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Mar 16

Hamilton grabs pole as youngsters set the pace at Albert Park; Australian GP Pre-Race Analysis

It was an emphatic Mercedes pit garage after Lewis Hamilton clinched the pole position at Albert Park to kick off the new season in style. Teammate Nico Rosberg was beaten to a front row grid place by Red Bull’s new man and local boy, Daniel Ricciardo, in what turned out to be a thrilling end to a nervy and wet afternoon in Melbourne.

With F1 taking a very drastic turn to transform the sport into a greener and environmental-friendly place, there has been very less time to migrate from the naturally aspirated engines to turbocharged ones. The pre-season tests weren’t conclusive for most of the teams in their bid to understand more about the hybrid technology and fine tune it for combative track conditions. Red Bull’s Christian Horner suggested that teams might be using the first few races in Asia as testing sessions, and develop the car for the remainder of the season.  Teams arrived at Albert Park on Wednesday with more skepticism than confidence. We will now have a brief touch-up on the three practice sessions, and then move on to analyzing the qualifying session and potential race strategies.

 

Image Courtesy: Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team

Lewis Hamilton at the Australian Grand Prix 2014.                                                                                       Image Credits: Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team

Practice Session Highlights

After three vigorous testing weekends at Bahrain and Jerez, teams were finally going to put their cars to work with race weekend parameters. Prior to the Friday practice sessions, Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari appeared to be the front-runners with fastest laps during testing and good scores in the endurance section. Current champions Red Bull appeared to be miles behind on their progress to come up with a competitive car, and the same could be said about Lotus. The surprise candidate from those pre-season tests was Williams. With Felipe Massa as their lead driver and Valteri Bottas continuing from last season, the English outfit had developed a car which was capable of challenging for a podium finish.

The two Friday sessions saw Fernando Alonso finish on average places. Lewis Hamilton failed to complete the first session after stopping on the track with a mechanical problem, but managed to take part in the second session, in which he stood first. FP1 saw many drivers failing to post any time at all. Caterham and Lotus were the only teams with both drivers not recording any lap time, while Marussia’s Jules Bianchi joined Hamilton on the DNR list. Lotus and Caterham didn’t send their cars out for FP2, and were joined by Marcus Eriksen and Kamui Kobayashi in the pits.

Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button and Daniel Ricciardo finished among the top five on average on Friday, with very little between the lap times. Four time champions Sebastian Vettel had a hard time getting his car into the top five, and had to settle for a bigger average position. Nevertheless, the signs were positive for the German, as his car appeared to have come a long way after the depressing showing in Bahrain tests. Newcomer Kevin Magnussen was the talk of the town for his aggressive and controlled driving. The Dane had an impressive outing for a rookie and was impressive on his debut for McLaren. Kimi Raikkonen couldn’t match the pace of his teammate and had to deal with minor problems with the car all day long, restricting his charge into the top five.

Free Practice 3, which took place today morning, saw familiar names from Friday among the top 10, with Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez the only new ones. Nico Rosberg topped the charts, thereby helping Mercedes stamp their authority on the weekend and living up to the initial hype. Button, Alonso, Hamilton and Ricciardo competed well, but were no match to Rosberg’s flying lap. The German finished a full 1.4 seconds ahead of the pack.The stage was set for an enticing evening session of Qualifying, but the atmosphere was still gloomy at best. Christian Horner coming to the fore again and claiming that not even 50% of the cars would be able to finish the race. Such was the complexity in the hybrid system and their heat issues.

Red Bull

Image Credits: J.H. Sohn (http://www.flickr.com/photos/jhsohn/)

Qualifying Session

Before we delve into the action of this session, lets take a look at the track and the conditions in which the qualifying took place, and what effect those conditions had on the cars during that period. The Albert Park circuit is the first street circuit of the calendar, and it boasts a picturesque location on the east coast of Australia. This circuit is considered as one of the flattest circuits, with not many straight sections. The constant cornering demands focus from the drivers, but most of them feel it is a comparatively easy track than others.

