After a long winter lay-off, the teams will this weekend return to the track for the first round of the Formula 1 season in Australia.
There is always an air of optimism and intrigue leading into a new Formula 1 season but the raft of new technical regulations, a handful of new drivers, and the genuine prospect of three teams battling for the title makes this opening race especially appealing.
And Melbourne could not be a better host for round 1. Set in the picturesque Albert Park, this sleepy inner-city park comes alive each year when it’s converted into a Formula 1 track. The circuit itself doesn’t change much – it’s 5.303km in length and known for its bumpy pit straight and generous run-off areas. Being a street circuit used just once a year, the track surface is slippery and the unseasonal rain in Melbourne expected until Thursday will cause some drivers to be tentative until rubber has been laid down.
New rules, new style of racing?
The Formula 1 world will have all eyes on Melbourne to see what impact the new technical regulations will have on the cars and the racing.
Some things we know already. For instance, Pirelli’s tyres are 25 percent wider than last year’s in a chase for mechanical grip, and the size and shape of the cars will change. The width of the cars is increasing from 1800mm to 2000mm, the bodywork is wider than ever before at 1600mm, there is now more design freedom in the bargeboard area in front of the sidepods, and the front wing has widened while the rear wing has been made lower and wider.
All of these changes have been implemented to make the cars faster, harder to handle and more interesting to watch for spectators.
It’s anticipated that the cars will get an extra 15% to 40% of downforce from these changes and the added mechanical grip should have the cars lapping about 4-5 seconds quicker than last year.
Lewis Hamilton said after completing 73 laps in the first morning of testing in February that he could feel the difference.
“I’m finding the car is much more physical to drive than in the past,” admitted Hamilton.
“It’s so much faster in the corners. The force you feel on your body and on your neck is much higher. I’ve got bruises and bumps where I’ve never really had them before.”
But it remains to be seen whether the extra grip and pace will make for better racing.
There is a fear that the higher cornering speeds – some engineers are saying bends previously not run at full throttle will be now be taken flat-out – will reduce braking distances and make overtaking even harder.
Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff opposed these rule changes and recently said: “I hope that overtaking is not going to be too difficult because of the width of the car and the dirty air behind it – but let’s see.”
Could we see a genuine contest in 2017?
The years since the introduction of the turbo system has been a one-sided affair with Mercedes untroubled by the other teams.
That may now change with the new rules and following unexpectedly close winter testing results.
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the final day of winter testing while doing a qualifying simulation run on super-soft tyres. The best Mercedes lap of the winter was 0.676 seconds slower but on ultra-softs with Red Bull a further 0.128 seconds off the pace on super-softs.
It is always notoriously difficult to directly compare the results with variables like fuel load, tyres and engine settings having potentially huge impacts.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said: “There is a lot of sandbagging in testing. Nobody really knows what specification each other’s cars are running in.”
Red Bull Racing RB13
But with Ferrari showing good potential and Red Bull finding some extra pace, the Australian Grand Prix may set the scene for a dramatic season.
The Australian Grand Prix will start at 1600 local time and will run over 58 laps.