It’s been three years since Formula 1 cars took to the streets of Albert Park with intent, but that long racing drought is broken this weekend with the long-awaited return of the Australian Grand Prix.

The spectacle this season will look more than a little different to the one fans were treated to in 2019.

The cars are new, and so is the track. Max Verstappen is the new world champion, and Charles Leclerc is a first-time title contender — and their teammates are hoping to muscle in on the action for the first time to make it a four-way fight.

Watch practice, qualifying and race of the 2022 Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix live and ad-break free during racing on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14 days free now >

But there are some familiar faces too. Kevin Magnussen is hoping to recapture some rare Haas Melbourne magic and will away some less savoury Australian memories, while Lewis Hamilton will be keeping his run of Albert Park poles in mind as he grits his teeth for another weekend in his troublesome Mercedes.

For the first time in three years, these are the stories to watch at the Australian Grand Prix.

CAN THE SECOND DRIVERS HIT BACK?

Title leader Charles Leclerc and reigning champion Max Verstappen share the season’s two wins between them as the presumed championship candidates, but what about their teammates?

Sergio Perez will arrive in Melbourne in good form despite what on paper looks like an underwhelming DNF and fourth place to open the season.

The Mexican appears to have made inroads on his deficit to Verstappen compared to last season, particularly in terms of one-lap pace. The RB18 is more to the Mexican’s liking, no longer an edgy car able to be tamed seemingly by Verstappen alone.

Indeed he managed to wield it more effectively than the Dutchman in Jeddah qualifying to take his first career pole and beat Verstappen for only the second time in their run as teammates.

Memorable F1 moments in Melbourne! | 03:16

But it was clear too that he put his head down a little after his race lead was stripped form him by the safety car on his way to fourth behind Carlos Sainz in what should have been a quicker car. Bouncing back in Melbourne from the bitter disappointment of an unlucky result will be telling of how far he can go this year.

Sainz, meanwhile, is still struggling to get on terms with Leclerc in this new Ferrari despite his results looking substantially stronger than Perez’s, with a pair of podiums putting him second and 12 points behind his teammate in the title standings — a nonetheless lacklustre return for the man who beat Leclerc on last year’s championship table after their first year as teammates.

The Spaniard described his second place in Bahrain as his “most difficult weekend as a Ferrari driver” because of his inability to come to terms with Leclerc on pure pace, and though he managed to qualify directly behind the Monegasque in Jeddah, he was still some way back at the chequered flag and never really in victory contention.

Sainz is a presumptive title contender by virtue of his highly rated talent and the machinery beneath him, but he’s still desperate to win his first race, and frustration will build every weekend Leclerc keeps him at arm’s length. How he responds to these issues will be fascinating.

Ricciardo eyeing points at Albert Park | 02:18

CAN MERCEDES KEEP ITSELF IN THE HUNT?

Mercedes will have taken stock with its weekend off after a bruising three weeks in the Middle East that showed up its car as being well off the pace of the frontrunners and, at least as it stands, far from title contention.

The car is outright third fastest in normal circumstances, but experimentation to try to unlock more of the pace the team believes is in its design dropped Hamilton down the order in qualifying last round and left him only just able to rescue a point from 10th.

Mercedes has insisted that finding pace is only a matter of time, once the aerodynamic concept is better understood and the bouncing is dialled out.

“We are not running the car where we are wanting to run it, therefore it is very difficult to really assess what the lap time deficit is if we were able to run a car lower,” team boss Toto Wolff said. “I would very much hope that the gap is much closer to what we’ve seen [in Saudi Arabia], but there are deficits everywhere.”

4-year-old’s epic F1 theme drum cover | 01:58

But even in a 23-round season time isn’t Mercedes’s friend. It’s already 40 points behind Ferrari in the constructors standings and is a fortunate one point ahead of Red Bull Racing after the Austrian team’s double retirement in Bahrain.

It’s a matter of damage limitation until the car can go on the offensive later in the year — if it gets to that stage.

“We are in a learning race and the first two weekends have shown we still have plenty to learn,” Wolff said. “At the moment our track performance is not meeting our own expectations.

“There won’t be a magic fix for the next race weekend, but we’re pushing to steadily bring gains over the upcoming races to hopefully move us closer to the front of the pack.

“Until then, we need to maximise each opportunity and make the most of the package we have.”

A clean weekend in Melbourne I what’s needed to steady the ship and bide time.

