The 2019 Formula 1 season is officially underway in Melbourne on Friday March 15, with the cars out on the Albert Park circuit for the first time, in Free Practice 1, for the Rolex Australian F1 Grand Prix. However, the season’s start has been hit with the tragic death of the beloved and highly respected FIA F1 Race Director Charlie Whiting. Mr Whiting performed a number of other roles including being the head of the F1 Technical Department. It is believed that Mr Whiting passed away from a pulmonary embolism. Yachting Lifestyle 365 and its staff pass on their deepest sympathies to Mr Whiting’s immediate and extended family.
The first practice session for 2019 got underway at 12pm local time and ran for ninety minutes. Immediately impressive was Robert Kubica, returning to F1 on a full time basis in 2019. Although overtaken later in his times, the 34 year old in the Rokit Williams car was well inside the top ten in the first half hour’s worth of practice. Both he and team mate George Russell would wrap the Free Practice 1 session in 19th and 20th.
Daniil Kvyat in his Toro Rosso Honda also impressed in his return. The soon to be 25 year old, celebrating his birthday on April 26, was lapping the track in times of less than a second shy of Valtteri Bottas in the second half hour of Free Practice 1. Bottas had found pace at 1:24.6 very quickly. Lewis Hamilton was also on pace, sitting just 0.05 of a second shy of his team mate and ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
After a mid practice break, Bottas lowered his time to 1:23.86. Newcomer Lando “Calrissian” Norris in his McLaren was mid-pack in the second half, standing just over two seconds shy of Bottas. Antonio Giovinazzi, starting his first full time F1 season with Alfa Romeo Racing, displayed some great pace as well, with times hovering around the 1:25.1 mark.
A yellow flag, quickly changed to a red, was brought out with 25 minutes to run. Toro Rosso Honda’s new driver Alex Albon spun and lost his front wing after a small impact with the wall. Albon was able to start the car and brought the car in for a new nose. He was running in P11 at the time. Moments before his tap though, the quickest time had come down even further to a 1:23.599 in the hands of Hamilton.
Unfortunately for Renault, just one car was able to get track time, and that was local hero and hopeful Daniel Ricciardo. Nico Hulkenberg’s car was stricken with electrical issues with “The Hulk” only getting out inside the last fifteen minutes, and quickly put the issues behind him. The problem was eventually traced to the battery system. Ricciardo himself wasn’t on the pace, with his best times down in the mid 1:25’s.
At the other end it was Ferrari’s Charles LeClerc that was racy. Some of his times before the conclusion of FP1 were just 4/100ths shy of his new team mate, Sebastian Vettel. New to Red Bull in 2019 is Pierre Gasly, and his times in the 1:24 bracket were enough to have him in the lower half of the top ten.
Veteran Kim Raikkonen would wrap his FP1 in sixth, with his 1:24.816 1.2 seconds off the lead pace of Hamilton. Kevin Magnussen from Haas would wrap in ninth, just a tenth behind the Finn, with Haas’ Romain Grosjean in twelfth. Carlos Sainz from McLaren, Lance Stroll, and Sergio Perez from Racing Point, would take 14th, 15th, and 16th, at the end of FP1.
The Albert Park track, converted from public roads for the race, is located just a few kilometers south of the Melbourne CBD itself, and lies just a kilometer or so east of Port Phillip Bay and the famous St Kilda beach with its colorful beachside huts. The race is 58 laps in total, and with a track distance of 5.3 kilometers per lap will cover 307.5 kilometers.
The race lap record is held by Michael Schumacher, with a time of 1:24.125, from the 2004 race. The circuit is regarded as a fast track, even allowing for its 16 corners, with Lewis Hamilton’s average speed last year in his pole lap being an impressive 235km/h.
Free Practice 2 commenced at 16:00 hours Melbourne time.
Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat quickly set the pace in Free Practice 2 with mid 1:24s on the board before Lewis Hamilton dropped down into the 1:23s, followed by Bottas and Verstappen. Ricciardo came out at the half way point and immediately slid into the groove, finding himself in eleventh albeit a full two seconds behind an increasingly rapid Hamilton and Bottas.
Hamilton set off a chain reaction, with over half the field settling into the 1:23 bracket towards the end of FP2. Tire choice seemed to be important on the warm tarmac in Melbourne, with Hamilton and Bottas out on the softer rubber late in FP2. This brought the pair to 1:226 and with just 0.04 of a second between them the flags of warning for the other eighteen drivers were being waved.
The second session itself was largely untroubled by anything out of the ordinary until two minutes to go in the session, bar an excursion into the grass by a driver here and there. Charles LeClerc had a spin at turn three, with his Ferrari on hard compound tires mounting a ripple strip and losing traction. Luckily for Ferrari’s new recruit he managed to keep his car from hitting the wall.
Pirelli and F1 have settled on offering three tire compounds for each race, out of a choice of five. Marked simply as C1 through to C5, with C5 being the softest, Australia, China, and Azerbaijan will see tires C2 to C4 being offered, whilst Bahrain is C1 to C3.
FP2 finished with Mercedes topping the leader board and by 8/10s over Max Verstappen in third. Gasly, Vettel, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Ricciardo, and Grosjean closed out the top ten, with Grosjean barely a tenth ahead of Daniil Kvyat. Magnussen, Stroll, Sainz, Giovinazzi, Perez, Albon, Norris, Russel and Kubica finished the second half, with the Polish driver a full four seconds off the quickest lap.
The cars will be back on track at 14:00 local time on Saturday for Free Practice 3, before qualifying at 17:00. Race 1 of the 2019 season gets underway at 16:10 on St Patrick’s Day, Sunday, March 17.