After a long winter, Formula 1 finally returns this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. From new faces looking to impress to Williams’ struggles and a point being awarded for the fastest lap, here are the biggest talking points ahead of the 2019 Australian Grand Prix!
Who are the early pacesetters?
For the past two seasons, Ferrari have walked away from the first race of the season as the championship leaders. Will they make it three in a row this weekend?
Many expect Ferrari to have the better car at the start of the 2019 season, just as they have done – arguably – in each of the last two seasons. While their SF90 looked speedy and well-balanced on track at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in pre-season testing, not much can be read into the lap times. On that note, though, in the final week, Sebastian Vettel set the fastest time – but only just. Lewis Hamilton’s fastest lap time was only 0.003s slower than the Ferrari, while Vettel’s new team-mate Leclerc was a further 0.007s slower. A qualifying session that close in Melbourne would surely whet the appetite for the season to come!
Hamilton has taken pole at the Albert Park track every year since 2014, but has only won once during that time. Can the five-time champion make it six poles in a row this weekend and, more importantly, bag the 25 points for the win? Or will Ferrari steal the show on Sunday once again?
The major regulation change for 2019 is the evolution of the aerodynamic rules, designed to allow the cars to follow each other more closely, hopefully leading to more overtaking and closer racing.
While that’s the idea, the actual result is still yet to be seen. Some claim it will make little difference to how well the cars can follow each other, while others are more optimistic that the racing will improve. After testing, Kevin Magnussen told Motorsport the tweak will make a “big difference”, while Sebastian Vettel was still sceptical of the change, saying that the number of factors involved in testing – such as cars running on different tyres and fuel loads – make it impossible judge.
Don’t expect Albert Park to provide a true representation of how well the new aero rules work. Last season there were only a handful of overtakes at the Australian Grand Prix – the least seen at any race all year – and, while part of that was down to the aerodynamic issue, some of it is also down to the track layout.
Big names at new teams
There are plenty of driver changes for the 2019 season, though perhaps the most eyes this weekend will be on Charles Leclerc at Ferrari and Daniel Ricciardo at Renault.
With Ferrari expected to be the team to beat this weekend, can Leclerc deliver something memorable on his first appearance in red? If he wins this weekend, it would make him the eighth driver to win on debut with Ferrari, as well as sending a stern warning to his four-time champion team-mate. What constitutes a good result for Leclerc this weekend is open for debate – but don’t be surprised to see a Monegasque driver on a Formula 1 podium for the first time in 69 years this Sunday.
For Ricciardo, the Australian begins his Renault career at his home event. While a podium will likely be out of reach for Ricciardo this weekend, the opening race of the season can sometimes throw a surprise result. Perhaps most interesting will be how he compares to Nico Hulkenberg in their first race weekend as team-mates. If Ricciardo does finish in the top three, he’ll be the first Australian to do so in Formula 1 history at their home event.
The plight of Williams
The plight of the Williams team has been much written about in the past few weeks. First, the team failed to get on track until the third day due to their car not being ready, causing them to miss plenty of valuable running around the Catalunya track. In the subsequent weeks, Paddy Lowe – the team’s Chief Technical Officer, whom many pointed the finger of blame at for the late arrival of the FW42 – has taken a leave of absence from the team for “personal reasons”.
Robert Kubica, who returns to Formula 1 this weekend after an eight-season absence, admitted at the end of testing that he knew only “20 percent” of what he should know ahead of the Australian Grand Prix. Nevertheless, the Pole is looking forward to an “emotional” weekend:
“It will be a very emotional Grand Prix. It is the second debut for me after being away from the sport for many years. I hope to enjoy the weekend and that everything will run smoothly without any big issues so I can concentrate on my driving and discover a new Formula One. Over the years, I think the approach to races has changed, so I have a lot of things to discover but I am looking forward to it.”
Williams certainly start the 2019 season on the back foot and are expected to be the back-markers this weekend in Melbourne. The team recently had to make changes to the suspension in order to make their car legal.
A point for the fastest lap
For the first time since the 1959 United States Grand Prix, a point will be awarded to the driver who sets the fastest lap of the race this weekend. The rule change, which was confirmed at the start of the week, is aimed to increase intrigue in the closing stages of the race. The point will only be given out if the driver who sets the fastest lap finishes in the top ten.
Had a point been awarded for fastest lap last season, Valtteri Bottas would have finished third instead of fifth, while Felipe Massa would have been crowned World Champion in 2008, finishing a single point ahead of Lewis Hamilton. Obviously, these statistics are skewed slightly as no one was particularly vying for the accolade at the time.