Brundle talks cars, rivalries, Ricciardo | 05:14

WILL THE NEW TRACK DO THE TRICK?

The hype has been building about the new Albert Park layout’s first trial by F1 machinery this weekend, with a growing number of drivers expressing optimism that their long-haul trips Down Under might soon be rewarded with a similarly large racing spectacle.

In the last three runnings of the Australian Grand Prix there have been just 17 overtakes, most of them powered by DRS. Strategy has been similarly uninspiring, with straightforward one-stop races dominating pit lane.

So there’s a lot riding on the changes, which are small on paper but will hopefully amount to a significant difference on Sunday.

Keep an eye out for the new turn 11, which is tipped to be one of the track’s best overtaking opportunities. Previously turn 13, the first right-hander after exiting the super-fast chicane has been widened by around three metres and cambered a little more positively, which will not only speed it up but also create the opportunity for drivers to take different lines and potentially execute a pass, particularly as it comes at the end of the final DRS zone.

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Turn 3 has been given a similar treatment. Previously a possible but unlikely overtaking spot, a wider and more friendly profile will help drivers to capitalise on the second DRS zone and pull off an overtake.

But all that said, it’s important to remember overtaking isn’t everything, and no changes to circuit or car can simply conjure up passes anyway.

What these changes must do at a minimum is force drivers to make decisions in defence and attack. Whereas once there was only one clear line around this track, making defending easy, now most corners have several variations, which ought to help battle tactics flourish.

That’s the idea anyway. We’ll only know if the new track has done the track on Sunday night.

Verstappen holds on to win Saudi GP | 02:32

CAN HAAS BANISH ITS MELBOURNE DEMONS?

Albert Park is the scene of Haas’s euphoric points-on-debut first race, with Romain Grosjean coming home sixth in 2016 to mark the American team’s arrival with great fanfare. But despite the team’s form improving in the following seasons, it’s only once managed to match that score since — with Kevin Magnussen likewise finishing sixth in 2019.

The rest of the team’s results don’t bear thinking about — a string of retirements, a sea of non-finishes.

Most famous among them is the double retirement of 2018, when both Magnussen and Romain Grosjean were put out of the race from a superb fourth and fifth on the road by unfastened wheels at the pit stop, both caused by cross-threaded wheel nuts.

Unbelievably the same happened to Grosjean in Australia in 2019, although Magnussen was able to get away from his pit box untroubled to take that team-high-equalling finish.

The team’s worst seasons coincided with Melbourne’s absence from the calendar, but in 2022 it’s fielding a midfield-topping car. Magnussen’s scored a fifth and ninth this season so far — the latter despite severe nerve pain in his neck — while Mick Schumacher looked like he had good enough pace for points before binning his car in qualifying in Jeddah.

The Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit should be a match for the Haas car. Now it just has to get both of them to the flag, preferably with all wheels attached.

WHAT’S THE FORM GUIDE?

Traditionally Lewis Hamilton is the man to beat at Albert Park, at least on Saturday. The Briton has claimed pole in Melbourne every year since 2014, and he’s started from the front row in all but four of 13 races he’s entered here. On Sundays Hamilton is less dominant, having claimed only two wins, coming in 2008 and 2015, and judging by the state of his car, he’s unlikely to be building on that tally this weekend, and his pole streak will surely end.

Sebastian Vettel is the grand prix’s most successful active driver, with wins in 2011, 2017 and 2018, putting him in equal second with Jenson Button but behind Michael Schumacher on the all-time Albert Park winners list.

Watch practice, qualifying and race of the 2022 Formula 1® Australian Grand Prix live and ad-break free during racing on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14 days free now >

It’s been more than a decade since Red Bull Racing last won this year — intriguingly, the 2011 victory is its only win in Melbourne despite its dominance at the turn of the decade and its competitive form since. Ferrari has won twice since then, in 2017 and 2018.

But past form counts for little with all-new rules and a brand-new track. We only have the opening two races on which to base the form guide, but after two rounds at dramatically different tracks there’s little to pick between Ferrari and Red Bull Racing, the two standout teams of the season to date.

Key to winning the Australian Grand Prix will be cracking the downforce compromise. The new, faster layout will want less wing than in previous years, though performance through the remaining medium-speed corners will be sacrificed for every point of downforce deleted. Whichever car is happiest living in that compromise space — and whichever driver can tame it — will be best set to claim victory in Melbourne.

It’ll be a fascinating race, but it’s just too close to call.



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