By Steve Aibel, Senior F1 Writer
There is something about the start of a Formula 1 season that gets the blood flowing. Starting in the “Land Down Under” makes it that much better. On Sunday, March 20th, the 2016 race for the World Championship begins anew with some fresh story-lines that could make this a season to remember.
The Australian Grand Prix takes place in the city of Melbourne in Albert Park. Melbourne has been home to the Australian Grand Prix since it was moved here from Adelaide in 1996 and was still embraced by the Australian fans. Using the winding roads of a municipal park and circling a local lake, the Australian Grand Prix is a favorite of both fans and drivers alike.
The Melbourne track is fairly flat and has only one truly fast section, a quick flick left and then back right, through turns 11 and 12. The 16 corner course is enjoyed by the drivers for its natural flow and rhythm, except for possibly, the first chicane, known as Jones chicane after Alan Jones, the Australian 1980 World Drivers’ Champion. The corner has been the scene of many first laps clashes where over eager drivers tried to make their mark in the opening round of the season.
Often times, it’s too much, too soon, and it leads to too many crashes!
Michael Schumacher has the most Grand Prix wins in Melbourne with four, while McLaren driver Jenson Button leads active drivers and has three wins: 2009, 2010 and 2012. Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton have two wins at Albert Park with Hamilton’s most recent coming last year.
One of the primary story-lines this year will be the Mercedes team battle between three time World Champion Lewis Hamilton and a rejuvenated Nico Rosberg. Mercedes have announced that they are to be less constrictive with how these two race each other this season, allowing the drivers to plan different strategies for the race weekend. Previously the super powers at the Mercedes brain trust placed both drives on similar strategies but the freedom promised this year, combined with restricted radio communication to the drivers, should provide intrigue and drama.
How long Mercedes employs this freedom may depend on the challenge from Ferrari. With the Scuderia rumored to have closed the gap to Mercedes, after leading 5 of the 8 testing days, the Mercedes option of racing fast and loose may vanish quickly if Ferrari challenges for the Constructors’ Championship. Ferrari will work hard in the opening round to show the dominant Silver Arrows that they have a true fight on their hands. If Mercedes wins handily, we will wind up seeing a true battle between Hamilton and Rosberg, but if the Scuderia are close, Mercedes will do what they must to bring home a 3rd straight Constructors’ title.
This will be the battle we all will watch as the teams descend on Melbourne. What may very well make Australia a shoot out is the twist placed on qualifying this season. With essentially a modified knock out system, the grid may wind up being shuffled in a way that does not necessarily place the cars in order based on their true speed, but rather on the teams ability to take advantage of the newfangled qualifying format.
Following revisions to Article 33 of F1’s sporting regulations, this is how the new procedure will work:
Q1: 16 minutes. The slowest driver is eliminated at 9 minutes and an additional driver is eliminated every 1.5 minutes until the session completes and 15 drivers remain.
Q2: 15 minutes. The slowest driver is eliminated at 9 minutes and an additional driver is eliminated every 1.5 minutes until the session completes and 8 drivers remain.
Q3: 14 minutes. The slowest driver is eliminated at 9 minutes and an additional driver is eliminated at 6 minutes and then every 1.5 minutes until only 2 cars remain. At the end of Q3, the remaining drivers may complete a flying lap if they have crossed the start-finish line before the session expires.
Expect to see some surprises, especially in the first round of the championship as teams figure out how to best play this format. Between new qualifying, additional tire strategies, new cars, and the Mercedes version of “boys have at it”, we could be in for a dramatic season of worldwide competition in Formula 1.
Bring it on!