IT'S RACE WEEK: 5 storylines we’re excited about ahead of the Australian Grand Prix
After the Middle Eastern pair of races to kickstart the 2023 season it’s time to head Down Under for one of the biggest events on the calendar, and here are a few of the talking points likely to be on the agenda during the third round of the year in Melbourne…
1. Verstappen vs Perez
Red Bull’s hugely impressive start to the season continued in Jeddah but for fans wanting a more competitive year there was a glimmer of hope courtesy of the performance of Sergio Perez.
BARRETTO: Is Sergio Perez a genuine World Championship contender this year?
We never got to see quite what Max Verstappen would have managed to do during qualifying due to his driveshaft issue that saw him drop out in Q2, but Perez took full advantage to qualify on pole position and then was in control of the race before a Safety Car period that brought his team mate right back into it.
With half the race to run, Verstappen was into second place, five seconds behind Perez on the same age of tyre (and the hardest compound that was comfortably expected to make it to the finish) and many observers thought the double world champion would overturn that deficit.
Instead, Perez had an answer to everything Verstappen offered as the two pulled away from the rest rapidly, and took his first win of the year.
Verstappen remains the championship favourite but if Perez can replicate that level of performance on a regular basis this season then we could well have a title fight on our hands, and Melbourne is his first chance to prove whether he can.
2. Can Alonso keep up his form?
The closest challenger to Red Bull so far has been Aston Martin, and in particular Fernando Alonso while Lance Stroll gets up to speed following his pre-season accident. The sight of Alonso leading a Grand Prix again on merit in Saudi Arabia was a special one, as he pulled off a trademark quick start to jump Perez for the opening laps.
Realistically, the tighter battle Alonso faces is staying at the head of the chasing pack, having picked up two podiums – eventually – from the opening two races. In Bahrain he profited from Charles Leclerc’s retirement, while in Jeddah it was Mercedes putting the pressure on, although Leclerc did outqualify Alonso before his grid penalty.
READ MORE: Alonso makes Brawn GP comparison after Aston Martin’s leap up the order this season
Which team will be the bigger threat to Alonso’s run in Australia? The track would have been earmarked as suiting Ferrari a few weeks ago but the Mercedes showing in Saudi Arabia suggests they have found a direction that gets a bit more out of the W14 than at the opening race and so will be targeting a podium too.
And don’t rule out Alpine when it comes to a challenge to the frontrunners. While they were slightly disappointed in their race pace in Jeddah, Alpine were extremely competitive here a year ago when Alonso threatened a shock pole position before going off on his Q3 lap – and the car’s performance has already been close to Aston, Mercedes and Ferrari at times over the first two races.
3. Changes at McLaren
Perhaps the biggest news to emerge between races has come from McLaren, who have announced a major restructuring of their technical department and the departure of their Executive Technical Director James Key.
As Key leaves, McLaren are going to install three technical heads to oversee the division, with Peter Prodromou and Neil Houldey both existing personnel taking on new positions under Team Principal Andrea Stella. But David Sanchez’s signing from Ferrari – with the Frenchman starting work in 2024 – is a significant one.
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It hasn’t been a positive start to the year for McLaren, who are currently bottom of the constructors’ championship and yet to score, but the changes have been in the pipeline for a number of months and are not a reaction to the way the year has gone so far.
In fact, the team are confident they have a better car than they’ve been able to show up to now, with misfortune costing them a chance of points in Saudi Arabia after getting one car into Q3.
4. A massive crowd with a new home hero
That car belonged to Oscar Piastri, and his first Q3 appearance was one of many milestones that the rookie will be hoping to tick off this season. Another will be his first home race, as he gives the enormous Melbourne crowd a local driver to get behind following the departure of Daniel Ricciardo.
And when I say a local driver, Piastri is as local as they come, having been born and raised in Melbourne before pursuing his racing career in Europe from the age of 15.
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Piastri will have been hoping for a more competitive car for his first home Grand Prix, but as previously stated McLaren believe there’s more to come from their 2023 machine, and in some ways it takes the pressure off with little expectation in terms of a race result given the way the first two rounds have panned out.
But Piastri can be confident in receiving huge support from the Albert Park fanbase, with last year’s total of nearly 420,000 over the four days of the event – a record for the race in Melbourne – potentially set to be exceeded this weekend.
5. Ricciardo returns
But Piastri won’t be the only Australian driver making an appearance this weekend in Melbourne. Ricciardo is now the third driver at Red Bull – the team that he spent the majority of his F1 career with – and the Australian Grand Prix will be his first race of the season on-site in his new role.
READ MORE: Ricciardo outlines professional and personal goals ahead of 'luxury' year as Red Bull third driver
Ricciardo has been enjoying some downtime since stepping away from full-time F1 racing (temporarily for now), and is not attending every race but he will be at Albert Park to support Red Bull from a marketing and activation point of view as well as in case he is required to drive the car at any point.
He might not be scheduled to be on track during the weekend, but there’s every chance the popular eight-time Grand Prix winner will be causing mischief in the paddock for his former rivals.