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Australia preview - ‘It’s going to be a freaky one!’ 15 Mar 2012

Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing RB7 leads at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 27 March 2011 Pirelli signage.
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 14 March 2012 Pirelli tyre on the McLaren MP4/27 of Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren.
Formula One Testing, Day 4, Barcelona, Spain, Friday, 24 February 2012 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Lotus F1 Team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 14 March 2012 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing at the drivers start of season photograph.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Race Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 27 March 2011 Grid girls.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Race Day, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 27 March 2011 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari.
Formula One Testing, Day 3, Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, 3 March 2012 Paul di Resta (GBR) Force India F1 walks the circuit.
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 14 March 2012 
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 14 March 2012 Fan.
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Formula One world may be set for an unusual start to the season, after two years in which Red Bull domination of the opening races could be taken for granted. That’s the view of several teams, and tyre supplier Pirelli, whose rubber will be even softer this year and thus will demand an even smoother style from the drivers to avoid pushing it too far, too soon.

"[McLaren’s] Martin Whitmarsh said we needed to give the teams a challenge, and if that happens then we will get some excitement - at least in the early season," said Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery. "I think you have to remember the engineers in these teams are the best in the world and, while at the start of the year that may create, like we had at the start of the year, some challenges, as the year progresses they will work out the best way to manage the situation and it will equalise a little bit."

Many engineers admit that they are still finding their way with the tyre wear. Pirelli have brought their medium and soft compounds to Australia, and retained the four different coloured sidewalls - red (super soft), yellow (soft), white (medium) and silver (hard) - but modified the markings to ease differentiation between them. The colour bands and lettering are larger, and the silver on the hard tyres is darker to differentiate it from the medium.

The weather here in Melbourne may also create challenges of its own, with showers or even thunderstorms expected to remain a possibility throughout the weekend.

Throw in the belief in some quarters that Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus could be the dark horses, and that Mercedes have the race pace to match McLaren, and it’s not difficult to see that 2012 could be a lot less predictable - at least in its early stages.

“It’s going to be a freaky one!” Lotus chief Eric Boullier suggested. “Qualifying in Melbourne and the first races are going to be unpredictable. The tyres are going to make things very interesting. If you push too hard in qualifying then you are going to be screwed for the first part of the race - and if you pit too early it may mean you need to make an extra stop.

"It’s going to be interesting, but we like the challenge. We would always love to have a car that is two seconds faster than the other ones, which would be very comfortable for us, but in the end we like the fight as well."

Meanwhile, Raikkonen said: "You need a car with good traction and everything from testing says that the E20 has good traction so that will help us. Strong turn-in and stable braking help too, and those areas also feel good with the car so we are well placed.

"My engineers have been running simulations and looking at the test data so we have an idea of how the car should work at Albert Park, but we won’t know for sure until we get out on track. It's very difficult to say before we’ve been out on track, but I think and hope we’ll be reasonably strong."

At Mercedes, team principal Ross Brawn said having six world champions on the grid for the first time can only add to the excitement. “It’s great for Formula One to have so many world champions. It’s the quality of the field and the fact that the cars look like they are going to be close this year. It’s going to be a really exciting season and it could be one of the best seasons we have seen for a number of years, so I am quite looking forward to a very challenging season. I am expecting the tightest start to a season that we have seen for a number of years."

Meanwhile, as both Red Bull and McLaren remain ominously confident, Fernando Alonso has urged Ferrari to maintain an even strain after their testing difficulties.

"We have to stay cool and calm and take one step at a time, starting with the race in Melbourne where we will get an initial impression," the Spaniard said.

"Once we know where we stand, then we can set ourselves more precise targets. One thing's for sure, with the will to win that inhabits everyone at Ferrari and with the history we have behind us, we feel a responsibility to do well: for us, for our fans and for our partners and that goes for all of us. We must all pull together to reach this target.

"We definitely still need to improve a lot, working on our understanding of the F2012, adapting my driving style to a new car which, with the loss of aerodynamic downforce at the rear and the new Pirelli tyres, is a bit harder to drive.

"We know in which direction we need to go in terms of car development and that's an important step. Sure, we will have to grit our teeth for the first few races, but first of all, we have to see exactly where we are in terms of being competitive and then give our all to bring home as many points as possible in this early stage of the championship.”

The midfield looks set to be even tighter than at the back end of 2011, with Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams having all enjoyed encouraging pre-season tests. Melbourne should also tell us whether Caterham - now KERS-equipped - have taken a big enough step forward to latch on to that pack. For backmarkers HRT and Marussia, however, Albert Park will be largely a test run, after neither team managed to ready their 2012 cars in time for the pre-season sessions.

Melbourne’s 5.303 kilometre (3.295 mile) circuit has had some minor safety changes since 2011 and also gets an extra DRS zone. The zone on the start-finish straight remains, joined by a second on the subsequent straight between Turns 2 and 3. Both share a single detection point, just prior to Turn 14.

Sunday’s race will again run over 58 laps or 307.574 kilometres (191.110 miles). It starts at 1700 hours local time, 0600 hours GMT.

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