GRR

Seven things to watch at the Australian GP

03rd April 2022
Damien Smith

Just over two years ago, our world was upended by a terrifying pandemic that would devastate millions of lives. There were moments that triggered a dawning of realisation that Covid-19 would affect us all in one way or another, and among them was the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix, just hours before the first practice session was due to begin. In the grand scheme of real-life Formula 1 is a frivolity, of course – but it never usually stops turning for anything. This time was different.

Major track changes in play

The first and most obvious talking point will be the Albert Park circuit itself, which has undergone its biggest overhaul since Melbourne first welcomed F1 in 1996. Seven corners have been modified and two removed entirely in a bid to open up overtaking opportunities on a track that has always challenged drivers to make a decisive passing move.

The biggest development is the removal of the Turn 9/10 chicane in favour of a sweeping right-hander, while elsewhere the parkland track has been widened. The surface has also been re-laid for the first time since 1996 and, all combined, the update is likely to mean lap times will be slashed by around five seconds. How effective the new-look Albert Park will be in spicing up the racing action will be under scrutiny from the moment the cars hit the track for first practice on Friday.

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Leclerc vs Verstappen, round three

From the Middle Eastern double-header that has kicked off the new season, an old rivalry has been revived as the new focus of what looks set to be another gripping battle for the world championship. As Mercedes-AMG and Lewis Hamilton struggle to get to grips with the new regulations, Ferrari and Charles Leclerc have stepped up with style to take the fight to newly independent Red Bull and world champion Max Verstappen.

The pair have known each other for years, from their karting days as kids, and locked horns memorably during the 2019 season – before Ferrari’s competitive edge fell away following a behind-closed-doors slap on the wrist by the FIA for what is believed to be fuel flow irregularities. Now Ferrari’s rebirth looks complete with its new F1-75, and Leclerc is right back where he belongs. His coolness under pressure from Verstappen in Bahrain meant he’d have won comfortably even without Verstappen’s late retirement. And although the Red Bull was ultimately quicker in Saudi Arabia, Leclerc held his end up strongly in their cat-and-mouse DRS battle.

So, it’s 1-1 ahead of round three. Others will hope to muscle in on a bid for victory, as we shall discuss, but the likelihood is Leclerc vs Verstappen will emerge as a key narrative of the Melbourne GP. There’s little between them on performance, Leclerc can handle Verstappen’s natural aggression and it’s a duel that’s poised quite beautifully.

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Big weekends for Perez and Sainz

The drivers of the other blue and red cars will be hoping to rip up that script. Sergio Perez looked set to do just that in Jeddah last time out when he stole pole position, his first in 12 years of trying, then led convincingly in the race until bad luck with a safety car shuffled him down to fourth. No one expects Perez to match or beat Verstappen, including his bosses at Red Bull, but ‘Checo’ showed in Saudi that perhaps he can be more than just a valuable ‘number two’. Was that performance a red-herring? Can he do it again in Melbourne and deliver a shock win? Christian Horner has said there are no team orders this early in the season, so if there’s a time to step up and make his chance at Red Bull really count, it’s now.

The same is true for Carlos Sainz Jr at Ferrari, after an underwhelming start to the new season for the Spaniard. A second position in Bahrain and third in Saudi are great results, on paper – but Sainz is an intelligent, honest man. He knows Leclerc has been operating at a higher level, and if he wants to avoid being typecast as a Valtteri Bottas-style ‘wing man’ he needs to raise his game before it’s too late. Melbourne could be crucial for both Perez and Sainz, for this season and beyond – especially, one feels, for Sainz.

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Mercedes and Hamilton: whatever next?

This week Lewis Hamilton has opened up on social media about his mental health struggles, and his sensitive state of mind hasn’t been helped by the dawning reality of Mercedes-AMG’s fall from grace. Whether it remains that way throughout the season is a key question. After eight consecutive constructors’ world titles, the Mercedes team is simply too good to be written off because of the porpoising problem these new ground-effect regulations have caused for the shrink-wrapped W13. But in the context of a tightening budget cap, new aerodynamic development restrictions for F1’s most successful teams and the fact the races come thick and fast during a packed season, a quick recovery cannot be taken for granted.

Hamilton failed to escape Q1 in Jeddah, started 15th and finished a dispirited 10th. New team-mate George Russell is quietly handling a difficult situation with admirable professionalism – just when he finally expected to be fighting for Grand Prix wins. But is consolidating its place as third-best team the best Mercedes can hope for in Australia? That might well be the case, but underestimate this team at your peril.

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Vettel returns for Aston Martin

Silverstone-based Aston Martin is another team to have endured a trying start to the new era. The new car is off the pace, while Sebastian Vettel was ruled out both in Bahrain and Saudi after testing positive for Covid. He’s negative now, but Aston Martin hopes the same will not be the case when it comes to his performance in Melbourne. Vettel’s vast experience should count more than ever in the situation the team finds itself in. It’s time, then, for the four-time world champion to step up and show some leadership.

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Alpine duo: will they be sparring again?

Fernando Alonso vs Esteban Ocon was the other spicy duel in Jeddah, and tension was added by the fact they drive for the same team. That early battle did Alpine little favours in the race, as Valtteri Bottas eventually passed Ocon in his Alfa Romeo, although the drivers didn’t fall out despite some assertive driving from both. If they lock horns again, though, you wonder how long it will be before it does end in tears. The new-look Albert Park is supposed to induce more wheel-to-wheel action and there’s little to separate the pair on pace right now. Fireworks might become unavoidable.

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Ricciardo hoping for a home uplift

Finally, we focus on McLaren and its own disappointing start to the new era. So much more was expected from both Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo. Jeddah was better, but the orange cars are mired in the midfield skirmishes rather than challenging Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes as we expected they would be. For Daniel Ricciardo in particular, knocked back by a bout of Covid during pre-season testing, these are crucial times to revive a reputation that is spiralling dangerously. He remains a class act and on home soil will be giving his all to bounce back this weekend. The first target must be to outperform Norris. But even if he does, where that might leave him in the F1 pecking order remains to be seen. Albert Park has been the scene of great McLaren moments in the past, but F1’s Melbourne return might come too soon for the team to add more. Still, where better to prove us wrong? For F1 as a whole, get set for what should be one of the best feel-good weekends of the season.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • F1 2022

  • Max Verstappen

  • Charles Leclerc

  • Carlos Sainz Jr.

  • Sergio Perez

  • Lewis Hamilton

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