Formula 1

Australian Grand Prix preview: F1 teams ready to reveal their hand

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After all the hype, the speculation and analysis, the new F1 season finally gets underway at it's traditional opening stop, the Australian Grand Prix.

It's been a pre-season all about the continued dominance of one engine supplier over the rest, a resurgent Prancing Horse and a stuttering start for one of the Formula 1's greatest partnerships but this weekend in Melbourne we will finally see how they shape up.

Only twice has Albert Park not hosted the opening round since it began hosting the Grand Prix Down Under in 1996 and ahead of its 20th race the anticipation is rather varied depending on where your loyalties lie.

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Mercedes move up to a new level

Mercedes comfortably remain the team to beat after Nico Rosberg set the fastest time in testing without even using the super-soft tyres and we look set for another year-long championship showdown between he and defending world champion Lewis Hamilton.

Yet we only have to look back 12 months to know that despite their clear pace advantage, translating that to race wins is sometimes easier said than done.

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Indeed while Rosberg eased to the chequered flag in Australia without really breaking into a sweat last year, Hamilton's race lasted just two laps as a very small engine problem forced the Briton out of the race.

Also, while the team completed over 6000 kilometres in testing, there was still the odd ERS issue or other minor reliability problem that was an occasional thorn in the side last year, however, betting against anything other than a one-two finish in Australia would be a brave move. 

Between the two drivers it would be fair to say Rosberg looked the quicker driver in testing but given the different approaches they have to racing, I suspect once the serious action begins Hamilton will be just as good as last year, therefore he goes into the race as my favourite to win.

Fierce battle begins for best-of-the-rest

For non-Mercedes fans and/or those after a great multi-team scrap you only have to look what could be quite a significant distance down the road for the battle for the final podium place.

Williams and Ferrari appear to be the two teams most likely to end the race in Melbourne as best-of-the-rest and the nature of the track at Albert Park will make this a great battle to watch.

Top speed is not a huge benefit given there are none of the 1 kilometre straights you get a most modern tracks nowadays but there are a lot of areas where the cars are reaching 180mph (290kph) plus so torque and acceleration are the essentials in the engine department, given the advances made by Ferrari it will be interesting to see how it compares to the Mercedes-powered Williams in that area.

Downforce isn't as crucial neither given there are only a handful of high-speed corners instead there is a greater need for traction with a lot of either slow speed or low rev corners where keeping wheelspin to a minimum is crucial, in that area though its Ferrari who should have the advantage given Williams had a tendency to overheat its rear tyres last year.

Red Bull & McLaren the big unknowns

Two teams you would expect to be in an around that battle too are McLaren and Red Bull. Both have had more troubled pre-seasons that others as both have more extreme aerodynamic designs.

Come Melbourne, however, and much like Red Bull last year, they will have come up with solutions that should enable them to finish the race.

At the Milton Keynes-based squad all eyes will be on Daniel Ricciardo for his home race and his sudden rise last year will have certainly perked up a lot more interest from the always sports-mad Aussies.

Much like Ferrari, I think the layout at Albert Park will help the Renault-powered RB11 be more competitive and I do expect the man from Perth to make it a five-way battle between the four Ferrari and Williams drivers for the final place on the podium. As for his new team-mate Daniil Kvyat I'm still not convinced he is totally ready to compete at the top of the F1 therefore I think it will take the young Russian a few races to find his feet before making progress as the year goes on.

While at McLaren if they can get the Honda power unit running well then I don't expect their weekend to be as poor as some suggest. While it may also take a few races for them to extract as much performance from the MP4-30 as they want, the base has looked good and I wouldn't be surprised to see Jenson Button or Kevin Magnussen, standing in for Fernando Alonso, to score a few points.

A new midfield order?

If the battle for second in the teams pecking order is strong then its just as exciting in the always ultra-competitive midfield.

Sauber, Lotus, Force India and Toro Rosso will all be part of the scrap for maybe the final few points places and which drivers will join Manor Marussia in the Q1 knock-out zone in qualifying.

Picking an order is incredibly difficult as Sauber and Lotus both certainly look to have improved from terrible season's last year, Toro Rosso completed over 1000 laps in testing given their inexperienced drivers, Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr., a reasonable platform to begin their F1 careers and Force India always begin a year strongly.

Therefore it is the drivers who will make the real difference between the eight cars and this is where Lotus and Force India may have the edge.

Romain Grosjean is certainly a driver that could remind us why he was the lead driver after the Red Bull's in late 2013 and Nico Hulkenberg's talent always makes him a favourite to lead the midfield no matter what car he drives. As for their respective team-mates, both Pastor Maldonado at Lotus and Sergio Perez at Force India also have the potential given one is a former Grand Prix winner and the other a previous McLaren driver but their aggressive styles do also get them into trouble.

One thing all four drivers have over their Sauber and Toro Rosso rivals is experience with nearly 300 Grands Prix between them compared to just the 19 races Marcus Ericsson has under his belt and at the first race of the season that could be the more crucial factor rather than car performance.

Oz appearance a major achievement for Manor

It is quite remarkable to think that ten teams will be in Australia given all the problems the sport's smaller teams were facing at the end of last season.

Perhaps more remarkable is that Marussia are the team to make it back on the grid after missing the final three races last year. Just a month ago they were 48 hours away from being no longer in existence, but investment, led by Stephen Fitzpatrick the boss of energy company Ovo, and co-operation from McLaren and Ferrari sees them make the trip Down Under.

With only Will Stevens confirmed as a driver it is unknown whether the team will enter one or two cars to the opening race and with no testing simply managing a time within the 107% needed to be allowed to enter the race on Sunday will be the aim on the track but by simply being able to make the trip is a major achievement in itself.

It promises to be a fascinating weekend in Australia, as it is every year and with intriguing battles and stories up and down the grid there is plenty to look forward to as F1 goes full steam into 2015.

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Topics:
Felipe Nasr
Max Verstappen
Carlos Sainz Jr.
Manor Marussia
Formula 1

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