The conditions at Albert Park mounted more challenges for the drivers on top of the difficulty in getting the cars to work properly. On the track, particularly at turn 9, drivers experienced excessive tailwinds, which took them into the corner with more speed than usual. Almost every driver got himself onto the gravel. Tailwind is the air that flows along the direction of the car, adding to the speed of the car. As a result, drivers had to brake much harder, resulting in their right-front tyre to lock up. Turn 12 too saw similar situations, and as it is a much higher speed corner than turn 9, cars didn’t have to go through a higher speed differential (slowing down and accelerating). The new F1 rules have been cruel on the cars, and the reduced downforce is the latest problem. With less air allowed from the front of the car to the underside in order to create downforce, teams resorted to other methods. Previously, crosswinds were easy to deal with, but now with reduced downforce, drivers will have to drive hard to tackle the crosswind. These crosswinds had a strong case today at Albert Park.

Image Credits: Formula 1 Official Website

Image Credits: Formula 1 Official Website

Q1 (Run Time: 18 Minutes)

On the back of a very informative and progressive 3rd practice session teams prepared themselves to face the real deal as the racing weekend finally kicked off with the Qualifying session for the first race of the season. This year, there is slight tweak to the amounts of time allotted to the individual sessions of qualifying, with Q1 reduced to 18 minutes, Q2 remaining at 15 minutes and Q3 increased to 12 minutes. The Merc’s were the first to come out, so that they could get a clear track ahead. Almost all cars followed suit, but Vettel chose to wait a bit longer in his garage. Almost every car was running on medium compound tyres, with an exception of Felipe Massa and Kevin Magnussen, who were on soft compounds.

There was a difference of almost 2.5 seconds in lap times between cars with medium compounds and the ones with soft. This forced all drivers to change their medium tyres to soft ones. Lap times kept tumbling as Ricciardo popped up at the top along with Hamilton and Rosberg. Felipe Massa was setting the pace in his Williams, and he along with McLaren’s Magnussen kept the pressure on the Mercs with consistent fast laps. Rain intervened with 6 minutes left on the clock in Q1. Hamilton and Rosberg needed fresh tyres to  have another go at the displaced positions. But the rain changed everything, and the Mercedes cars finished Q1 in 7th and 10th places. The Lotus team was having a nightmare as Maldonado failed to register even a single lap time, and Grosjean couldn’t break into Q2. The arrival of rain meant that Q1 was pretty much finished, as wet lap times would be of no use against the earlier dry runs.

Drivers eliminated in Q1:  Max Chilton, Jules Bianchi, Esteban Gutierrez, Marcus Eriksen, Romian Grosjean, Pastor Maldonado

Q2 (Run Time: 15 Minutes)

The track was very wet as the second session kicked off. All 17 cars except Jean Eric Vergne came out on intermediate compound tyres, Vergne was on full wets. This was a completely new situation for the drivers as they didn’t get enough track time in wet conditions, though they had a simulated session in Bahrain tests. First few laps were all about learning how the car responded to the new conditions, hence there was some careful driving all around. Braking at turn 9 became even more difficult now with the tailwind in full force coupled with wet track. Daniel Ricciardo kept knocking on that pole position with some blistering laps. Alonso, Massa, Vergne and Button were matching the leader’s pace, resulting in no clear dominating driver. The Ferrari’s especially were handling well on the track as Mercedes lost its pace.

As the racing line dried up, times kept tumbling and Mercedes’ were again in the reckoning, this time Hamilton taking the initiative, but he was almost immediately challenged by Ricciardo. Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were struggling in their cars, unable to find any sort of mechanical or aero advantage over others. There was another phenomenon building on the track with 4 minutes left in Q2. With the racing line on the track seemingly dry, the intermediate compounds, which heat up really fast, were now acting to the advantage of the cars. The drivers were getting extra grip with the easily heating tyres and hence better lap times. There were some very surprising entries into Q3 as the final seconds of Q2 featured some incredible secnes.

Debutants Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat broke into the top 10 pushing Raikkonen and Vettel into the elimination. With about 30 seconds left on clock, Raikkonen started his flying lap, but failed to control his car out of turn 3 and spinned out. By this time Vettel started his final flying lap, and was forced to slow down at turn 3. This affected his time and he couldn’t get himself to Q3. Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg made it to Q3 along with Williams’ Massa and Bottas.

