Australian Grand Prix: Mercedes preview Melbourne

Toto Wolff with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg

Toto Wolff with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg

The 2014 Formula One World Championship gets underway in Melbourne with the first race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, held at the Albert Park circuit.

Lewis Hamilton: “The Australian Grand Prix is always an exciting race and the fans are fantastic. They love their motorsport, so it’s an event that every driver looks forward to. I’m excited about the new season not just as a driver but as a fan. As a fan, you want to see overtaking throughout the field, you want to see different race winners, you want to see the championship go down to the wire… I hope that the changes for this year will make that happen. This is the year you need to watch Formula One! I think we’re as ready as we can be for Melbourne and I’m more fired up than ever. With all the changes within the sport and the hard work that’s been going on within the team, I believe this can be our year to really show what we’re capable of. That’s not to take anything away from our opposition, who will be incredibly tough to beat as always, but I feel like I’m equipped with the tools I need to succeed. I can’t wait to get started.”

Nico Rosberg: “I always look forward to the season opener. Melbourne is a fantastic city and Australia is an exciting country all round. It’s a great place to start the year and you can always have lots of fun here. The fans are incredibly friendly and laid-back but they are also very enthusiastic and mad about sport. The food is pretty great too! I always fly in a week in advance to get over the jet lag. This year, after completing the final test in Bahrain, I returned to the factory at Brackley for final preparations in the simulator and went straight on to Melbourne from there. Overall, I think our winter testing programme went better than expected. Having said that, the first Grand Prix is the first real opportunity to judge how well we have done against our competition. Pre-season doesn‘t tell the full story, especially this year with the new regulations. I‘m really looking forward to getting the season underway and can’t wait to be back in the car again.”

Toto Wolff, Head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport: “The new regulations have been a massive challenge for everybody involved, and the team has been pushing flat out to get the car to where it is now as we approach the first race in Melbourne. While it is true that the quickest car with the quickest drivers will win, reliability will be a key factor. We want to bring both cars to the flag in the best possible position. We now face the ultimate reality check in the first race of this new era for Formula One. The feeling within the team is not one of nerves, however. It is more a sense of relief to finally be unleashing our cars in race conditions. Everybody now just wants to get out there and see where we stand. Expectations are high, both internally and externally. Although we’re not quite where we want to be right now in terms of a complete package, I’m optimistic in that we’ve done everything possible to prepare for the challenges ahead. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised by the new cars: the noise, the speeds and ultimately the lap times. This is cutting-edge technology – and that’s exactly what Formula One stands for.”

Albert Park: The Inside Line

In the Cockpit

Lewis: “I love Albert Park It’s a circuit that really puts drivers to the test. It’s a half-and-half mix between street circuit and race track, with a really bumpy surface that’s tough on tyres. There are two high-speed sections, but the majority of corners are rated as low or medium speed, so you need to try and put as much downforce on the car as possible. Overtaking is tricky here but not impossible. It’s usually pretty close between a move coming off and ending badly, which is why we see a lot of safety cars.

Another factor is the weather, which can be blistering hot one day and freezing cold the next. You really do get four seasons in one day here! There have been race weekends in the past with temperatures in the teens during qualifying, but rising well into the thirties during the race. It can change very quickly, so you have to keep one eye on the forecast and set the car up to be able to cope with every scenario.
In terms of layout, the end of the start / finish straight is the fastest section with quite heavy braking into Turn One. It’s so easy to out-brake yourself here and there’s always a few tense moments over the course of the weekend as drivers push the limits. You quite often see incidents on the first lap here too as it’s pretty tight which, added to the adrenaline of that first race start of a new season, has created plenty of drama over the years.

Turn Three offers the best overtaking opportunity, but it’s far from easy to make a pass stick. You have to get a good exit from the first two corners and be brave and decisive when you make your move. Aside from that, it’s through the final two turns, 15 and 16, that you really want the car to work best. These are very slow and are where the most lap time can be gained from the car. A good run through here determines your speed down the start / finish straight.”

Nico: “The circuit at Albert Park is not a permanent race track. Outside of the Formula 1 week, parts of the circuit are used by ordinary traffic. Consequently, the surface is generally very dirty and greasy on the first day of practice and it takes a while before it develops the right amount of grip. It’s also essential to take it steady over the kerbs.

