RENCKEN: Oz F1 preview
It's been 112 days since Formula 1 engines last roared in real anger, but the sport has certainly been far from idle since the Brazilian Grand Prix in November 2011. New cars complying with revised regulations, driver line-ups changed and no less than 12 official test days spread over three four-day sessions have seen 12 teams burn much midnight oil.
A feature on the 2012 grid are the (ugly) stepped noses which spoil the entire field save for McLaren’s MP4-2. New teams on the grid include Marussia (formerly Virgin Racing), Lotus F1 (formerly Renault) and Caterham (formerly Lotus).
Confused? Don’t worry - just remember that Lotus races under the black/gold made famous by the John Player Specials, and Caterham wears the green/yellow traditionally associated with Lotus.
SIX F1 CHAMPIONS
Not much has changed on the driver front at least as for as the top teams are concerned. The big news is that 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen is back, driving for (black/gold) Lotus and what a return by the former champion. On his first day back on the track after two years on the world rally trail he promptly recorded the fastest time of day, thereafter impressing massively not only with his performances, but also his committed attitude.
One only hopes Lotus will sustain that enthusiasm.
Räikkönen's return means the sport has no less than six world champions on the grid for the first time yet. Like Michael Schumacher, Räikkönen is a returnee, but the fact remains that the sextet has a pretty impressive collective record with no less than 14 titles between them, and around 150 Grand Prix wins.
The nose height regulations are not the only technical changes for 2012, with downforce-generating exhaust systems outlawed through judicious rewording of the clause pertaining to the devices – in 2011 the paragraph ran to 80 words, in 2012 ten times that word count clarifies the issue. Teams have found ingenuous ways of circumventing the regulation.
Drivers may now not take shortcuts during practice or qualifying to save time/fuel and may not make “more than one change of direction to defend position”. When moving back onto the racing line, drivers must leave “at least one car width” between their car and track border.
Also changed are the Safety Car (SC) regulations in that drivers may now unlap themselves during SC periods to ensure the front of the grid is in sequence when the "all clear" is given. This is to prevent a repeat of Singapore 2011, when Sebastian Vettel opened a nine-second gap on the rest immediately after the restart as they were blocked by back markers.
NEW TYRE TWEAKS
Following its highly successful debut season, Pirelli has tweaked its tyre offerings to close up the time differences between compounds from around 2.0 to 0.8 seconds per lap, and changed sidewall markings for better visibility as follows:
P Zero Red - supersoft (for street circuits)
P Zero Yellow - soft (specified for Melbourne)
P Zero White - medium (specified for Melbourne)
P Zero Silver - hard
Cinturato Blue - full wet
Cinturato Green - intermediate
The 2012 season should be the longest on record – if, that is, all scheduled races are run, as doubts continue for Bahrain and the Austin circuit being built in Texas.
F1 loves the city, and the Australians in turn love the sport, so it is the perfect place to kick off a season. Using roads surrounding a lake in the park, the promoters have managed to define a 5.3km circuit that is both challenging and different. The layout has changed little since Albert Park replaced Adelaide in the calendar in 1996, with upgrades being restricted to kerb extensions and changes to barriers.
Drivers have 16 turns (6L/10R), most of which are medium speed corners, with two taken at speeds under 100 km/h to contend with. Straights are short with 73% of each lap spent on full throttle and top speed (without DRS) is 305 km/h, with lap averages of around two-thirds of that figure.
Being a semi-street circuit which sees racing but once a year, and then for just three days, the surface starts off ‘green’ and evolves as the weekend progresses, in turn gradually easing rubber degradation, although Turn 2 poses a stern test for tyres regardless. Brake wear is graded medium, as are g-forces pulled.
Although showers are forecast for Friday, the rain should fall outside F1 running times, with the skies clearing Saturday/Sunday at a tempreature of 22C.
WHO WILL WIN?
The burning question is whether Sebastian Vettel can pick up where he finished off 2011 – namely as undisputed champion. Testing is a notoriously unreliable pointer of form due to teams running to different agendas, but Red Bull’s RB8 looked fast, settled and stable throughout the 12 days.
McLaren's MP4-27 looked extremely stable in high-speed corners. Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton will no doubt scrap it out for internal Number 1 status after the latter was beaten by a team mate for the first time. This squabbling could prove counter-productive, for taking on Vettel means having your faculties about you without distraction, particularly at a circuit with a 60% probability of Safety Car intervention.
Finally there is Fernando Alonso, whose radically suspended Ferrari F2102 looked unsettled in testing although times recorded by the Spaniard were far from shabby. The car looks a real bitch to drive, but if Alonso can tame it then victory could be his, despite Ferrari saying it is not expecting early podiums.
Finally there is Michael Schumacher, who for two years now has been outperformed by his young team mate Nico Rosberg. Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn told Wheels24 that the team was "in a happier place compared to a year ago", but conceded that an early victory would most likely be down to a special set of circumstances rather than merit.
Victory is victory and going into the first race of the year it is impossible to predict who will celebrate, let alone end up champion after 20 races.
Stay with Wheels24 for the Formula 1 weekend.