The F1 paddock in Melbourne was a lively place this afternoon, despite the grey, overcast and at times rainy conditions.
Among even the most battle hardened racers there is a real sense of excitement about this weekend and the season ahead. I think it’s because there are so many unknowns in terms of the racing and in particular the way the tyres will behave. It’s a lottery to some extent and the teams and drivers expect the unexpected.
I spoke to one leading engineer who said that drivers need to understand that it’s okay to stay out on degrading tyres with your rival having pitted and catching you at 2 seconds a lap, if you save a pit stop by staying out doing a few slow laps. That would have been anathema to most drivers in recent years but it’s a reality they need to get their head around today.
The sense of excitement is really palpable. The winter break was unexpectedly lengthened by the problems in Bahrain and now everyone is raring to get going.
I started the day at a Mercedes event on the coast road, where Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg were upbeat. Rosberg in particular feels that his ability to make a set of tyres last longer than his rivals will count for something this year. Last year he and Jenson Button managed to extend the life of the soft tyres on numerous occasions.
Schumacher was interesting on the subject of how he will stack up against Rosberg this year and when asked how he would feel if the car won the title but in Rosberg’s hands and not his, he replied that he would be fine with it, “if that were to happen.” Then added, “I don’t think that will be the case.”
Some took that to mean that he didn’t believe Rosberg would be the one to get the most out of it – the next question was “How do you rate your team mate?” – but what he more probably meant was that he doesn’t think it’s a championship winning car. He later said that he felt it would get podiums this year and maybe a win, if they got the rub of the green, “I think this year our target and our realistic possibility would be to fight for podiums and if things go very well then maybe to win a race.
“Does this put us in a position to fight for the championship? No.”
Like many drivers, who have lost weight to allow for the KERS weight gain in the cars, Button looks stick thin, but he too is very positive. He knows that the tyres give him a chance; speaking this afternoon he said, “I said at the start that these are interesting, exciting tyres to drive and I’ve not changed my view.”
The McLaren starts behind, due to reliability problems with the exhausts, but they’re reworked the car and they have a lot of work to do tomorrow in the practice sessions to test and validate all the new parts. Rain, like we had at several points today, would not be helpful to them.
I did a TV piece for Network 10 Australia with Lewis Hamilton this afternoon and have rarely seen him more cheerful and talkative. Despite the obvious problems he had with getting the tyres to last during the testing, he believes he will fight for the championship this year, “I’m fitter than I’ve ever been and more focussed,” he said. “And when the car is at its best we’ll be in the hunt.”
Feeling the pressure of expectation from Ferrari and its fans, Fernando Alonso said that the world title is his sole objective this year, having seen it slip so painfully from his grasp at the last race last year, “I think if you race for Ferrari then there is no other goal than fighting for the world championship, that is the history of Ferrari, the power of Ferrari,” he said. “This team is about passion, motor racing and winning, obviously that is our aim, that is our goal for 2011 campaign – to try and fight for the world championship. I am sure we will be there.”
Although it’s giving something away to the Red Bull on raw pace, the Ferrari has been gentle on its rear tyres in testing and this will be crucial for Alonso and Massa’s hopes; their ace in the hand over the champion team, possibly.
It is now five years since Alonso has won a world title – 2006 – a similar gap to that which Michael Schumacher went through after his two early titles with the Enstone-based team (Benetton in his day, later known as Renault in Alonso’s). Now the weight of expectation at Ferrari in focussed on him, as it was on Schumacher in 2000. The parallels are uncanny. Schumacher got the job done that year, Alonso is up against a stronger opponent in Red Bull.
The reigning champions are arguably more determined to keep themselves on top than they were to get there in the first place. None of the key backroom engineers have left – unusual for a championship winning team. It is reported on BBC that Ferrari approached designer Adrian Newey twice last season, but he has now committed to a new three year contract at Red Bull.
Success breeds success and you sense that they’ve mentally flicked a switch, going from being the hunters to the hunted and redoubling their efforts in the process. No doubt there will be some legality rows soon, as rivals look to probe for weaknesses or illegalities.
The feeling that the Red Bull car has three or four tenths in its pocket over the next car, Ferrari, is still in the air among engineers I speak to. Some fear it may be more, we will find out on Saturday, if it’s dry, which is a big if at the moment.
Behind the scenes there are doubts and concerns, will Bahrain ever come back on the calendar, will all the teams survive the season financially, will India’s new track get finished?
But in terms of the show it’s all set up and for most, first practice cannot come soon enough.