slot as first race of the year can be a bit busier than usual, as it is the first time back after winter, with a new car. Maybe everyone is a little rusty and needs to learn the new rules. Hopefully, we got all that out of the way in Bahrain and Malaysia and by the time we get to Melbourne, we should be a bit more on top of things and more relaxed."
The European idea of Australian weather is that the continent is always extremely hot and while this is true of much of the country, Melbourne is known for having an almost European climate, with distinct seasons, so what effect will have the shift to this later date on the calendar? "I think the weather will be a little bit cooler, but just as variable as ever," predicts Dyer. But it is difficult to be sure about what we can expect. A couple of days before the Malaysian GP, it was 39 degrees in Melbourne and a day later it was pouring with rain!"
The circuit, located in Albert Park, just a few kilometres south of the city centre is a temporary facility and each year, the organisers have to be build up and pull down all the circuit furniture - barriers, fencing and grandstands. But the track still feels like a real racing circuit. "It is not a street circuit by nature, like Monaco for example, it is more of a normal track, so it is not so bumpy, there's a bit more run-off and a few more fast corners," is how Dyer evaluates it.
"But it's still a compromise between being fast down the straights and having good grip through the corners, just like most circuits. Especially this year with the V8, it will be quite high downforce. It can be quite hard on brakes as well and usually there is a question mark over brake performance as it has been the first race. But this year the brake situation is clearer as we have already had Bahrain which is traditionally tough on brakes, so we should be a bit more prepared."
"In terms of strategy, I expect it will most likely be a two stop strategy. The new qualifying format means that a one stop race is not so likely. You used to have the penalty of carrying the fuel in qualifying, which still makes it difficult, even if things are the same between a one and a two stop in the race. However, carrying more fuel increases your chances of being further back on the grid, which carries a higher chance of getting involved in accidents. The new qualifying format pushes you more to a two stop."
Dyer has been Michael Schumacher's race engineer since the end of 2002, so the years spent working closely together means the Australian is ideally placed to assess how the seven times champion has changed over the years. "Perhaps he is a little bit more relaxed now, but at the same time this winter I think he has worked harder than at any time since I have been at Ferrari, in terms of the number of days we tested and how early he started testing," reckons Chris.
"He tested before Christmas which he has never done before. He may be a bit more chilled and relaxed at the track but he is working harder than ever before." Which leads to the obvious question being asked at the moment: is Schumacher likely to retire soon? "I see no sign of him retiring," states Dyer. "But I have no idea really, as it is not something we talk about."
"We have a job to do this year and we will get on with that. I have no opinion myself. The critical thing is how he feels about it, how much he still enjoys racing and how much he wants to do it. I see no sign that he is enjoying it less, so I cannot see any reason to indicate that he is going to stop. I think he will make that decision himself and when he has we will know about it."
Dyer himself has also grown older in the job and admits his attitude has also changed. "With the years comes a bit more experience, perhaps you can be more relaxed and take the bad days and put them behind you a bit more easily," he says philosophically. "When I first started I tended to worry more - did I do a good job this weekend? did I make all the right decisions? I used to think that way, but now I accept that sometimes it does not matter what you do, you can still have a bad weekend. I'm 38, but that's 38 people-years but I'm sure there's a multiplication factor for Formula 1 years!"