Formula One teams hate uncertainty. Formula One fans love it. At this weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, it will be the fans who get what they want.
After four years of an increasingly stultifying dominance by Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, the only thing most experts agree on when discussing Sunday’s race at the Albert Park street circuit in Melbourne is that it will not be those same blue cars at the front this time.
Aside from the likelihood of a Red Bull struggle, the pecking order for the Australian Grand Prix is anyone’s guess, with nobody quite sure how the teams will adapt to the switch to V6 turbo hybrid engines. The change of powertrain — engine, turbocharger and increasingly important battery-stored hybrid power — has been problematical for all teams in pre-season testing, most notably the Renault-powered teams, and particularly Red Bull.
Throw into the equation the reduction in fuel loads from an average of 160kg of fuel per race to a maximum of 100kg, add a dash of the usual first-race teething problems and driver rustiness, and then factor in forecasts of rain and Melbourne’s typical sudden shifts in temperature, and it becomes apparent why some observers are predicting that Sunday’s race will not even have 10 finishers to fill the points positions.
Some have complained that F1’s rapid-fire regulation changes are becoming increasingly contrived and gimmicky — the double-points for the season’s last race has outraged the purists — but the sport’s officials can hardly be blamed for trying to shake up the sport.
Vettel, Red Bull and the team’s ace designer, Adrian Newey, are all capable of staging a recovery from the likely slow start and earn a fifth-straight title, but if so, it will definitely not be a cakewalk like last year.
Instead, it is Mercedes being freely tipped as the team to beat in the early races of the season after impressing in pre-season testing, and hopes are high that the German mark can finally win their first-ever constructors’ championship.
Ferrari is always a center of attention in any race, but the scrutiny will be further heightened in Melbourne as it is the first race with Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen as teammates.
Many seasoned observers have said the team is simply not big enough for the two of them, and Albert Park will be the first skirmish as each tries to establish himself as the top dog.
McLaren is targeting Melbourne as the start of a renaissance after a highly disappointing year last year that cost team principal Martin Whitmarsh his job.