Excitement building as F1 teams arrive in Melbourne ahead of season opener

After months of development and thousands of miles of testing and data gathering, Formula One teams have arrived in Melbourne to kick off the eagerly-anticipated 2019 season.

Whilst the winner of the Australian Grand Prix doesn’t always give away firm clues about who the champion teams and drivers will be come the end of the season, it does point to a certain hierarchy in what the likely running order will be.

The circuit itself is one of the smoothest of all the road surfaces in F1 use, having been rebuilt in 1996 when Damon Hill emerged victorious for Williams. Yet it can be slippery at the start of the weekend and the stop-start nature of the track with its short corners can mean drivers struggle to work temperature into the tyres.

As such, Pirelli has introduced its softer range od compounds, the C2, C3 and C4 rubber with the three colors of white, yellow and red from hardest to softest making it easier for the fans to tell strategy.

Interestingly, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc is the only driver from the ‘big three’ (Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull) to have made a slightly different choice and has opted for two hard and one medium with his rivals going for one hard and three medium.

The threat of rain could also throw up an interesting variable, with overcast conditions forecast for the weekend and a chance of precipitation. Also new to 2019, and announced only days before the grand prix weekend, is the controversial decision to also award an extra point to the driver who sets fastest lap – as long as that driver finishes in the top ten.

With the majority of experts and fans alike predicting a close battle between Mercedes and Ferrari with Red Bull tucked in behind, the midfield battle appears less clear even after two four-day pre-season tests in Barcelona.

Many eyes will be on the new SportPesa Racing Point team with its familiar ‘Pink Panther’ Livery sure to gain plenty of support over the weekend.

“The aim this year is to take a step forward and compete at the front of the midfield once again,” commented CEO and Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer. “We recognize this won’t be an easy task because it’s shaping up to be one of the closest midfields we have seen for a long time – with just a few tenths separating a handful of teams.”

For driver Lance Stroll, formerly at Williams, it’s a new challenge he is thoroughly looking forward to.

“It is an extra special weekend for me because it’s also my first race in a new team,” said Stroll. “A lot of my friends have said they really like the colors of our car and everybody says it looks great watching trackside.

“As a venue, Albert Park is pretty cool. The Aussie fans have great energy: they love F1 and we get a great welcome when we arrive at the circuit each morning. It’s a technical track – quite narrow in places, and there are a few bumps here and there too. We’ve done some sim work on the set-up already so I’m feeling pretty well prepared.

“I’m not heading into the race with any defined expectations. There are too many unknowns at the moment for me to make predictions. We will take it as it comes and focus on our programme, building speed with each session. I’m just really looking forward to being back in the car and working with the team again.”

If Stroll has put expectations to one side, team veteran Sergio Perez may have to shoulder most of that weight. But the relaxed Mexican is always one to take such things in his stride.

“I am ready to start a new chapter in the history of this team,” added Perez. “I feel very strong both physically and mentally, and seeing the great spirit of our group of people gives me that extra bit of motivation. Last year was an exhausting one, on and especially off the track, but now I feel very relaxed. I worked a lot on my fitness throughout the winter because this season is going to be very long, all the way into December. I have to be ready for what is going to be a marathon.”

If SportPesa arrives in Melbourne hoping to slip under the radar in its pink BWT livery, many sentimental F1 fans will be crossing their fingers for the famous Williams team who also sport a new title sponsor in ROKiT. Both teams share a technical partner in Acronis, and the first race of the season is always critical in terms of data to gather and analyze.

Williams last won around the streets of Albert Park back in 1996 and a repeat of that famous Hill victory is certainly not on the agenda. But there are reasons for optimism with an F1 favorite returning to racing action alongside his rookie F2 champion teammate.

“It will be a very emotional Grand Prix,” said the popular Robert Kubica, whose road back from a life-threatening rally accident has been the stuff of sporting legend. “It is the second debut for me after being away from the sport for many years. My last Formula One race was in Abu Dhabi 2010, so I am looking forward to going to Australia with a few things to cover and learn.

“I hope to enjoy the weekend and that everything will run smoothly without any big issues so I can concentrate on my driving and discover a new Formula One. It is one thing to drive a Formula One car, and it is another thing to actually race it. Over the years, I think the approach to races has changed, so I have a lot of things to discover but I am looking forward to it.

For F1 new boy George Russell, there is also no shortage of excitement and hype for a driver that many predict to be a future world champion. For now, all the focus is on a smooth debut race at the pinnacle of motorsport.

“I am extremely excited for Melbourne,” added Russell. “It will be my first race in Formula One and it is a dream come true. It will be a very proud and extremely surreal moment for me standing on the starting grid with everybody preparing for the race, and I am really looking forward to the whole experience.

“I am going to make sure that I enjoy it, won’t take it for granted and make the most of it. I have never been to Australia before, so I am going out there earlier to get used to the weather, the time difference and see the city a little bit before starting work properly on the Tuesday before the race. All in all, I am really looking forward to the whole experience.”


Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.