From Sebastian Vettel eyeing a repeat of 2018 to an out-of-position Red Bull, and a team with demons to banish to a new rule that could deliver some added action late in the race, we highlight five key things to look out for in Melbourne…
VETTEL ON THE ATTACK
Can Vettel overhaul a Mercedes that was the class of the field in qualifying?
There’s a sense of deja vu surrounding the Australian Grand Prix weekend so far. Mercedes have hit the ground running, and Ferrari have ended up further back than they expected in qualifying.
But last year saw a significant Q3 deficit turn into an intriguing race, with Vettel getting the better of Lewis Hamilton courtesy of a fortunately-timed Safety Car. Track position is king in Melbourne, after all.
Vettel might need something similar in order to get the better of the Mercedes this season, but the German admits Ferrari should be more competitive than they currently look, and will fancy his chances if he can get ahead of at least one of the silver cars on the opening lap.
Last year, Red Bull were right on Ferrari’s pace in qualifying, and the first race with Honda has produced the same result, which bodes well as a starting point for the partnership.
The start will be crucial given that Verstappen lost ground at Turn 1 last year, but his eyes will be on a podium, which would be Honda’s first since returning to the sport in 2015. Either way, the Red Bulls are likely to be at the heart of the action, with Pierre Gasly having to recover from 17th on the grid.
A rookie who's lumped pressure onto his shoulders
How will Lando Norris handle the pressure of a top 10 start?
When Guenther Steiner was asked for his biggest shock of Saturday in Melbourne, he simply replied: “Lando Norris”.
The McLaren rookie delivered an excellent performance on debut for the team, securing eighth on the grid and a real chance of points. The car looks strong, but Norris had struggled compared to team mate Carlos Sainz until qualifying, before building into the session impressively.
But expectations were low heading into qualifying, highlighted by the team giving Norris three new sets of tyres for Q1. Now those expectations will rise because points are on offer. Whether they are taken or not will largely be down to how well the 19-year-old can handle the pressure in what will be his first Grand Prix.
Can the American squad make up for last year’s missed opportunity?
WHY: One of the most painful images of 2018 was that of the disconsolate Haas mechanics, shown after their pit stop errors in Australia had forced both the team’s cars to retire when looking set to finish in fourth and fifth positions.
Part one of erasing that memory has been achieved with Haas securing best of the rest status as Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen qualified sixth and seventh respectively. But that was exactly where they finished qualifying last year (albeit in reverse order).
Steiner insists there is no added pressure on the team given what happened 12 months ago, but there is no doubting the pit crew will be feeling some when their drivers make their stops in the race.
New tactics for 2019
Will the fastest lap spice up the closing stages?
The first race of the season provides the first test for new regulations, and while some are unlikely to have a major impact in Melbourne, others are unknown.
Aerodynamic changes are designed to produce closer racing and allow drivers a better chance of overtaking – but while it may be easier to follow more closely, the track layout at Albert Park has always made passing difficult.
By contrast, if it’s tough to make a move then the return of a point for the fastest lap could provide some late race action, as drives in the top 10 have an added incentive to push right to the flag. Drivers always want to set the fastest lap – how many times have we heard team radio messages trying to slow them down late on? – and now there’s a reward to go with it for anyone willing to take on the extra risk.