From recovering frontrunners to the sleeping giants looking for a strong start, and from Red Bull’s strategic gamble to potentially race-affecting track changes, we break down the key themes to look out for in Sunday’s race in Melbourne…
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: 5 storylines for Sunday's race in Australia
Lewis Hamilton’s stunning pole position was cause for celebration at Mercedes on Saturday, but on the opposite side of the garage it was a different story after Valtteri Bottas crashed heavily at the start of Q3. With Hamilton on pole by more than 0.65s, there was clearly the potential for the team to lock out the front row, but instead Bottas was unable to set a time.
A gearbox penalty will see the Finn starting from 15th place on the grid, and from there he has a lot of ground to make up. But he also has the car to do it…
As was the case at many races last year, the top three teams enjoy a clear pace advantage over the rest of the field, so making progress will be at the forefront of Bottas’s mind.
Bottas will have to do it the hard way, as he doesn’t have a different strategic option available to him at the start of the race, either. Despite not setting a time during Q3, the Mercedes driver made it through to the final part of qualifying and therefore has to start the race on the same set of ultrasoft tyres he set his fastest lap on in Q2.
Red Bull making the most of their alternate strategy
Speaking of tyre strategies, Red Bull took a different approach to their rivals by advancing through Q2 on the supersoft compound as opposed to the ultrasofts used by the rest of the top 10.
The theory behind the decision is founded in the difficulty with overtaking in Melbourne, with last year’s race seeing little in on-track moves. So Red Bull have opted for the slightly harder compound in order to extend their first stint further than their rivals if needed. Should the leaders struggle to make the ultrasofts last at the start of the race, a long second stint or even a two-stop strategy could be a possibility.
It is the latter scenario that would really help Red Bull - and Daniel Ricciardo in particular as a result of a three-place grid penalty - giving them the chance to make up positions when others have to pit for a second time. But they should still gain an advantage if they can simply make their one stop later in the race, as they will have fresher tyres for the closing stages.
The third DRS zone aiding overtaking
To make use of any tyre advantage, Red Bull will need the FIA’s decision to add a third DRS zone to pay off with increased overtaking.
Last year only a handful of on-track passes were registered in Melbourne as the new aerodynamic regulations resulted in it becoming even tougher to overtake on the Albert Park circuit. In response, the FIA has added a third DRS zone which runs from the exit of the high-speed Turn 12 until the braking point for Turn 13.
The intention is for drivers to be able to close up for a potential move into Turn 13, or at least to be able to stay in range to trigger the next DRS detection point on the approach to Turn 14, allowing them to use DRS on the main straight and run to Turn 3.
Drivers have been split on how big a difference the extra zone will make, with Sergio Perez believing it will make “zero difference” while Kevin Magnussen said on Thursday he thinks it will improve the racing “a lot”, something he is less happy about after qualifying on the third row…
“Well now I’m a bit annoyed!" he said. "But that’s how it is and you’ve just got to hang on to it…”
Drivers with fuel-saving challenges
One of the hot topics leaving pre-season testing was the issue of fuel saving and the differences between the power units. Ferrari had appeared to be struggling with fuel saving in Barcelona, with Sebastian Vettel doing plenty during his first race simulation.
According to Force India’s Perez, that has not been an issue for Mercedes-powered teams, with the Mexican likening the fuel saving levels of his power unit to 2017.
Melbourne is one of the more severe tracks when it comes to the need to save fuel during a race, which can lead to some significant differences in pace late on for any driver who is struggling with consumption.
“We need to fuel save, I think everybody needs to,” Haas team principal Guenther Steiner said on Saturday night. “Even in testing you can play with it - you try to save it but then you don’t save it - so I don’t know what they need to save in reality.
“I think everybody has to save and I don’t think there’s a big difference between the efficiency of the engines. There could be a 1% difference, but I wouldn’t think it’s a lot more.”
McLaren on the hunt for points
Steiner’s Haas team will start from the third row, with Magnussen and Romain Grosjean securing fifth and sixth on the grid after Ricciardo’s grid drop. Race pace was strong for the American outfit and the team are confident they can hold on in the fight for best of the rest behind the top three.
But in order to do so, Haas will have to keep at least two very big rivals at bay. The two Renaults joined them in Q3 on Saturday, while McLaren were 11th and 12th with Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne respectively (and will start one place further up after Bottas’s gearbox penalty).
McLaren’s starting positions allow them to choose whichever tyre they would like to start the race on, and even though Alonso has downplayed such an advantage, he still thinks the team can make significant progress during the race after showing solid long run performance on Friday.
“This is a very, very good baseline for the rest of the season despite the result you can get [from qualifying],” Alonso said. “It is good, the points are given tomorrow… big points are coming for us tomorrow, I’m sure. This is a very good start for a new season.”
To get those points, McLaren will have to take the fight to the works team that supplies its new power units, but asked whether he would count seventh or sixth as scoring the big points he predicts, Alonso added: “Hopefully better…”