Australian Grand Prix 2011: Preview


If the hype is to be believed, then the fantastic season that was Formula 1 in 2010 was just a taster, a teaser even, of what we can expect in 2011. There are now five world champions on the grid, the relative performance of the cars should be closer, and there is a raft of new regulations that could significant shake things up.

If the anticipation needed to be raised further for this new season, the promised mid-March start date was put back due to the civil unrest in Bahrain, and the fans, drivers, teams, and media have had to wait an extra fortnight before the action can begin.

But this weekend, the wait is over. The season will finally get underway – not in the Middle East, but in Australia. The public roads around the picturesque Albert Park once again become a grand prix circuit as the venue that provided one of the best races of 2010 kicks things off in 2011.

Last time F1 visited Australia, Jenson Button came away victorious thanks to an inspired and brave decision to switch to dry tyres before the rest of the field, on a track that had been soaked by a sudden pre-race downpour. A malfunctioning wheel nut denied Sebastian Vettel, who will be hoping for better luck this year.

If testing form is to be believed (and it can sometimes be deceiving), then Button is unlikely to score his third consecutive Australian Grand Prix victory on Sunday. McLaren have done far less testing mileage than Ferrari, Red Bull, and Mercedes, and have shown little evidence of competitive pace. However, Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh is warning rivals not to write the team off.

Vettel would seem to have a much better chance though, with Red Bull impressing in terms of both performance and reliability over the course of the winter. Since finishing fifth in a Minardi in his first F1 race, team-mate Mark Webber has been desperately unlucky at his home race, never bettering that debut result. The Aussie will be hoping for an upturn in his fortunes this weekend.

Ferrari are also looking strong, completing more testing laps than any other team over the course of the pre-season, and Fernando Alonso should definitely not be discounted from the list of possible victors.

And neither should Mercedes, who were one of the surprise packages at the final Barcelona test. Four-time Australian Grand Prix winner Michael Schumacher set the fastest lap at the Circuit de Catalunya and he, team-mate Nico Rosberg, and Team Principal Ross Brawn are all sounding confident.

Other teams to watch with interest will be Williams, who have a car this season that is supposedly 'pushing boundaries' in terms of its design, and Sauber, who also seem to have taken a big step forward over the winter. Team Lotus are making loud noises about their chances of challenging the more established teams on the grid, and Australia will be the first chance for them to act on their claims.

Force India have hinted that they may be lacking in pace at the start of the season, but promise that this will only be a temporary glitch. Hispania though, have not even run their new car, the F111, in testing, and new drivers Narain Karthikeyan and Tonio Liuzzi may well be in for a frustrating weekend down under.

As the teams all attempt to find out where they find themselves in the competiveness stakes, they also have to adjust to the new regulations. The drivers will need to adapt to using KERS – obviously the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa, who used the system extensively in 2009, may have an advantage – and the switchable rear-wing, which is new to everybody.

The whole paddock will also be looking very carefully at the new Pirelli tyres. Winter testing has shown that the softer compounds wear very quickly – a property actually requested by the teams when the Italian company were preparing the new compounds. This means that even dry races should contain more than just the mandatory single pit stop for each driver. Drivers and cars that are easier on their tyres should have an advantage.

All of these changes should, in theory at least, lead to more overtaking. Will it work in practice? Australia will be our first indication.

One thing that remains unchanged this weekend though is the circuit itself. Albert Park hosts its sixteenth grand prix and provides drivers with a number of challenges. The track begins the weekend with minimal grip, thanks to its role as public roads for the rest of the year, and also has plenty of bumps. The weather can be unpredictable and safety cars are common – there have been eight in the last five races.

These are just a selection of convincing reasons to forego the usual Sunday morning lie-in and be sat in front of the television to watch the five red lights go out at 07:00 BST, despite the fact that the clocks go forward that night and another hour of valuable sleep is stolen. Viewers in the UK will notice a difference to the BBC television coverage with Martin Brundle stepping-up to lead the commentary team and David Coulthard providing the race analysis.