Australian Grand Prix Preview: McLaren top dog down under


McLaren pit stop. Credit: McLaren Media Centre.

The Australian Grand Prix has been part of the Formula 1 calendar since 1985, when the original venue was Adelaide and it played host to the final round of the season. Keke Rosberg and Williams won the first ever race held down under.

From 1996 onwards however, the race switched to Albert Park in Melbourne, which proved to be a much more popular venue with fans, and it became the opening round of the formula one season, as it still is today.

The Australian Grand Prix takes the honour for holding the shortest F1 race of all time, when in 1991 just sixteen laps were completed thanks to the appalling wet weather conditions. After numerous accidents in the continuing rain, including one in the pit lane that injured two marshals, the race was red flagged and Ayrton Senna was named the victor. The result was decided as of the end of lap fourteen and half points were awarded due to the lack of running.

Albert Park, Melbourne is a street circuit, making it especially slippery for drivers at the start of the weekend due to its lack of use throughout the year. There are a number of slow corners, which lead to high levels of downforce, and the asphalt is reasonably smooth, so tyre wear and degradation is relatively low.

Due to the new 2017 regulations, which have seen the introduction of wider cars and tyres this year, the Melbourne track has undergone a number of safety adaptations, with speeds expected to rise by 20 – 50 km/h in mid to high-speed corners, and lap times set to be quicker by around four to five seconds. This has prompted a number of safety revisions, such as tyre wall re-profiling at turns one, six and fourteen, as well as the introduction of Tecpro barriers at turn twelve.

Amazingly no Australian driver has ever finished in the top three on home soil, with Mark Webber’s fourth place in 2012 the best result achieved by an Aussie at the Australian Grand Prix to date.

Mac Attack…

It has been a long time since the McLaren F1 team topped any F1 tables, but they are, in their many different guises, the most successful team to have competed at the Australian Grand Prix, having secured twenty-six podiums and won the race on eleven occasions, four more than the next best result of seven, achieved by Scuderia Ferrari.

The last time McLaren won the Antipodean grand prix however was back in 2012, which incidentally is also the last season they tasted victory in a F1 race during the last five years, having struggled to encapsulate that sort of performance they had become renowned for, ever since.

Lets relive that magic moment:

2012 Australian Grand Prix

It was a fantastic start to the 2012 season for McLaren, who achieved a dominating win with driver Jenson Button at the opening round of the year, whilst team-mate Lewis Hamilton also made it onto the podium, ending the race in third place.

With both drivers having qualified on the front row, Hamilton starting from pole position, it was the ideal way to begin the 2012 F1 championship.

Button got a storming start to take the lead from Hamilton, passing him on the inside at the first corner and from there on in, the man from Frome did not look back. Button was in a class of his own from start to finish, with little trouble from the rest of the pack, as he cruised to a dominant victory.

Hamilton meanwhile did not have luck on his side that day, initially finding himself stuck behind the Sauber Ferrari of Sergio Perez after the first round of pit stops, taking the Brit four laps to find a way through, all the time allowing team-mate Button to extend his lead up ahead.

A badly timed safety car on lap 36, just after both McLaren boys had pitted, saw Hamilton lose a further place to then Red Bull Racing driver Sebastian Vettel, who had been just moments from the pit entry when the safety car was called, allowing the German to take full advantage and nip ahead of the Brit. Despite remaining within one second of the German’s car for the rest of the race, Hamilton was unable to find a way past the Red Bull and had to settle for third.

That result saw McLaren take the lead in the 2012 championship, which is also the last time any squad other than the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team have led the constructor’s standings.

McLaren go down under…

Oh to experience such strong and competitive performance today!

Having taken their last win in F1 at the final round of the 2012 season in Brazil, McLaren have seriously dropped down the ratings.

In 2013, despite having had probably the fastest car at the end of 2012, the Woking based squad decided to run with a completely new car design, which went far from how they had planned. There were a number of weaknesses in their new concept, and with in-season testing not permitted; they were unable to develop their way out of it easily or at all.

Hamilton, who had been with McLaren for most of his motor racing career, left for pastures new at Mercedes, and Perez, who had shown promise in the Sauber, now lined up alongside Button.

