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Pre-Melbourne analysis - FP1 a moment of reckoning

14 Mar 2014

The dawn of the exciting new Formula One season truly arrives on Friday, in the form of the first free practice session of the year in Albert Park.

And as Mercedes and Williams endlessly played down their clearly high expectations on Thursday, some of the other contenders made their voices heard. And what they said cut across the perceived wisdom from the Jerez and Bahrain tests, which had conferred upon Mercedes and Williams their status as favourites.

Down at McLaren, where the aerodynamically updated MP4-29 wears a special livery to celebrate the 20-year link with Mobil, Jenson Button certainly isn’t writing himself or the team out of the equation.

"Bahrain is possibly the worst circuit for applying throttle without getting the rear wheels spinning,” he explained, “because it was hot and the layout makes it very difficult to apply power. It's a unique circuit, so I think it'll be a lot closer in lap times for the whole pack here than what we saw in testing. That's why I think you're not going to have such a big margin between the top two teams and the rest.

"Williams and Mercedes are going to be very difficult to beat - if reliability wasn't an issue, and strategy also. But I still think they can be challenged this weekend."

McLaren, like others who have yet to reach their ultimate pace, are placing their faith in reliability, for most people in the paddock here believe that if you can get to the finish line you will score some points in what is expected will be a race of very high attrition.

"We want to win races,” Button stressed. “I'm not sure we'll be able to do that this race but you never know. The conditions look very up and down and it's not all about outright speed. There are other things that will be thrown in this weekend that will make it a little more complicated."

One factor is the very strong likelihood that it will be a wet race…

At Ferrari, President Luci di Montezemolo has written to the tifosi to bang a familiar drum.

“I am anxious and in a state of strong trepidation - as happens to me every year, even though I have gone through so many championships as president and, before, as sporting director,” he admitted. “Everyone has issues; we have lined ours up and we are in the process of resolving them. We’re also putting into practice an intense plan of development, which can count on the fact that the data from the wind tunnel has been confirmed by the track comparisons, something that has not happened in recent years.

“It will be a difficult championship for the spectators to follow. The drivers will have to take care that they do not wear out the tyres, and save fuel. I have already said that I hope they don’t turn into taxi drivers and I say that with the greatest respect to taxi drivers, but they obviously do a different job. I, like all of you, love an extreme Formula 1 where technology and drivers are always on the limit.”

Fernando Alonso looked glum in the press conference, though perhaps like everyone else he’s getting tired of the phoney war and just wants to get on with the real thing.

“I think it’s very difficult to tell how competitive we are at the moment,” the Spaniard said. “We’ll get some answers in 24 hours or 48 hours, we will know a little bit more than we know now. We just need to put everything together, maximise what we have, and see where we are.”

Asked how different his car will be here since Bahrain, in terms of development and the fact that technical chief Pat Fry had said that the team brought many boxes of new stuff with them here, he answered facetiously.

“Maybe it was food or something. The car is exactly the same as it was in Bahrain, not new sponsor, not anything.”

He is happy with the changes to qualifying, however, where Q1 is now shortened to 18 minutes, Q3 extended to 12 and where drivers who get through to that final session all get a set of Pirelli’s option tyres - to be returned to the Italian company immediately afterwards - to ensure that everybody makes a valid effort to go out and do two runs. Last year too many Q3 qualifiers conserved rubber by not venturing out to do a lap time.

“Okay there were some cars that didn’t run in Q3 or they only did one run and now maybe we’ll see an extra lap from everybody,” Alonso said, “but apart from that I think it’s not a huge change in approach for the teams and the drivers. But I think this change is welcome, to see more cars on track. I arrive many times with no new sets for Q3, so now I’m happy.”

At Red Bull, reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel continues to maintain his dignity despite the team’s troubles, and said he will have a different car here as the RB10 receives significant updates.

“Obviously we had a lot of problems during the test so we didn’t get to test a lot of stuff and we hope we do some more running here and put the parts to the car that we think are better for overall performance. It will be a bit different, but I think it’s the same for all of us.

“We know that we’re not in the best shape yet. There are a lot of things we need to solve. Unfortunately, you can’t solve them overnight. We’d love to but we can’t. So you really have to go step by step, together with Daniel (Ricciardo), I think just trying to be as precise as we can, trying to give the engineers the best feedback possible about the whole power unit so that we move forward on that, and also talking about the car because at this stage it’s a bit unknown where we are. It’s not a secret: you need very, very strong reliability to be a title contender, so we’ll see…”

Renault, however, have given their teams the green light to use maximum power after their testing troubles saw it restricted, thanks to revised software which has improved problems which incited detonation or ‘knock’ where the mixture of air and fuel pre-ignites in the cylinders before the piston reaches top dead centre.

"The main issues we had was due to the nature of how we control the engine and the boost pressure,” chief engineer Remi Taffin explained, “and how we manage knock basically - which is the step to gain some more performance from this kind of engine. It’s fair to say that when you are late, you are late on everything. So we had to be very cautious. But I am not worried about that one now.”

That should help not only Red Bull, but Toro Rosso, Lotus and Caterham.

Very soon, we will at last begin to get the first inkling of who is still whistling to keep their spirits up, and who might really have a genuine chance of victory this weekend.

David Tremayne