After losing a likely win at Bahrain due to a car problem Sebastian Vettel starts from pole position again at Melbourne. Can he win this time?
With a chance of rain, first-lap crashes and safety car appearances the Australian Grand Prix presents a challenging conundrum for race strategists.
Two thing usually happen at the start of the Australian Grand Prix.
First, there’s usually a crash. Last year Heikki Kovalainen was the victim after Rubens Barrichello and Mark Webber got together at turn one. The year before that five cars were knocked out on the first lap including three of this year’s top four – Webber, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button.
Second, the pole sitter almost always keeps his lead. In fact the pole sitter has only lost the lead at Melbourne twice in the 14 Grands Prix that have been held there. The only ones who didn’t keep their leads were – you guessed it – involved in accidents…
It’s not hard to see how either of these things could happening this year. Pole sitter Vettel starts on the clean line and Mark Webber is not likely to risk a careless lunge on his team mate.
And with Melbourne hosting its largest-ever grid of F1 cars, the chances of a first-lap crash are particularly high. Especially when everyone saw how difficult overtaking was at Bahrain, and the first lap presents a rare opportunity to gain places.
With the high likelihood of a first-lap incident comes a good chance we’ll get a safety car deployment early on in the race. The crucial question here is, if the safety car makes an appearance on lap one, will anyone be able to get their mandatory change of tyre compounds out of the way and make it to the end of the race without another stop for tyres?
It looks likely. Bridgestone have brought harder tyres to the race this year after criticism over how quickly the super-softs degraded at this track last year.
We already know the top ten starters will all be on the soft compound to begin with, so they could pit and change to the hard tyres and potentially get to the end of the race. But there’s a risk involved. They could get stuck behind other cars that don’t pit early. And other drivers who stay on the soft tyres might be able to lap quickly enough to pull out enough of a gap to make a pit stop later on.
On Saturday track temperatures at Melbourne were much lower than they had been on Friday, and tyre degradation was less severe. That could also play into the hands of anyone contemplating a long stint tomorrow.
The highest-placed driver on the grid to have a free choice of tyre compound is Lewis Hamilton in 11th. Though starting on the hard tyres might be the strategically prudent thing to do, allowing him to use the soft tyres later in the race when they will work better on the rubbered-in track, it could leave him vulnerable to losing more places at the start at exactly the time when he has the most places to gain.
As ever, teams will face difficult choices if their two cars are running together. Because the earliest car to pit is the first to get the benefit of fresh tyres, whichever pits first will gain an advantage over the other.
Teams’ strategic calculations may also be upset by the weather forecast, which predicts light showers in Melbourne tomorrow afternoon. Any driver who uses a set of wet tyres during the race does not have to use both types of dry-weather tyres.
Red Bull have locked out the front row for the first time in their short history. The start is theirs to lose but Ferrari stand most likely to profit with both their drivers starting from the clean side of the grid.
Further back, much attention will be focussed on Hamilton to see what progress he can make from 11th. Will we see the kind of skill he demonstrated on his debut here three years ago, when he deftly passed Fernando Alonso around the outside of turn one? Or a repeat of his less successful attempt to recover from a poor starting position at Magny-Cours in 2008?
And right at the back are the HRT duo, who will start from their grid positions instead of the pit lane as they did in Bahrain.
Read more: 2010 Australian Grand Prix grid
How do you expect the Australian Grand Prix to unfold? Will we see a better race than we did in Bahrain?
Have your say below and don’t forget to join us during the race for the live blog tomorrow.
And for those of you in Britain, remember the clocks go forward one hour tonight so take care when setting your alarm!
2010 Australian Grand Prix