As the season opener, Melbourne regularly throws up surprise results. In 2014, following a traumatic winter testing, Daniel Ricciardo popped up 2nd on the grid and made the final step of the podium before being disqualified for fuel flow irregularities.
In the same race, McLaren crossed the line 2nd and 4th, which turned out to be the best result the Woking team could manage during the season.
The weather can also play a part here in Australia. In 2013 Saturday qualifying was thrown into chaos as heavy rain hit Albert Park. After an initial 30-minute delay, drivers eventually completed the first part of the session, though a number of them failed to keep it o the grey stuff in the treacherous conditions.
The second and third parts of qualifying were postponed until Sunday morning.
There’s been some concern that tomorrow’s race could be rain affected, though the latest forecast from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology diminishes this.
“Slight (20%) chance of a shower clearing by early morning. A cloudy morning, becoming sunny during the afternoon. Winds southwesterly 15 to 25 km/h turning southerly 20 to 30 km/h before dawn”.
Like most street circuits, the race in Albert Park has a high probability of a safety car being deployed. 10 of the last 15 races have been interrupted with safety car periods.
This year sees the introduction of the virtual safety car (VSC), something TJ13 has been campaigning over since the site’s inception. The new VSC will have significant implications for the race strategists, who have calculated the pit stop time lost will be a mere 6-8 seconds rather than the usual 23-34 seconds.
One other significant factor will be the tyre wear. The ambient temperature tomorrow is forecast to be the lowest across the three days of the race weekend – less than 20 degrees Celsius.
That said, track temperature will then be similar to those the team’s experienced during the Barcelona winter testing.
Pirelli have brought the soft and medium compounds again to Melbourne, and Paul Hembery has stated the lap time differential between the compounds is around 1.5 seconds.
Degradation of the soft tyre will be the key to the teams’ strategies and whilst Pirelli have not confirmed this, early indications are that this year’s soft tyre construction will degrade less than its 2014 predecessor.
Last year, Nico Rosberg won the race for Mercedes from third on the grid. Rosberg followed a soft-soft-medium strategy that was also used by the top nine finishers. Following an early safety car period, Rosberg made his first stop on lap 12 and his second stop on lap 38. The race lasts 58 laps.
The time differential between the compounds means the optimum strategy looks rather strange. They say, “starting on the soft tyre, changing onto soft on lap 27, then medium on lap 52. A one stop is also possible, with the quickest option in this case being to start on the medium and then change to soft on lap 24.”
Ferrari appears to believe the optimum race tyre is the medium, having used an extra set of soft tyres in Q1. In the race simulations of FP2, Kimi Raikkonen was significantly quicker on this compound than his team mate, which may make for an interesting inter team driver battle.
Hamilton too has struggled more on the medium tyre than Rosberg, so a soft, soft, medium strategy looks optimum for Lewis. Rosberg should be capable of putting the equivalent of an entire pit stop time between him and his nearest non Mercedes AMG rival and could well go counter switching to the mediums around lap 25.
Lewis Hamilton has claimed pole position in Melbourne 4 times in his career, yet led into the first turn just once. So anything but a perfect launch could lead the world champion vulnerable for his team mate or Massa in the svelte Mercedes powered Williams.