After The Dust Has Settled Down Under
In the end, the Australian Grand Prix didn’t turn into the Red Bull dominated affair that many feared after being the runaway stars of Sunday’s delayed qualifying shoot-out. Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus F1 took firm control of the race while Ferrari possibly should have had both drivers ahead of Sebastian Vettel rather than just Fernando Alonso. But what does this mean for the season ahead?
A closer look at second free practice shows that the race pace of Lotus and Ferrari shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. While Vettel was stealing the headlines with some blisteringly quick laps, others around him were quietly putting in some long stints. Allowing for traffic interrupting their track time, Ferrari and Lotus looked like the pick of the teams on long runs – not only fast but putting in notably long stints to boot, hinting at better tyre preservation. The proviso to that assessment was that Vettel was largely content to focus on short, one- or two-lap runs for the most part, making Red Bull’s pace hard to predict, although team mate Mark Webber wasn’t showing signs of maintaining his pace. Meanwhile, there were already hints that McLaren would not be keeping up with their rivals come the race.
However, how that picture feeds into the next few races is harder to predict. The twisty Albert Park circuit isn’t that similar to the subsequent tracks at the best of times – throw in low temperatures, heavy rain clearing away what rubber had been put down and gusting winds adding a nice scattering of leaves and it was a recipe for poor grip. Red Bull appeared to be the best at getting their tyres up to temperature, which certainly paid off in qualifying but manifested itself as high tyre degradation in the race, particularly on the supersofts. A different track, and with the harder compounds, however, and the RB9 could prove to be an entirely different beast.
Mercedes were a harder act to assess. Red Bull’s nearest challengers in qualifying, they didn’t suffer the same problems with the supersofts – in fact they put together the longest opening stints on those tyres. Other races may suit them better – it’ll be particularly interesting to see them in Shanghai where they dominated last year and where Lewis Hamilton has often run well.
Surprise package of the weekend was undoubtedly Force India. Two points finishes sees them level with Mercedes and came on the back of low tyre wear. With seemingly some daylight between them and the rest of the midfield, the outfit will probably now have their eye on a top six finish in the constructors’ standings if not better.
That cause will be helped by McLaren’s predicament. Their qualifying pace is perhaps not as bad as suggested by this weekend where a series of bad strategy calls hampered both drivers. However, the team’s race pace was nothing to shout about either. McLaren appear to have accidentally fooled many during testing, where an eye-catching lap time in Jerez that seemed to even surprise Jenson Button gave pause to think. Button’s surprise now seems to be explained by a mistake by McLaren which led to them running the car much lower than they could get away with without excessive wear to the underbody – in short, fast but unable to stay within the rules. There have been suggestions in some sections of the media that McLaren may resort to digging out last year’s car but that seems unlikely – better to figure out the current car than turn to a car that Woking felt was an evolutionary dead end. However, the question is at what point do they switch focus to next year’s car and the big changes awaiting Formula One? McLaren are notoriously competitive but they may have to accept there is only so much they can learn with the current chassis. No wonder Lewis Hamilton has sported a big smile all weekend!
With McLaren’s misfortunes this weekend, the struggles of Williams were perhaps overlooked. Further down the grid, their decision to focus on the 2014 car will probably come easier but the one issue at their back of their mind may be the changing political situation in Venezuela. Pastor Maldonado’s victory in Spain last year silenced a lot of critics back at home but a poor 2013 could provide fresh ammunition.
There isn’t enough information to accurately predict how the championship will unfold over the next few races but there are echoes of last season with the teams struggling to understand the new tyres. Once again, it could produce an ebb and flow in fortunes with a similar mix of results. It promises to be a fun ride.
Credit: Lotus F1/Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic