Australian GP 2010 Preview - 26/03/10

Ferrari and Red Bull

The most impressive speed at the opening round of the 2010 F1 season in Bahrain two weeks ago was displayed by Red Bull Renault and Ferrari. RBR’s Sebastian Vettel appeared to have the outright pace advantage with Fernando Alonso very close by. Both teams will of course be hoping that the two week break since the first race will not have been enough for the chasing pack to develop their cars enough to be a big threat to their early season dominion.

With pole and race win going to Vettel and Alonso respectively, for RBR’s Mark Webber and to a lesser degree, Ferrari’s Felipe Massa this weekend will be vital for establishing their own championship credentials. Webber’s poor qualifying in Bahrain condemned him to an afternoon of gearbox chasing, and while Massa made a popular comeback straight to the sharp end of the results with 2nd place, he certainly won’t be keen to have Alonso pull another first corner move on him. As far as Massa will be concerned, the comeback race is over and the injury doubts are dispelled, the championship battle and the competition have begun. Webber will also be aching to use such a rare car advantage to capitalise on what could be the best chance he’ll ever have to win his home race. Alonso and Vettel were considered pre-season favourites for the championship, therefore their teammates will be doing everything to turn the tide as early as possible. Another eclipsing performance from either Vettel or Alonso will see momentum will start to build in their favour.

McLaren and Mercedes

While pre-season testing suggested that Mercedes GP and McLaren weren’t quite up to Ferrari’s pace, qualifying over a second behind Vettel’s Red Bull at Bahrain came as a shock. Both teams were undoubtedly hoping to be close enough to capitalise on any slips but only Hamilton was able to take advantage of Vettel’s demise. The new regulations ensured that neither Rosberg, Button nor Schumacher were able to make great progress from their starting positions, placing an even higher premium on qualifying performance.

Much was made, needlessly so, of the gap between Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher on his return. Michael’s race pace and consistency were all that could be expected of him given his time away and the new regs, and his one lap pace will continue to improve. The best is yet to come. For Rosberg, every single opportunity to gain from Schumacher’s so-called “rustiness” must be taken with both hands. So far he’s only benefitted from the comparisons, therefore another qualifying and race victory over Schumi will be his main aim this weekend. An overall race win or pole position may still just be out of reach for the Mercedes car without others running into trouble.

At McLaren, regardless of the playing-down, Hamilton has definitely taken first blood in the intra-team Brit world champ fight. Jenson will be annoyed at having qualified the better part of half a second behind Lewis at Bahrain and then getting stuck behind Schumacher and Webber while Lewis made the podium. He too will be keen to reverse any mounting inertia that Hamilton may establish by another strong result over Button this weekend. It was evident from halfway through 2009 that Jenson needed to step up during qualifying, and this year’s regulations may consign Button to many tough races if his one lap pace remains shy of Hamilton’s. As a team, McLaren will be pushing fiercely to close the early-season gap to Red Bull and Ferrari before the new points system pulls them out of reach, while maintaining any advantage over Merc GP.

Williams and Force India

Another season, another Williams car that won’t trouble the podium? Frank and Patrick will be hoping not. Barrichello managed to just squeeze into the points at Bahrain while Hulkenburg had a torrid debut, spinning on lap 3 then battling past all the newcomers for no reward. Nico will undoubtedly get closer and closer to Rubens as the season progresses, but the team are in danger of falling behind not only Force India, but also Renault unless major development strides are made. With the overtaking situation apparently gloomy and the top 4 teams looking good for maintaining their stranglehold on the better points with such good quality driver line-ups, Williams may well be thankful for the extended points system this year.

For Force India, this is new territory. With a car that looks to be points-capable throughout the season, costly errors and pointless incidents absolutely must be eliminated. Williams, Renault and Sauber will undoubtedly improve as the season wears on, so these early opportunities for scoring good points and making use of advantageous tyre strategies such as Sutil’s in Bahrain must be followed through. Force India themselves showed great development potential in 2009, putting the onus firmly on Sutil and Liuzzi to make use of a great starting position in 2010. The team will surely be looking to have both cars in the top 10 in Australia.

Renault, Sauber and Toro Rosso

Renault may well have surprised a few people with the pace of their car in Bahrain. Kubica made Q3 and was looking good for a fruitful day before coming together with Sutil on lap 1. Petrov’s race was cut short by reliability gremlins, but the team are confident that regular points scores are a real possibility. One feels that with Kubica leading the team in fine form, the occasional podium may not be out of the question. The target must again be Q3 and a top 8 finish for Renault in Australia.

Sauber were probably Bahrain’s biggest disappointment having shone in pre-season testing. Both Pedro de la Rosa and Kamui Kobayashi were struck down in the race with terminal problems, but their pace was far from what was promised. Having introduced their own F-duct system, their aim will be to get nearer the top 10. However the F-Duct system on the McLaren certainly didn’t help them in the overtaking stakes on the evidence of Bahrain, so Sauber may well have to look closely at what comes next. Expect another midfield performance barring any major race incidents or safety cars.

Toro Rosso may also have cause to be disappointed with their Bahrain showing, with Alguersuari being the only one to join the new teams dumped out of qualifying at the first hurdle. Being their first year as a proper constructor, they will probably find it hard going, but much of the Faenza staff will have been in this position before. With Jaime’s pace edging closer to that of Buemi’s with experience, they will expect to stay well clear of the new teams in the races and hopefully give Sauber and Williams cause for concern. Staying out of trouble will be a major priority.

Lotus, Virgin and HRT

The arrival and relative performances of these three new teams to F1 in 2010 has produced some genuine back-of-the-grid interest. Certainly the personalities behind Virgin Racing and the heritage surrounding Lotus F1 have helped gain them support and a following, or at the very least some airtime. Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok will of course bring the might of their respective nations’ support and interest to HRT.

Lotus were the only one of the new teams to get their cars to the finish (pretty much) first time out with Kovalainen winning the new team battle at Sakhir. However, it was Timo Glock’s Virgin Cosworth that probably had the edge on pace. Hispania of course had to use qualifying and the practice sessions of the Bahrain GP as a televised shakedown, and the race as a (short) testing exercise. As we progress race by race, expect the gaps between these new teams to decrease and the fight to become more intense. The aim of all these teams without question is to finish the Australian GP and gain invaluable mileage and data, or possibly even a Toro Rosso-shaped scalp.

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