After three long years with Formula 1 action at Albert Park, its finally race week again at the Australian Grand Prix.
The date is a little later in the year but the buzz is the same as teams and drivers descend on Melbourne to set up shop for the third round of the season.
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It means F1 fans in their hundreds of thousands — Saturday and Sunday are long sold out — already have a sense of the storylines to follow this weekend.
So as the sport sets up camp around Albert Park Lake, these are the early talking points leading into event week.
SEB VETTEL TO START HIS SEASON IN MELBOURNE
Sebastian Vettel, ever the traditionalist, will start his 2022 season with the Australian Grand Prix after a positive COVID test kept him out of the first two rounds in the Middle East.
But the four-time champion, a three-time winner in Melbourne, will need time to bring himself up to speed with his Aston Martin machine relative to the rest of the field, who’ve had two extra grand prix weekends of experience.
“Obviously he’s lacking those two races, so he will start a little bit on the back foot,” his substitute, Nico Hulkenberg, told Motorsport Week.
“I think he’s capable of catching up, but for sure he has a bit more work to do. He needs to dig a little bit deeper to try and make up for it.”
Fitness may be an issue too thanks to possible lingering effects of COVID and the lack of opportunity to train in the meanwhile. Daniel Ricciardo noted he wasn’t firing at 100 per cent in his first race back from COVID despite being symptom free.
And if all that goes to plan, he’ll still have to contend with an Aston Martin car languishing near the very back if the competitive order.
“Where Aston Martin are at the moment, I don’t think the motivation will be too great,” opined former boss Red Bull motorsport adviser Helmut Marko to Formel1.de.
That remains to be seen, but it’ll be good to have him back.
MICK SCHUMACHER’S CAR IS BACK FROM THE PANELBEATERS
Mick Schumacher is another returning driver, having sat out the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix after his enormous smash in qualifying on Saturday night.
Schumacher crashed at the high-speed turn 11 chicane at Jeddah in a 33G impact. He had to be extricated from the car and was flown to hospital for checks, but he suffered no injuries.
Less can be said about the car. Other than the chassis and possibly the Ferrari power unit, the machine was totalled for an accident bill estimated at US$1 million (A$1.33 million).
Haas opted not to rush the major rebuild for Sunday lest something go wrong in the race. Spare parts are in short supply this early in the season, so a mistake in assembly or on the track could’ve potentially cost Schumacher his entire Melbourne weekend.
It’ll be Mick’s first weekend tackling the Albert Park circuit, and he’ll be keen for a strong showing against new teammate Kevin Magnussen, who’s hit the ground running this year with two points-coring finishes.
CONCERNS FOR HONDA ENGINE RELIABILITY
Arriving in Australia with a poor run of form is Red Bull Powertrains, the official name for the Honda power units bolted into the back of the Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri cars after the Japanese marque decided to withdraw from Formula 1 for this season.
Pierre Gasly’s engine went up in a fireball in Bahrain, forcing him to take a fresh second unit. Sergio Perez also had to take new parts after his fuel system problem at that race.
Then, in Saudi Arabia, Yuki Tsunoda suffered a power unit problem on all three days of action. He was prevented from setting a qualifying time, and then his car stopped on the way to the grid with an oil pressure problem.
Engine reliability played a major role in the late-season title run-in last season, though largely on Mercedes’s side of the equation. Valtteri Bottas famously copped three penalties in four races as the team searched for a fix.
While Max Verstappen hasn’t yet been directly affected — his stoppage in Bahrain was related to a control part, not specifically the engine built by Honda — with so many problems at AlphaTauri, the spectre of reliability hampering his team’s battle with Ferrari looms large.
“Of course we’re concerned about it,” said Red Bull Racing boss Christian Horner in Saudi Arabia. “But I think first we have to understand what it is.
“I think once all the strip-down has been done and we understand what the issue is, then hopefully fixes can be put in place.”
MERCEDES ENGINE POWER UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
Mercedes’s unusual levels of struggle this year aren’t expected to end suddenly, but an evolving question over the team’s lacklustre performance is what appears to be a lack of straight-line speed, with the once unimpeachable Silver Arrows engine block under a cloud.
It’s escaped no-one’s attention that the lower reaches of the speed trap sheets have been occupied by Mercedes-powered cars. It’s of course equally correct to say that Mercedes’s customers — McLaren, Aston Martin and Williams — all have non-power problems of their own, but all three do commonly struggle on the straights, as does the factory team.
“It’s no secret that Mercedes have still got a bit to find,” Daniel Ricciardo said after the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.
“I mean, racing the Aston, obviously with the same power unit … it looked like they were trying to go low drag to maybe make up for a deficit or run that compromise. It certainly helped them in some areas but hurt them in others.
“I obviously have faith that they’ll find a way to keep fighting and squeezing a bit more out of it.
“In this situation there are no better hands I would rather it be in.”
Albert Park is where Mercedes first unleashed its all-conquering hybrid engine in 2014. With a new, faster layout, it could be the race we get confirmation it’s no longer the engine to beat.