Australian GP: Many unanswered questions as F1 2012 roars into action

Click on track map to enlarge

Mar.13 (Preview by James Rossi) A leafy park, the evening sun, tranquility by the harbour. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? That is until 24 racing machines turn up with each one pumping out 130 decibels of pure passion. Welcome everybody to Albert Park, Melbourne, and the dawn of Formula One’s longest season.

Grid girls. Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Australian Grand Prix, Race Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday 28 March 2010.

F1 loves Melbourne

As F1 custom has dictated for 15 years, we head to Australia for the opening round of a Formula One season and the 28th running of an Australian Grand Prix. Albert Park has long been known for its unobtrusively attractive scenery, temperate weather and propensity to throw up some exciting events. The circuit itself is made up of public roads that roam around the lake, which is just a couple of miles from the sea.

Last season saw Sebastian Vettel romp to victory, with a surprise second place for Lewis Hamilton. The McLaren MP4-26 had opted for a highly unconvential exhaust configuration in their original design which had seriously underperformed during pre-season testing. With the annulment of the Bahrain Grand Prix, this gave McLaren enough time to fit a more conventional system to the car, which saw a surge in performance for the Woking team. Vitaly Petrov also raised spirits with an excellent third place, which was to be Renault’s equal best result of 2011.

After three pre-season tests this year, the paddock is none the wiser as to who holds the upper hand. Clever bets must go on Red Bull (despite the banning of the concept on which their success was founded, the blown diffuser), after a dominant 2011 and a reputation for sandbagging until the last possible moment. However, seasoned trackside observers have at least painted a picture which suggests that McLaren’s MP4-27 looks to handle excellently.

Mercedes AMG freight arrives in the paddock

Mercedes AMG freight arrives in the Melbourne paddock

Other notable teams to expect strong performances from include Lotus, with a returning Kimi Raikkonen and a rejuvenated GP2 champion in the form of Romain Grosjean heading their 2012 effort. Despite a worrying chassis problem which curtailed their running during the second Barcelona test, both drivers posted quick and consistent times when they were running. Will they have made the step up to cause the leading teams strife?

On the ladder of F1 performance, Ferrari and Mercedes seem to have collided. A marked improvement has been noted with the German marque, and inside sources suggest that 2012 could be the year in which we see a 92nd victory for seven time World Champion, Michael Schumacher. Alongside him, Nico Rosberg faces a defining chapter in his career, as he now holds the record for most career points without a victory in F1. Is the son of Keke able to lift his game to the top level?

Fernando Alonso got his first taste of the Ferrari F2012 at Jerez

Fernando Alonso got his first taste of the Ferrari F2012 at Jerez

Ferrari on the other hand appear to be struggling. The F2012 not only has what is arguably the ugliest nose configuration, a result of new safety regulations in which the chassis must be lower at the front, but has consistently proven to be wildly inconsistent during Winter testing. Whilst the Italian giants’ one lap pace may not prove to be very far behind the top runners, the average speed over a race distance seems to be suffering heavily. As last season, a late reversion to a conventional exhaust system may harm Ferrari as it almost did McLaren, and it remains to be seen how quickly the Scuderia can claw back the distance to Red Bull and McLaren.

With Ferrari appearing to be in deep trouble, and the midfield battle shaping up to be the most competitive in years, Melbourne could play host to the most unpredictable grand prix in years. Sahara Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso and most importantly Caterham have all looked to close the gap for 2012. An exception to the air of optimism comes in the form of both HRT and Marussia; the former missing all three tests and the latter failing a crash test which puts both teams severely out of kilter with the rest of the pack.

New kids on the Toro Rosso block: Daniel Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne appear at the launch of the new Scuderia Toro Rosso STR7 at the Circuito de Jerez on February 6, 2012 in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain.

Daniel Ricciardo and Jean Eric Vergne

Added to the ferocious mix of experience and anticipation come a number of younger talents looking to make their mark; Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso, Nico Hulkenberg making a return with Force India and the ever-rising talents of Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez at Sauber give us a narrative to follow throughout the season. With Mark Webber’s contract up at the end of 2012, all eyes will be on Red Bull’s sister team, Toro Rosso, to see which potential superstar will fill the Australian’s boots.

There will be two DRS zones this year as opposed to a single zone utilised in 2011. The activation points will be at the beginning of the start/finish straight and after the apex of turn 2, which gives drivers ample opportunity for a second bite of the cherry if the medium-length straight over the line isn’t sufficient to complete a pass.

Looking to the weather, we can expect a potentially damp start to proceedings on Friday, with a changeable but ever improving forecast set to see us through the weekend.

Red Bull vs. McLaren, Lotus and Mercedes looking to spring a shock, Ferrari’s apparent decline and the monumental battle between young team mates; next weekend promises to be utterly enthralling, setting the benchmark for what should be a vintage season for F1.

Prediction: 1. Webber 2. Hamilton 3. Vettel

Subbed by AJN.