After a winter in which they have coped with a huge rule change, introducing complex hybrid turbo engines, the F1 teams arrive in Melbourne less well prepared for the first race than at any time in recent memory. Only Mercedes and Williams can be said to have achieved the 5,000km target mileage in the three winter tests, while Ferrari were not far off with 500km less.
Others, like Red Bull (1,700km) and their fellow Renault powered teams including last year’s Melbourne winners Lotus, are underprepared and will find Melbourne a struggle this year.
Reliability of the new 1.6 litre engines with their powerful Energy Recovery Systems is the main concern, even for the Mercedes powered teams and we may well see half the field or more failing to reach the chequered flag.
The ERS will add a new dimension to the race strategy this season, with more options for drivers as they battle for position, in deploying the 160hp boost it gives. This will make the racing more “cat and mouse”, with lots of tactics at play in both overtaking and defending.
Releasing all of the stored energy in ERS in one lap will give a performance gain of around 1.5 seconds compared to not doing that. This is the best mode for a single qualifying lap, but in a race it might give short term gain but the system will need recharging on the next lap, so there is a trade-off.
Although the picture is sketchy, analysis of the lap times from the final test session in Bahrain early this month indicates that Mercedes have an advantage in performance and are therefore the favourites for the first Grand Prix. Williams and Ferrari are expected to compete for a podium finish. Behind them are the other Mercedes powered teams Force India and McLaren and after that it is hard to say who is where in the pecking order.
McLaren has won two of the last five Australian Grands Prix and Jenson Button is a three-time winner. Kimi Raikkonen has won the race twice, including last year. Of the current drivers Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, and Fernando Alonso have all won once. So all five F1 champions in the field have won this race.
[Map: FIA. Click to enlarge map]
Albert Park Circuit; 5.303 kilometres. Race distance: 58 laps = 307.574 kilometres; 16 corners in total, none particularly fast.
Aerodynamic setup – Medium/high downforce. Top speed 318km/h (with Drag Reduction System on rear wing) – 308km/h without.
Full throttle – 64% of the lap. Total fuel permitted for race distance: 100 kilos.
Time spent braking: 13% of the lap. 8 braking zones. Brake wear: High.
Time needed for a Pit stop = 23 seconds – Pit lane = 280 metres
Fuel effect (cost in lap time per 10kg of fuel carried): 0.34 seconds
The forecast for Saturday is for a warm dry day with temperatures around 28 degrees, while Sunday will be cooler with a 60% chance of rain.
Likely tyre performance
Pirelli tyre choice for Melbourne: Soft and Medium.
Although the arrival of the new technology is exciting and adds a new dimension to the tactical side of the racing, the tyres are still the primary consideration when It comes to race strategy planning.
The tyres this season are quite different from last year’s in that they are more durable. This is to deal with the greatly increased torque from the hybrid turbo engines, which causes wheelspin.
Pirelli’s objective was to make all four tyres in the range one step harder than last year. So the choice of soft and medium means that the option tyre (the soft) is two steps harder than Pirelli’s option tyre last year, which was supersoft.
The performance difference between the two compounds this year will be around 1.2 to 1.5 seconds per lap, which will mean that teams will seek to spend as little time on the medium as possible.
The tyres often experience graining at Albert Park. Graining is where the rubber shears away from the top surface, caused by a high level of sliding at high loads, both lateral and longitudinal. Lateral comes from sliding in corners, longitudinal comes from acceleration and braking.
Temperature has a lot to do with it, probably more than any other factor. If the tyres are being used below their operating range the rubber will be less compliant and will shear off more easily.
The track surface at Albert Park is quite old and has low micro and macro roughness, which basically means that the stones in it are small. The result of its age and smoothness is that the surface is very low grip and this means that the tyres grain laterally here because the car slides in the corners.
Number and likely timing of pit stops
As the pitlane in Melbourne is one of the longest of the season at 280 metres and because of the 60km\h limit, it is not desirable to make multiple stops.
Based on this, and all the above considerations, plus tyre performance data from testing, the expectation, before any practice running has been done, is that the teams will intend to make two stops in the race,
The first will be around lap 17 to 20 and the second around lap 40-45. Teams will want to spend as little time as possible on the slower medium compound tyre.
Chance of a safety car
The chance of a safety car at Albert Park is 60%, although there have been safety cars in four of the last six years. The average number of safety car interventions for the race is 1.7 (in 2006 there were four).
Recent start performance of drivers and teams
Starts are a critical part of the race and strategy can be badly compromised by a poor start, while good starts can make strategists change their plans in the hope of a good result.
As this is the first race of the 2014 season – no start data has been established yet.
The UBS Race Strategy Briefing is prepared by JA on F1, with input and data from several F1 teams and from Pirelli
For a cool at a glance graphic of the key strategy points for the Australian GP go to Australian GP Strategy Infographic