Formula 1

F1: Australian Grand Prix preview

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F1 is heading into the unknown this weekend in Melbourne (©GettyImages)
F1 is heading into the unknown this weekend in Melbourne (©GettyImages).

After another seemingly never-ending winter, the new F1 season begins at its traditional opening destination of Melbourne’s Albert Park for the Australian Grand Prix.

So get out your merchandise, find a space to hide your accompanying snacks from your partner, put up the bunting and let’s get ready to finally welcome in 2014.

Because yes for us hardcore fans a year doesn’t start on January 1st, no for us 2014 will begin at precisely 1:30am GMT on Friday morning – 12:30pm for those of an Aussie persuasion – when the opening practice session gets underway.

There really is no better place to start the F1 season, the sports-mad people of Oz quite literally do as their slogan suggests and ‘embrace the race’ while for those in Europe it’s a badge of honour and a sign of devotion to say you were up in the very early hours on a Sunday morning just to welcome in the new season.

The Albert Park track is in effect a street circuit, but unlike some other non-permanent layouts – and comparing it to a round of golf, really is the perfect opening hole in that it has some challenges but doesn’t necessarily test the new cars to destruction.

This year that final point is vastly more applicable as the sport officially ‘goes green’… yay!

Quite how its possible for Formula 1 to be ever considered an ‘Eco’ sport is beyond me, however for fans the new V6 turbo era is not about saving Britain from planting palm trees.

Instead for some it marks a sad moment as the sport moves away from huge engines with massive power and deafening noise, while for others it marks a return to a time when the sport was the pinnacle of propulsion technology which in 2014 means smaller, turbo-powered units with very powerful Energy Recovery Systems or ‘ERS’ as they are better known.

That means the style of racing we are set for in Melbourne will be much different from that of the past few years. Each car is limited to 100kg of fuel during the race and such has been the focus on simply getting the cars to work, few teams have actually worked on strategies to ensure they can make that allocation go the distance.

That means, for the first time in a while, we could be faced with drivers running out of fuel. The art will come in ensuring the ERS system with its 33 seconds of 161bhp is used in a way to conserve the fuel and the amount of turbo boost will also be a crucial factor and deciding when to use more or less power will be key.

That’s all before the now commonplace need to ensure good tyre preservation, though it is set to be less of a factor in 2014, looking after the Pirelli rubber, particularly with much more torque will remain high on the list of priorities.

Then finally seemingly at the bottom of the pile comes the actual job of racing, DRS remains and will be as divisive as ever but the art of defense and attack will be one more responsibility the drivers have to adjust and deal with.

All that considered and looking ahead to Melbourne, one thing is for sure, no-one really has a clue who is going to win.

Of course we have a rough idea of a pecking order but such has been the roller-coaster during preseason making any concrete predictions is near impossible.

If we had to pick a favourite – and we do – put simply anything with a Mercedes power unit looks most likely to be battling at the front while those with a Ferrari motor are somewhere in the middle and the rest with their Renault engines will be limping along at the back.

The Mercedes works team look particularly strong however reliability is not guaranteed while Williams, who have made the switch to German-power for 2014, are seemingly the midfield team who have used the new rules best to jump up the grid producing a car that has combined good speed and equally good reliability.

Force India, with their new impressive line-up of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, also seem to have made gains and McLaren, who had impressed early in testing before dropping back, will also be competitive though maybe slightly behind the leading duo.

The only team that look likely to break Mercedes’ stranglehold at the front is Ferrari. The F14-T has been rather ghost-like during testing, with the Scuderia focusing on reliability rather than outright speed, it will be interesting to see just where the so-called ‘super-team’ of Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso will fit in.

I believe the Prancing Horses will be in the mix likely between Williams and Force India as the third best outfit.

The other Ferrari-powered teams, Sauber and Marussia, will be quite some way off the leading pace, but that doesn’t discount them out of a good, perhaps historic result.

With reliability set to play such an important role in Melbourne, just making the finish could earn some world championship points.

Sauber have impressed completing good mileage in testing and while Marussia haven’t been great mechanically, their drivers Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi do have reputations of finishing most of the races, indeed Chilton made the chequered flag in all 19 rounds last year.

Finally that leaves the four Renault-powered teams. The French marque’s V6 unit has been a disaster in preseason, though interestingly Caterham and Toro Rosso have actually completed more laps than their higher profile partners Red Bull and Lotus over the 12 days of testing.

But looking to Australia just making the finish for any of the eight cars involved will be a major accomplishment.

Much like Sauber and Marussia, completing 58 laps on Sunday may just earn some points but with only Caterham achieving a race distance in testing – and then only doing so on a much more conservative engine map – finishing and being competitive may not be possible at the moment.

Toro Rosso have had a mixed preseason and while they have had less issues with the Renault unit, I’m not sure the car with it’s ahem appendage is going to be particularly fast.

Lotus missed the first test and then had eight troubled days in Bahrain. They are perhaps the team who have had the most to do in the few days before Melbourne but just making the finish will be nothing short of a miracle.

Finally comes the sudden demise of Red Bull. It is a complete 180 degree turn for world champion Sebastian Vettel, who after winning nine straight races at the end of last year, finds himself facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his career.

As for his new team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, who’s first race at the team will be his home GP, surely when he was picked as successor to his countryman Mark Webber he could not envisage the difficult circumstances the team would be facing heading Down Under, however, I’m sure his textbook smile will remain even if inside he and Vettel are quietly fuming.

After all that then what is my podium prediction for the Australian Grand Prix?

Well Nico Rosberg goes to Melbourne as my pick to win, he has completed the most laps during preseason and I believe has a less of a challenge in adjusting his driving style to the more fuel conserving era.

Though the car may not be one of the quickest, in my opinion, counting out Jenson Button at Australia would be a poor move. The McLaren driver has won three times in Melbourne since 2009 and I believe he will be perfectly suited to the style of racing, therefore I predict a podium for the former world champion.

Also spraying the champagne, I believe, will be Fernando Alonso, he – as Martin Brundle describes – is a wily old fox and I believe he will find a way to beat the Williams and claim third for Ferrari.

Those predictions likely mean little however as we go into a race and a season full of so many unknowns, 2014 is being billed as the most unpredictable season in years and after an era of Vettel domination, that is precisely what the doctor ordered.

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