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Australia preview - Red Bull, Prancing Horse, or who? 24 Mar 2011

Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari F10 leads Mark Webber (AUS) Red Bull Racing RB6 as team mate Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F10 spins at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 28 March 2010 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren watches his McLaren MP4/26 being built.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 24 March 2011 Michael Schumacher (GER) Mercedes GP.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 24 March 2011 Pirelli tyres.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 23 March 2011 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing signs autographs for the fans.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, 24 March 2011

At first glance, the opening race of the 2011 FIA Formula One World Championship appears to distil to a straight fight between Red Bull and Ferrari, just as in 2010. But there is plenty of spice ready to be added to what promises to be another fascinating season.

McLaren have brought MP4-26s to Melbourne with heavily revised rear ends in an effort to overcome their testing difficulties, and Ross Brawn’s expression yesterday suggests that the upgrade that Mercedes took to the last Barcelona test really has got the team as excited it was when it came here as Brawn two seasons back.

Asked what he thought now about the innovative exhaust systems, Brawn gave a big smile and said: “To be honest, we have been so focused on our latest upgrade that I haven’t really had a lot of time to think about it just yet. But our modifications certainly seemed to work!”

And he added: "Our pre-season programme has gone as well as we could have wanted. However, as always, the first race will be the real measure of where we are in terms of competitiveness. Everyone is eagerly waiting to see how the grid shakes out in Melbourne, and wherever we find ourselves, we will respond accordingly. Our ability to react strongly has improved considerably over the past 12 months and we have a robust development plan in place.”

Meanwhile, down at Red Bull, the world champion is raring to go.

“None of us has ever driven around the Melbourne circuit on Pirelli tyres before so we are all wondering what it’s going to be like,” Sebastian Vettel says. “It’s the start of something brand new. I think the only thing that we can say for sure is that it’s going to be different and create a lot of interest. Normally, it is a tough track for tyres, so I think that’s something that we are going to have to keep an eye on during the race. Melbourne has a few things to look out for: the track demands good braking stability and some of the corners are a bit bumpy. Getting good traction is typically quite difficult there, so that will be an important factor in the car set-up. We’ll be basing ourselves on the knowledge of the tyres that we have acquired during winter testing - although the conditions in Australia are likely to be somewhat different.”

For their first race as the sole tyre supplier, Pirelli have brought their hard tyre as the prime and the soft as the option. Interestingly, the weather forecast suggests that rain showers might further enliven proceedings, so of course the wets and the intermediates are also here. Because of that the teams will be given an extra set of prime tyres for use during Friday free practice, bringing their total allocation up to 12 sets of dry-weather tyres over the course of the weekend and allowing them to run more laps in free practice to finalise set-ups.

The Italian company will differentiate their types and compounds with colour coding of the Pirelli and PZero logos on the sidewalls, so over the course of the season watch out for: wet - orange; intermediate - light blue; supersoft - red; soft - yellow; medium - white; and hard - silver.

As far as Red Bull’s prospects are concerned, the champion had this to say: "There is uncertainty maybe to know where you are compared to the others, certainly. We've never had that before - when you would have played with just the typical things like fuel loads.

"This time some people brought their aero packages earlier or later. Then, apart from fuel loads which with no refuelling means can vary from zero to 160 kg or more, there are the tyres which, depending on their state, new or used, and then with a couple of laps of use or quite a few, you can throw another couple of seconds in that.

"It means it can all mix up, and that is what we have seen in the tests. And that is why it has been so difficult to read how strong the others are.

"But uncertainty for ourselves? We don't need to be afraid of that, because I think we know what we have done and we should be in good shape. Now it is just the question to be answered of how we compare relative to the others."

The latter remark is universal. How will we compare? It is, of course, the crux of this season-opening weekend. Where are we in the pecking order?

At Ferrari, Felipe Massa says succinctly: "The car appears to be reliable, but on its own this is not enough as the car needs to be quick too. For the moment, reliability has been good and I don't think we can complain about performance, but we won't have a clear picture until all the teams are together on track.”

At McLaren, team boss Martin Whitmarsh explains the sudden switch back to a more conventional exhaust layout thus: "I'm not satisfied with where the car was on reliability or performance in testing. We’ve made some fairly dramatic changes, and there's some risk in that, but I think it was the right thing to do and we're hopeful that that risk comes off and the car is a lot more competitive.

"We have a completely new floor and a new exhaust system. There are a lot of other bits and pieces, but they're the clear and obvious ones. I'd say it is a simpler design than we've had before. I think the exhaust systems have become quite extreme, and in particular we had very extreme solutions. But they were not delivering sufficient benefits for their complexity.”

So much remains unknown that form will be very hard to predict. Over and above the effectiveness of individual technical packages there are the deployment and efficiency of individual KERS, the way in which the movable rear wings work, and the tyre situation to factor in.

Albert Park has 10 right-handers and six left, and there were 28 pit stops in last year’s race. The shortest was one from Mark Webber’s Red Bull on lap 10 in 23.517s. The highest number of stops here was 49 in 2004, or 2.45 stops per driver. That could easily be exceeded this year with predictions of at least three stops per driver, possibly four.

"In simple terms it is more likely that a car that has not set the fastest time and taken pole position can still go on to win the race,” suggests Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali. "It will be absolutely vital to have the right strategy.”

So welcome back to F1, 2011 style!

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