Long-time title sponsor Vodafone also walked away from their partnership, and to this day McLaren still do not have a title partner deal agreed. Having ended the 2012 season in third place, just behind Ferrari, McLaren now found themselves in fifth, and some distance off the top three, by the end of 2013.

The 2014 season was no better, despite the optimism that they could come back from such a dire year. Young driver Kevin Magnussen had replaced Perez alongside Button, and although they enjoyed a fantastic and somewhat surprising start to the season, with both drivers finishing on the podium in Australia, that performance was not to be repeated, and technical reliability was a continuing handicap. They again ended the season in fifth place overall, though with slightly more points than the previous year.

In 2015, McLaren made the decision to revive their iconic and successful partnership with Honda, a proposition that also lured star driver Fernando Alonso their way. However, once again their insistence on making drastic changes, proved a performance debilitating one from the start.

The objective of course was to be as competitive as possible and win races, before pushing on to win world championships, and perhaps it would have been foolish to think that would be a realistic possibility during the first year of the McLaren Honda alliance.

They could not have envisaged it would go quite as badly as it did however, with technical failure, after technical failure, and an engine severely lacking in power compared to rival manufacturers, really taking its toll.

McLaren, who had two world champions driving their machines, ended the season down in ninth place in the constructor’s standings, with just the Marussia Ferrari squad finishing lower down the order.

The Woking based team were confident they could make the partnership a success however, and in 2016 they did make some strong headway. With two fifth place finishes for Alonso the highlight, on their way to sixth in the table.

Confidence was high that with the rule changes coming in for 2017, McLaren could really get back to challenging at the top; but alas, winter testing dashed those hopes in the most brutal of ways.

From the get-go, the Woking based squad experienced technical failures with the Honda engine, with practically every one of the eight days of running seeing drivers Alonso and newcomer Stoffel Vandoorne sidelined to the garage for part of a session, limiting their running, and in turn the data they could capture ahead of the new season.

With an all-new orange livery, for an all-new era under the guidance of Executive Director Zak Brown, reliability issues were the last thing McLaren needed as they strived to return to form.

Honda are confident they can resolve the problems experienced in Spain, but with pressure mounting on McLaren to start performing, the McLaren Honda relationship is becoming seriously strained. There has already been talk that McLaren sounded out Mercedes over a possible engine supply deal, it will now be down to Honda to prove they are capable and their current partnership should remain.

The 2017 season is Go, Go, Go…

Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton during pre-season testing, Barcelona – Credit: Octane Photographic Ltd

Ahead of the start of the 2017 Formula One World championship and the Australian Grand Prix, we only have winter testing by which to ascertain any sort of pecking order, especially in light of the rule and regulation changes introduced this year.

Ferrari posted the fastest lap times across the two weeks of running, which they also did in 2016, but this time they look to have the chassis spot on too, with experts regularly mentioning how planted they look going through corners. Could this be the Italian team’s year for resurrection?

Mercedes got in the most mileage and were also not far off Ferrari’s pace, giving no reason to suggest that they cannot win this title again. They looked as strong as ever as they circulated the track, and the amount of laps they were able to complete shows strong reliability.

However, it looks like it will be much closer at the top this year, with Red Bull, and Williams Martini Racing also posting quick lap times out in Spain. A close battle at the front is exactly what F1 has been crying out for across the last three seasons, and fans and critics may be about to get just that.

The midfield battle also looks tight with the Sahara Force India F1 Team, Scuderia Toro Rosso, the Haas F1 Team and the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team likely to be contesting that grouping at least for the first few races.

The Sauber F1 Team, who posted the slowest times of pre-season testing, could struggle. They are already way down the pecking order after the two-week session, and having opted to go with a year old Ferrari engine in 2017, they are unlikely to be able to up that performance at any stage.

Then we come to McLaren, who having been plagued by engine failures throughout their time in Barcelona, are still unsure whether or not the Honda power unit will be able to complete a full race distance.

Honda are confident they can rectify the situation and redeem their troubled start, but we will not know if they have succeeded until the first practice session of the Australian Grand Prix race weekend gets underway, we just have to hope for McLaren’s sake, that they have!