Feature

IT'S RACE WEEK: 5 storylines we're excited about ahead of the 2024 Australian Grand Prix

Special Contributor

Chris Medland
Share
Race-week-Melbourne-V1.jpg

Two races down, 22 to go, and the Formula 1 paddock is preparing itself for one of the longest trips of the season. With a huge crowd expected in one of the world’s premier sporting cities, here are a few of the talking points ahead of the race weekend in Melbourne...

Sainz’s recovery

One of the biggest stories of the race weekend in Saudi Arabia was the impressive debut of Ferrari reserve driver Oliver Bearman, who got an unexpected chance to race in Formula 1 due to the absence of Carlos Sainz.

READ MORE: 6 Winners and 5 Losers from Saudi Arabia – Who impressed under the lights in Jeddah?

Sainz was struggling with illness for a number of days but still completed Thursday’s two practice sessions before he was diagnosed with appendicitis and underwent surgery on the Friday morning, ruling him out for the rest of the weekend.

Bearman proved himself to be a worthy replacement at last-minute, with a strong performance despite his lack of preparation and a return of six points courtesy of a seventh-placed finish in the race.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 08: Oliver Bearman of Great Britain and Ferrari walks from the Ferrari

Will Sainz be back in action in Australia after Bearman substituted for him in Saudi Arabia?

Whether it’s Bearman or Sainz in the car again in Melbourne will be a source of great interest, with Sainz having started the season so well with an opening podium in Bahrain. The Spaniard will be keen to get back into the car as soon as he can – and Alex Albon showed it was possible to race again just two weeks after an appendectomy back in 2022 – but every person’s recovery time can differ.

Either Sainz will be back and trying to ensure he is able to perform to his potential, or Bearman could get another chance to impress as he’s already due to be in Australia for the next round of the Formula 2 championship.

TIMELINE: Ollie Bearman’s ‘whirlwind’ 24 hours in Jeddah that saw him go from F2 pole to F1 debut

Ferrari closing in on Red Bull

The focus at Ferrari might have been on Bearman and Sainz over the Saudi Arabian weekend, but that threatened to overshadow what was a clear step forward for the team with their 2024 car.

Red Bull’s dominance has been a talking point after back-to-back one-two finishes, but rewind 12 months and Ferrari were some 36 seconds adrift of the race-winning Sergio Perez in Jeddah. Their highest driver was Sainz in sixth, having started fourth on that occasion.

This time around, Charles Leclerc scored Ferrari’s second consecutive podium and was a little over 18 seconds behind Max Verstappen, representing a halving of the deficit to the race-winning Red Bull across races that both had Safety Car interruptions.

There were races towards the end of last season that saw Ferrari posing a threat to Red Bull, and the stronger start to this year compared to last could hint at more of the same at certain tracks. Especially if the Scuderia can convert their strong qualifying performance into a pole position in Melbourne.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 09: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull

Ferrari look to have closed the gap slightly to Red Bull after Leclerc's performance in Jeddah

Mercedes looking for improvements

In contrast to Ferrari, there appears to be less optimism at Mercedes after a slightly confusing start to the season. There have been some clear signs of pace at certain times, but it has tended to be during practice sessions rather than in qualifying or the race.

Mercedes admit they are trying to work out why they have been struggling to get the grip out of the W15 at all times, with a focus on the bouncing issues that have been a recurring problem for the team since the new generation of cars were introduced in 2022.

TECH WEEKLY: 3 years on the bounce – Why Mercedes still can’t shake their downforce issues

There had been plenty of optimism heading into the new season because both Lewis Hamilton and George Russell felt the car was a clear step forward in terms of how comfortable it was for them to drive. That optimism appeared to be waning a little in Jeddah, but back-to-back races will have provided limited opportunity to try and understand the issues they are facing.

Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin says they will “design some experiments” for Melbourne, that could help them unlock more performance.

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 09: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG

Mercedes will be hoping to unlock further performance in Australia after a confusing start to the season

Chances for the home favourites

A year ago Oscar Piastri was making his first appearance at his home race in Melbourne but did so in an uncompetitive McLaren at the time, as the team only made a clear step forward when they upgraded their car later in the year.

But that didn't stop him picking up his first points with eighth place, taking advantage of a chaotic race to score in front of his home crowd.

READ MORE: Norris insists strategy gamble worth a shot as Piastri left ‘very happy’ with P4 in Saudi Arabia

This time around, Piastri arrives in Australia off the back of a strong fourth place in Saudi Arabia, a result that leaves him fifth in the drivers’ championship at this early stage. Piastri picked up two podiums in the second half of 2023 as well, and with McLaren starting this season in better shape – although also insisting they have more performance to be added to their car shortly – he can target more points this weekend.

And the weight of expectation is not solely on Piastri, either, with Daniel Ricciardo making his first start in his home race since 2022. The RB driver was not on the grid at this stage last year, but is back full-time and looking to kick-start a season that has proven challenging so far for RB.

In fact, Ricciardo promised after Jeddah to keep pushing hard behind the scenes and try to make sure RB arrive in Melbourne in better shape than they were in last time out.

Fighting talk from the 34-year-old: “Let’s say my season will start there and kick some ass…”

JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 09: Oscar Piastri of Australia and McLaren walks in the Paddock prior

Can Piastri enjoy a strong weekend in front of his home crowd?

Will it be as dramatic as 2023?

Although RB have been struggling so far and are yet to score a point this season, Ricciardo can be forgiven for dreaming of a top-ten finish in Melbourne given how this race panned out last year.

Multiple incidents and accidents led to a number of red flags, with just 12 drivers making it to the chequered flag as a result. Four were eliminated during a late race restart, including both Alpine drivers, Logan Sargeant and Ricciardo’s predecessor Nyck de Vries.

POWER RANKINGS: Which drivers impressed the judges at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix?

Much like Jeddah, there are sections of the Albert Park circuit that feature high-speed corners with walls waiting nearby to punish any mistakes, and with the close nature of the field fighting for points, drivers need to push hard in that battle, with the circuit’s recent modifications making overtaking more possible than in the past.

If it’s even half as dramatic as last year, we could be in for a thriller.

Share

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Coming Up

Coming Up

Video

HIGHLIGHTS: Relive the action from qualifying in China as Verstappen grabs pole and Sainz crashes