In principle, overtaking around the Albert Park Circuit is difficult. This year, however, there should definitely be more opportunities thanks to the boost provided by the two electric motors. For a period of 33.3 seconds per lap, we have an additional 160 horsepower available. That gives you plenty to play with. The best place to try it is through the corner at the end of the home straight. It’s possible to pull off some great overtaking manoeuvres there. At Turn One, you put the driver ahead under pressure, then you finish the move at Turn Three. Apart from that, Turn 12 in Sector 3 can also be a key point. This is the fastest corner on the track, and it is especially exciting for spectators watching the race there.

Another factor is fuel consumption, which is relatively high in Melbourne. Managing the new 100 kg maximum fuel allowance this year will play an important role. My engineers have told me that this new fuel limit will be a real challenge at Albert Park. Fuel economy is not just a matter of engine settings; much will also depend on individual driving styles. We have to drive efficiently, which means, for example, coming off the gas at the end of the straights, even before you’ve reached the actual braking zone.

One special feature of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne is the late afternoon start time. Up until the middle of the race, the sun is so low in the sky that you’re staring right at it on some of the straights and you’re in danger of not seeing the braking points. This is something that complicates the race even further.”

On the Pit Wall

Climate: Melbourne possesses an interesting climate. For most places in the world, it’s unusual to have a 10-15 degree temperature shift within the space of just a few days or weeks, but this is a frequent occurrence here. The challenge presented by these variations comes in setting cooling levels on the cars. While teams are attempting to tune cooling packages to within one or two degrees, there is a huge variable that they must attempt to forecast and predict. Performance can be lost through over-cooling the car, but if cooling levels are insufficient then a mistake has been made which will likely lead to a non-finish. It’s quite easy to see which path to prioritise, but the engineers must work as close to the line as possible.

Tyres: Tyres can be affected by a few degrees change in track temperature. To give an order of magnitude, pre-season testing in Bahrain often saw more than a second and a half difference in lap time from the worst part of the day to the best. As track temperature changes, so do the balance of the car, the performance of the tyres and the feeling for the driver. The race in Melbourne is slightly offset in terms of timing with the 17:00 start. Conditions on the Friday morning will likely be much warmer, causing the tyres to behave in a different manner to that expected during the race. Free Practice Two will provide more representative conditions with a track that cools throughout the session, and teams will have to find a setup that’s flexible enough to cope with that variable.

Safety Cars: Albert Park has seen 11 Safety Car deployments spread over five races in the past ten years. The first race of the season not only sees cars that are fundamentally less reliable but also drivers who are anxious to score as many points as possible. Although one early result will not decide the championship, it is a huge psychological advantage to come away from Melbourne with a win. This naturally means you get a few more incidents than you would do normally. The fundamental reason for Safety Car deployments, however, lies in the fact that there is very little space around the circuit. In the event of an incident, the Safety Car is therefore necessary to neutralise the race so that marshals can safely clear debris or remove a car from the circuit if it has broken down.

Track Evolution: Albert Park is not a permanent circuit. This is most obvious in the wet, when drivers frequently make mistakes over the painted lines. In the difficult conditions between dry and wet running there is a lot more variability than at a ‘normal’ circuit, which teams must capitalise on where possible. Unlike most race weekends, however, there are a large number of racing series running in parallel to Formula One. While there is no circuit in the world where track evolution is not a factor, this is far less significant a factor in Melbourne than you might expect, as there are so many other cars running that the circuit actually gets cleaned relatively well.

Overtaking: Passing is not as prevalent here as at some other circuits. The straights are shorter, and the layout has not been formulated with the same design principles as some of the more modern circuits such as Malaysia, Bahrain or China for example. Overtaking is still possible – the main opportunity arising into Turn Three after the DRS Zone – but clear-cut opportunities are few and far between. Drivers must be brave and committed in the risks taken to grasp these opportunities, with the probability of accidents high.

Featured This Week: Reliability

Two circuits, 12 days, thousands of kilometres. The winter programme may have offered a glimpse of Formula One in 2014, but Melbourne provides the acid test. For the first time, 22 V6 Hybrid cars will take to the track simultaneously. For the first time, teams must adapt to operating two of these revolutionary machines as opposed to just one; and in a significantly condensed time scale. For the first time, the drivers must achieve a race distance under the close attention of their competitors.

As widely demonstrated during pre-season, running a 2014 Formula One car is a challenge in itself. Double that challenge in terms of providing both drivers with competitive, reliable machinery, and each team must be absolutely on the button in terms of preparing and running their cars efficiently and without error. This is where experience within a team will come to the fore in Melbourne, with history predicting a high propensity for attrition.
Of the last 10 season-opening races, eight have been held at the Albert Park circuit and two in Bahrain; the venue used for two of the three 2014 pre-season tests. Of these 10 Grands Prix, five have been affected by at least one safety car period. In that same time scale, there have been 62 occasions where a car has been declared as ‘not-classified’ in the race result.

