Australia preview - a step into the unknown 14 Mar 2013
It doesnt matter to whom you speak - representatives of Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus or Mercedes - nobody really has an idea of what to expect at the 2013 Formula 1 Rolex Grand Prix in Melbourne this weekend.
We could be first or we could be someway off, Mark Webber said down at Red Bull. But Ferrari look pretty handy.
Looking at their car its hard to imagine that theyve found 65 points of downforce since November, an insider at McLaren said of Mercedes, before adding, but Id be surprised to see them outside the top four.
Mercedes looked pretty good, as did Red Bull, while Lotuss car seems to go exactly where the drivers point it, former driver Johnny Herbert suggested.
So much will depend on the combination of ambient and track temperature and their influence on tyre performance, somebody at Ferrari said.
The truth is nobody has a clue what to expect, in what could prove to be the closest season in recent history.
Thus, as we await Fridays two practice sessions, the focus is best switched now to the tyres more than the teams, all of who showed form at one time or another in pre-season testing.
Pirelli have brought their new P Zero White medium and P Zero Red supersoft compounds to Australia. The latter is new to Albert Park - last year the Italian tyre supplier brought the mediums and softs and the first seven drivers home in the race each made two pit stops. More pit stops than that are expected this time around as the 2013 compounds are softer and faster than their predecessors.
Historically, Melbourne offers low levels of grip since its a semi-permanent facility and the deliberate choice of compounds presents a significant challenge to the teams and drivers regarding strategy and tyre management.
The medium tyre is best suited to circuits with lower ambient temperatures and not particularly aggressive asphalt, two boxes that Melbourne ticks. Its durability characteristics are very similar to those of last years soft tyre, resulting in lap times that are around 0.8s quicker than the 2012-specification medium.
The supersoft has been designed to come up to temperature quickly and it delivers maximum performance instantly on twisty and slow-speed circuits.
After 12 days of pre-season testing we finally get to go racing with our 2013 compounds, Pirelli's motorsport manager Paul Hembery says. They were developed over the course of the last season in private testing and they are the most focussed and performance-orientated tyres we have ever made.
Cold weather conditions during pre-season testing meant that we werent able to showcase them to the best of their abilities, but we are expecting a different story in Albert Park, with two to three pit stops per car.
The start of any new season is always a very exciting time and from what we have observed during pre-season testing the field seems to be closer than ever: quite an achievement when you consider that we had seven different winners from the first seven races last year.
All the compounds and constructions have changed for 2013, and the drivers should notice a wider working range and a bigger window of peak performance. The performance gaps between the compounds are also larger, which means that teams have a greater opportunity to use strategy to their advantage by exploiting the consequent speed differentials.
The meeting promises to tax not only the stars, but the five rookies: Valtteri Bottas at Williams, Esteban Gutierrez at Sauber, Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi at Marussia, and Giedo van der Garde at Caterham.
One of the most fascinating things about Formula One is the way it resets itself each and every winter, says McLarens Jenson Button, who made his debut here with Williams in 2000.
Ive seen every side of that: you can have a terrible winter of testing, then turn up at the first race and be competitive; equally, you can look impressive in winter testing and be nowhere in Melbourne. If youre lucky, it all comes together in the tests and you hit the ground running at the first race. That's always the goal.
This year, I dont think any team really knows or understands the competitive order. Its been an extremely hard-to-read winter: varying fuel-loads and levels of tyre degradation mean that its hard to accurately predict wholl arrive in Australia with the best-sorted car. But thats part of the game.
As for the circuit, the 5.303 kilometres (3.295 miles) of asphalt is largely unchanged with minor changes to the kerbs on the exit of Turns 14 and 16 the only points of note. The DRS detection point is before Turn 14 with the first activation point after Turn 16 and the second activation point after Turn 2. Once again the race will be run over 58 laps or 307.574 kilometres (191.11 miles) and starts at 1700 hours local time (0600 GMT).
The city of Melbourne has just celebrated a record number of days in which the ambient temperature exceeded 30 degrees Celsius, but the weather is just beginning to turn. The temperature is expected to drop to around 25 degrees on Friday and there is a chance of rain on Saturday. The temperature is then set to dip still further for race day on Sunday.
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