The Australian Grand Prix Preview 30 Mar 2006
The weather is due to be cloudy, but the pace is set to hot up in Melbournes Albert Park this weekend as Renault, McLaren, Honda and Ferrari go head-to-head. The race, which is being held for the 11th time in the city, is traditionally the season opener. However, this year it becomes round three of the championship in order to avoid a clash with the Commonwealth Games, which Melbourne hosted earlier this month.
Testing since Malaysia at Paul Ricard in France suggests that Renault still have a small edge over McLaren, but Ferrari and Honda spent their on-track development time elsewhere, so the true picture will only emerge as the weekend develops. Suffice it to say that all four teams are feeling optimistic.
World champion and 2006 series leader Fernando Alonso says that the two opening races have given him more confidence. Now we know the car is competitive, it has won the first two races, and that gives me the conviction that we can be quick at the next 16 rounds, too. It is a difficult feeling to explain, but having seen what the car can do, I don't have any doubts that we can win the championship again. I am very optimistic after these opening rounds. Melbourne always has one of the best atmospheres of the whole season. I think it comes from the people, and their culture, they always make it a good Grand Prix. It is a long way from home, but we are always happy to be in Melbourne, to feel the country's passion for Formula 1. It will be a fantastic weekend this year, I am sure.
Ferrari and McLaren should have revised rear wings, together with BMW Sauber, following clarifications agreed in Sepang. Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya will be looking to extract the full potential of their McLaren MP4-21s. "After the first two races, I am really hoping to have a trouble-free weekend, as the car feels good and I think that we can get some good results with it, the Finn says. I am aiming to get a solid points finish at this race to take back to Europe. Albert Park is a high downforce track and it has pretty low grip, this is because the surface is always dusty as it is old roads that are not used anymore. But this tends to clean up quickly during Friday running and then the track surface is fairly smooth. There are some hard braking zones and sharp bends, which can be tough on the brakes and tyres, such as into Turn Three, and demand good traction to be fast out of the corners. The Australian race is one of the favourites I think with most people in the sport, and there is always such an enthusiastic atmosphere in Melbourne for the event."
Seventy per cent of the track will be run at full throttle with the new V8s, though the cooler temperatures should ultimately ease the burden on engines, tyres and brakes compared to Bahrain and Malaysia.
Michael Schumacher believes that Bridgestone and Ferrari will still be competitive despite the temperature drop, while Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello at Honda (the Japanese team went testing with Anthony Davidson and James Rossiter at Vallelunga in Italy last week) are keeping a low profile while inevitably praying that Melbourne will provide the big breakthrough.
Williams will be hoping to repeat their qualifying speed from Malaysia but to enjoy better reliability in the race, with engine suppliers Cosworth promising upgrades to prevent a repeat of Nico Rosbergs Sepang failure. Meanwhile, Toyotas testing has focused on generating more heat in their Bridgestone tyres. The TF106s kindness to its rubber may allow them to go a grade softer in compound than their rivals.
Red Bull Racing will be happy with the cooler temperatures, as will BMW after their two engine failures in the opening two races, while Scuderia Toro Rosso will be hoping to improve their act in qualifying and to get the best out of what many feel should be a competitive package. Midland will also be focusing on extracting the maximum from their M16, which will feature some new parts, while Super Aguri will debut a slightly-revised aero package as they continue their climb up what is a very steep learning curve.