Digging a little deeper into the figures, exactly half of these 62 were the result of a mechanical failure; averaging just over three cars per race. 12 of those 31 mechanical retirements were classed as engine (seven) or gearbox (five) failures; two of the focal areas in terms of reliability under the 2014 regulations. Hydraulics (five) and transmission (three) are next on the list; elements once again directly linked to the complex Power Unit.

Each system of the Power Unit – from the ICE to the turbocharger and ERS – is so intrinsically linked that complications with one will fundamentally affect the performance of the car as a whole. Now factor in an all-new gearbox design, the fly-by-wire braking system and significantly increased cooling demands. Add the lesser, but nonetheless present, risk of failure from one of the thousands of ‘known’ components and achieving reliability appears a daunting feat. While it has always been the case that a machine is only as strong as its individual parts, this rings all the more true in 2014.

Fundamentally, however, rising to these challenges epitomises the ethos of Formula One. The task at hand may be greater than ever before but innovation and cutting-edge technology are at the heart of the sport. For decades, engineers have been pushing the boundaries of performance, extracting the absolute maximum from the technology at their disposal and exploring every avenue of development in the pursuit of automotive perfection.

The association between Hybrid technology and motorsport, for example, stretches back over a century for Mercedes-Benz. Early experiments of Daimler Chief Engineer Wilhelm Maybach focused on combining the gasoline engine with alternative drive technologies in the early 1900s, with the company’s first true hybrid, the Mercedes Mixte, following shortly afterwards courtesy of fellow Chief Engineer Ferdinand Porsche.

Pre-season testing saw teams complete a combined mileage of 36,979 km during 12 days of track time; an impressive 74% of the total amassed during the winter of 2013 (49,946 km) in the final season of the V8 era and a notable achievement considering the scale of change. A race weekend is, of course, an entirely different beast, but the principles remain the same. Efficiency is the driving force behind the 2014 regulations but the reliability of each and every component within the car will be crucial to allowing that efficiency – and in turn performance – to be maximised.

Anniversaries: Mercedes-Benz Heritage

March 11 1954 – 60 Years Ago: The newly developed Mercedes-Benz 220 (internally designated the 220 a, W 180) with its ‘Ponton’ body, and the revised 300 (internally designated 300 b, W 186) with uprated engine make their debut at the Geneva Motor Show. The luxury model 220 a, which marks the introduction of the single-joint swing axle in passenger car construction, replaced the 220 (W 187) from 1951.

March 15 1994 – 20 Years Ago: Mercedes-Benz presents a new dynamic handling control system in the Swedish town of Arjeplog. Developed in cooperation with Bosch, the system would celebrate its market launch one year later as the Electronic Stability Program (ESP); representing a milestone in the development of active safety features for cars.

On-Track

1997 Australian Grand Prix – 17 Years Ago
David Coulthard (McLaren) clinches the 10th Formula One victory for Mercedes-Benz engines and the first of the modern Grand Prix era for the marque

March 12 2006 – Eight Years Ago:
Nico Rosberg sets his first fastest lap in Formula One on his Grand Prix debut in Bahrain

2006 Australian Grand Prix – Eight Years Ago:
Kimi Räikkönen (McLaren) scores the 150th Formula One podium for Mercedes-Benz engines

2007 Australian Grand Prix – Seven Years Ago:
Lewis Hamilton takes a podium on his Formula One debut with a third-placed finish at Albert Park

March 16 2008 – Six Years Ago:
Nico Rosberg scores his first Formula One podium at the Australian Grand Prix

Spotlight: 14 March 2010 – Four Years Ago

The Mercedes-Benz marque returned to Formula One as a constructor after a 55 year absence, with Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg bringing their Mercedes GP Petronas cars home in fifth and sixth positions respectively at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. Starting on option tyres from fifth on the grid, Nico had a great start to overtake future Silver Arrows team-mate Lewis Hamilton into turn six and move up to fourth position. Michael, starting from seventh on the grid, was running in sixth and also using the softer rubber. The pair made only one stop during the race, Michael on lap 15 and Nico on lap 16, to switch to the prime tyres. Nico lost a position to Lewis during the round of pit stops, with the Mercedes GP Petronas pairing remained in fifth and sixth positions for the remainder of the 49-lap race. Nico chased down Sebastian Vettel in the closing stages but was unable to pass in the turbulent air. The result kicked off Mercedes GP Petronas season in third position in the Constructors’ Championship with 18 points.