Drivers Eliminated in Q2: Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, Adrian Sutil, Kamui Kobayashi, Sergio Perez

Q3 (Run Time: 12 Minutes, extra set of option tyres)

Rain came back with full force again, and this time all drivers except Alonso were on full wets, with the Spaniard running in inters. Now it was a battle between Hamilton, Rosberg and Ricciardo as they put clear daylight between them and the chasing pack. Alonso couldn’t make his intermediate tyres work in full wet conditions, but found some pace at the end of the session and bagged the 5th place on the grid for the race. The home crowd was cheering hard for Ricciardo, and he delivered with style. But Lewis Hamilton had the final laugh as he came from behind to get on pole in the final seconds. Nico Rosberg took the 3rd spot followed by Kevin Magnussen in 4th. Vergne in his Toro Rosso took 6th, while his teammate Kvyat was 8th fastest behind the 7th placed Hulkenberg. Both the Williams’ didn’t throw any surprises and had to be contempt with 9th and 10th on the grid.

 

Penalties and Track Positions

Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez were handed 5 place grid penalties for changing gear boxes before the qualifying. As a result, Bottas will start 15th on the grid while Gutierrez will start wither from the pits or from 22nd on the grid. The new regulations require a single gear-box to last 6 races, and failure to do so resulting in a 5 place grid penalty. Also, Vettel, Alonso and Magnussen were investigated after qualifying for different incidents, but were all cleared of any wrongdoing.

Potential Race Strategies

As pointed out by Christian Horner, the prime aim of all the teams will be to finish the race. The new systems on the cars have brought about endless complaints from drivers and technicians alike. The battery pack which gets charged and discharged repeatedly during the course of a prolonged run on the track, brings about over-heating issues. The hybrid system generates about 3 times more heat than the 2013 car, and this demands for extra cooling techniques, which in-turn compromise the car on design and reliability fronts.

The sensitivity of the new components, is another problem drivers have to deal with, as even a minor glitch would result in a breakdown. While the initial races might provide a good learning curve for both the teams and drivers, the new rules have put the onus back on the driver. The car no longer does all the dirty work with the Aeros and the Diffusers. It is up to the drivers now, to push the car to its limits and extract the maximum out of it, while showing the world what they are actually capable of. It is like 70% of Driver and 30% of Car at present, compared to a 60% Car and 40% Driver last season.

The two tyre options for the race are the Soft(Yellow) compound and the Medium(White) compound, along with the two wet tyres. The data from the practice sessions and qualifying suggests that the soft compound tyres would aid the teams in their strategic planning for the race. As pointed out earlier in this article, the soft tyre had a full 2.5 seconds per lap advantage over the medium tyre. Now add that to a race scenario and we get a huge difference between cars running on softs and the ones on mediums. Since, the soft tyre provides such an advantage in terms of lap times, most of the top 15 drivers will opt for it at the start of the race. The life of the soft tyre in a race is about 20-25 laps, which would be the time drivers pit for a new set, which should again be soft compounds. If they opt for medium tyres in the first pit stop, they will have to push the car to the limit and gain enough time, so that their second pit stop, where the tyres would again change to soft, will help them in their sprint to the finish.

Of course, there would be completely different strategies if the rain intervenes the party. But the ideal run in dry weather would be to go for Soft, Soft and then Medium for the final set of laps. For the drivers starting at the back, starting on Mediums would be a good strategy, but they will have to prolong the life of that set, so as to pit only once and make a dash for the finish with soft compounds. On the track, Turns 9, 10 and 12 will be very tricky with the tailwind creating havoc, and in wet weather the kerbs will the source of yet another headache, as they offset the balance while exiting a corner. So, too much reliance on the kerbs to shift momentum could lead to spin-offs.

About the author

Sai Kumar

A Sports fanatic. I watch almost every sport, even golf. A core Germany and Chelsea fan. Ferrari and Schumacher in F1, Federer and Sampras in Tennis, Lakers in basketball and Yankees in baseball. Zidane, Ronaldo(Phenomeno), Beckham, Drogba, Kaka, Ganguly are my idols.

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