Australian F1 Grand Prix preview: Finally time for teams to show their hand
Formula 1 returns with the traditional curtain raiser in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday, and there are more than a few reasons to be excited -- not just for the Australian Grand Prix, but for the 2019 season as a whole.
For the past five years, Mercedes has been the utterly dominant force in the championship, claiming all five drivers’ and constructors’ titles, but after closing the gap in recent seasons, Ferrari finally looks as though it could be in a position to challenge on both fronts.
Last year, it could be argued that Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel threw away the championship as much as Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton won it. Replacing Kimi Raikkonen with the highly regarded Charles Leclerc could enable Ferrari to battle for the constructors’ title but could also provide Vettel with an unwanted internal challenge to be top dog.
Leclerc comes to Ferrari straight from an impressive rookie season with Sauber, now Alfa Romeo. Having previously won both the GP3 and GP2 championships on his first attempts, do not expect Leclerc to be rolling over and playing No. 2 to Vettel easily.
Similarly, Valtteri Bottas has said that he is going to beat everyone this year. Bottas could have been leading the 2018 championship after the first few races, but a run of bad luck curtailed his challenge and the season just got progressively worse from Azerbaijan on. Conversely, Hamliton’s season really kicked into gear after the same race.
Bottas’ poor '18 has left a lot of questions hanging over his head, and with Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings as reserve driver, a poor start to the season could see the Finnish driver replaced early on.
Red Bull made the bold decision to switch from Renault power units to Honda. In 2018, Honda showed improved reliability, but you would hardly have described the units as bulletproof. Turning them up for a sustained period caused overheating and failures, so Red Bull hopes further improvements have been made, improvements that could see them leap-frog Mercedes.
Preseason testing was positive for the team, but with so many unknown variables, the true pace of the car will not be known until Saturday and qualifying.
The midfield pack is thought to have really bunched up for 2019. Across testing, Renault, McLaren, Toro Rosso, Alfa Romeo, Racing Point and Haas all traded places. Williams, arriving late and with a host of difficulties, appeared to be left behind to prop up the order. But aside from this one team, predicting the midfield is a bit of a minefield.
Generally speaking, however, Haas and Racing Point were down on where they would likely have expected to be, but McLaren and Alfa Romeo look to have gone the other way. Toro Rosso has been steady, occasionally raising a few eyebrows, but the team could be found in the middle of the order.
Looking more specifically at the drivers of the midfield, there's a good mix of rookies and comeback drivers.
For the rookies -- George Russell (Williams), Lando Norris (McLaren), Alexander Albon (Toro Rosso) and Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) -- the Australian Grand Prix always poses an interesting challenge as they will never have raced around Melbourne Park before. Giovinazzi is an exception, having stood in for Pascal Wehrlein with Sauber in 2017. But this is often a baptism by fire for the new boys.
The close walls, heavy braking areas -- this track tests drivers in ways comparable only to Monaco or Singapore.
Returning to the championship are Robert Kubica (Williams) and Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso). Kubica’s comeback from injury has been well documented, but his fairytale return could quickly turn into a nightmare if Williams isn't able to find some pace in its car.
Predictions for the weekend are that Ferrari will be the team to beat. If Leclerc can edge Vettel then it will create an interesting dynamic for the rest of the season, and it is not impossible to imagine the Monegasque driver echoing Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso by winning on his first attempt for the Prancing Horse.