Australian GP Preview: Can Webber win it?

A win at home for Mark Webber would make up for years of disappointment at his home race

Mar. 24 (Daniel Chalmers) This weekend the F1 circus heads to Melbourne for the Australian GP. It might not be the first race this year but there is still the same buzz around the place as if it were the opening race.

Mark Webber with Minardi boss Paul Stoddart at the 2002 Australian GP

Many of the fans in the crowd will be coming to see Mark Webber and hope that he can win his home race. If he does he will become the fifth driver on the 2010 grid to win at home joining Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa in achieving the feat.

Arguably Webber’s most memorable moment in his home race was on his F1 debut in 2002 with Minardi. In a race of attrition he managed to finish 5th which included a feisty battle with Mika Salo in the Toyota.

Since then he hasn’t had the best of luck at Melbourne and has only scored six points in his nine starts. He retired from the lead in 2006, and last year he was involved in an incident at the first corner.

Mark Webber is probably in the best car he has ever had in F1

However there is no doubt that this weekend’s race represents his best chance of a famous home victory. Last year the Red Bull was competitive in Australia but they hadn’t adopted the double diffuser yet which put them behind the likes of Brawn and Toyota initially.

Webber was also still recovering from a broken leg which held him back in the early races of 2009.

This year Webber is back to full fitness, and in Bahrain Red Bull showed that they are going to be a mighty force right from the start in 2010. So Mark has the machinery to get the job done at home for the first time.

In 2009 Webber showed that he is capable of dominating a race as we saw in the Nurburgring and Interlagos. When he is really determined as he showed on those two occasions he is as good as anyone.

Jenson Button started 2009 with victory in Melbourne

The main thing is that he gets qualifying right this weekend. A costly sector in the middle sector in Bahrain left him stranded behind Jenson Button’s Mclaren for most of the race, so we never saw his true pace.

Jenson Button agrees that Webber will be a big threat: “I don’t think you saw the best of Mark in Bahrain. I think he will be more competitive here in front of the home crowd, so hopefully for him he will have a good weekend, for me I hope he doesn’t!”

Webber will thrive in front of his home fans and they will give him an extra couple of tenths. This is unlike team mate Sebastien Vettel who seemingly felt the pressure in front of his German fans last year. Vettel will be very keen to stop Webber from winning his home GP, and he is very likely to be one of Webber’s main opponents.

Ferrari again will be very hard to beat

Fernando Alonso leads Felipe Massa in Bahrain

In Bahrain they were the most consistent team in all the different conditions ranging from qualifying on low fuel to starting the race on a full tank of fuel.

Another big question is going to be how close will Mclaren and Mercedes be to Red Bull and Ferrari? In Bahrain they were both further away than many expected them to be. In Melbourne though they will definitely be closer. The main reason is that the extended Bahrain track exaggerated the gaps between the teams. The Albert Park track is around 30 seconds shorter than Sakhir.

The McLaren seemed to be very quick in the first and second sectors in Bahrain. It was in the middle slow and fiddly sector that the Mclaren lost all its time.

With less slow corners in Melbourne it could suit the Mclaren much better, and put them in direct competition with Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ferrari know the way to the chequered flag in Melbourne

Button says: “This circuit is a low downforce circuit and that should suit us reasonably well, so I am excited about racing here. I think we can have a much better race.”

Mercedes don’t seem to be there yet. It seems that there have been a few miscalculations, and that it will take a few races until the team are up there with the other big guns. Perhaps something we have to remember is that this is the same team of people who were responsible for the terrible Hondas we saw in 2007 and 2008. Maybe there has been a bit of complacency too after winning both titles in 2009.

Mid-pack focus on Renault and Force India

Robert Kubica and Renault will be looking to be the best of the rest

Out of the chasing pack Renault and Force India emerged as the closest to the “big four”. We didn’t really see how much they could have affected the race in Bahrain as team leaders Robert Kubica and Adrian Sutil fell to the back of the field at the first corner. However the lap charts showed that their pace in clean air was very quick. Expect them to cause the frontrunners problems in Melbourne.

Of the other midfield teams Williams and Sauber were a bit disappointing. However the pecking order of the midfield is likely to change from the circuit to circuit.

New kids on the block

Lotus were the best of the new teams in the season opener

It was a huge baptism of fire for Lotus, Virgin and Hispania in their first F1 race. Matters were made worse by the fact that the long circuit made them seem slower than they actually were.

In the race Lotus were around three seconds off the pace which was pretty impressive considering they only got their entry confirmed five months ago.

For Hispania Bahrain was more of a shakedown rather than their first race. After a couple of weeks working on the car we will get a better idea of how their pace looks.

Another bore or a humdinger?

Melbourne has a variety of low, medium and high speed curves....

The big question on many fan’s lips is will we see a more exciting race this weekend?

Certainly in the past we have seen some great races around the Albert Park circuit. It’s a track that is very much loved by all the drivers in F1. The Aussies also turn up in their thousands and create a magical atmosphere. The surrounding parkland, lake and Melbourne skyline make for a much more interesting backdrop, than the desert surroundings at Bahrain.

The circuit also has a variety of low, medium and high speed corners. Also unlike Bahrain driver errors are punished heavily. The track has much shorter run-off areas, and the walls are quite close in places.

Due to it being a temporary race circuit, the track is quite low on grip which makes it challenging for the drivers.

Common in Melbourne is the safety car factor

The safety car normally has a busy time in Melbourne including last year

The safety car has made a regular appearance in the last few years. Over the last four races there have been a grand total of nine safety car periods. Will the teams bear this fact in mind when thinking about their race strategies?

If the teams go into the race presuming that there will be a safety car they could take a gamble and take a few laps of fuel out of the car which could give them a decisive advantage. However if the race turns out like 2007 with no safety cars, then that plan would backfire spectacularly.

Depending on when a safety car gets deployed it could have a major impact on the tyres strategies. Let’s remember last year when some teams opted to start on the less favourable super-soft tyre in anticipation of a safety car to bunch the field back up. That plan paid off when Kazuki Nakajima hit the wall.

Prediction time

Mark Webber returns to Melbourne as an F1 winner for the firt time in his career

I think Red Bull are going to be even stronger this weekend than they were in Bahrain. With less slow corners, and cooler temperatures expected the Albert Park circuit will play more to the RB6’s strengths. They are my hot favourites

I also fancy Mclaren to be much more competitive this weekend mainly due to the nature of the track suiting them better than Bahrain did.

Mark Webber has a great chance of pulling off a famous home victory this weekend providing he can get on the front couple of rows in qualifying.

Now the teams have experienced the new regulations in competitive conditions we should probably see less caution amongst the teams than there was in Bahrain. This along with the nature of the Albert Park circuit should produce a much better spectacle than we saw two weeks ago.

A couple of safety cars and a few drops of rain could also really mix things up.

Top 10 prediction by Daniel Chalmers

1. Mark Webber
2. Lewis Hamilton
3. Fernando Alonso
4. Sebastien Vettel
5. Jenson Button
6. Adrian Sutil
7. Felipe Massa
8. Michael Schumacher
9. Nico Rosberg
10. Robert Kubica