Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Looking to Melbourne

Frontstretch will be expanding its Formula 1 coverage this year. Look for more regular columns covering the sport.  

Formula 1 has gotten its season started this weekend in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. There’s all kinds of different stories as things get going, so here’s a recap and preview for the opener.

What’s News

  • To begin, the ongoing court case between the Sauber team and their (possible) driver Geido van der Garde continued taking strange twists this week. After both the Swiss and Australian courts upheld that van der Garde should be given a seat, as the driver claimed, the team first sat out the first practice, then ignored the ruling and sent out their duo of Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr. Making this decision more interesting is that the Australian courts basically stated that they would impound Sauber’s gear should the team not comply with the ruling – presumably post-race. Adding further intrigue is that Sauber’s team principal, Monisha Kaltenborn, is a lawyer, which would seem to posit that she might have known how to better handle this situation but failed. However, it Kaltenborn’s acumen that very may well have put the two drivers the team preferred in the cars as she may have negotiated some kind of deal with van der Garde. This case will be worthwhile to watch, as drivers that are essentially buying their seats has become more prevalent in F1. In addition, Kaltenborn may have been able to keep van der Garde out of the car this weekend due to safety concerns owing to the fact that he has not yet turned a lap for them this season.
  • The partnership between McLaren and Honda is off to a terrible start. Some issues were expected and no one predicted that they would suddenly pace the field, but so far things have gone much worse than that. To begin, they struggled in testing, never able to run enough laps to determine the reliability nor to figure out how it would handle. Next, their star signing of Fernando Alonso has shown no benefits as yet because he suffered a concussion during testing in Barcelona. While he is symptom-free, Alonso is being held out of this race to ensure that a second injury doesn’t bring about a worse situation. Hence, it’s Jenson Button and reserve driver Kevin Magnussen behind the wheel in Melbourne. So far things look bleak. The McLarens were more than five seconds off the pace in qualifying. Button did his best to seem optimistic, saying that they knew that the team would need time to gel, but surely even he didn’t think that things would be so bad from the get go. For the once-mighty McLaren team, this kind of start is beyond peculiar.
  • This year’s drivers will be the youngest group in the history of the sport with four rookies taking to the grid. Taking the two seats at Toro Rosso (or Red Bull Jr.) are Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr., whose father won two World Rally championships. The previously mentioned Nasr is also new to the sport. The other two rookies are in a tight spot. Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi will be taking the two rides at Manor Racing. The problem with that statement is that Manor is still struggling to actually become a team after ascending from the ashes of Marussia. The team didn’t get a wheel on the track during any of the practice sessions and then failed to even attempt to qualify. If they’re able to start the race from the paddock it will be a surprise.

The Race

Since 1996, the Australian Grand Prix has been held at Albert Park in Melbourne. Attendance has been strong, holding an average of over 100,000 on race day. The track is a quick 16-turn, 3.3 mile one with Michael Schumacher and Lex Davison holding the record for wins with four. Among active drivers, Button leads the way with three wins, which likely makes the struggles he is feeling with McLaren feel worse as he looks to one of his best tracks.

What to Watch For

With the Mercedes duo of defending champion Lewis Hamilton and runner-up Nico Rosberg pacing the field, it looks like the battle will be for who stands third on the podium, as they took first and second in qualifying, respectively. The two likely teams to take the position are Williams-Martini and Ferrari. That Williams should be there isn’t a surprise, as they feature a Mercedes engine and showed promise last year. But Ferrari is a bit of a shock, as they were relatively terrible last year. Perhaps all of the changes the team went through during the 2014 season and then the offseason are taking shape. New Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel looked like he might secure the third spot in qualifying, but was pipped by Felipe Massa in the Williams.

Red Bull looks like they don’t quite have the pace as the aforementioned teams, with Toro Rosso looking a bit more promising. The team that might be the most interesting to watch is Lotus, who switched to Mercedes engines and looks to be seeing an increase in performance.

On the slow end of the timesheet, the question will be whether or not Manor even puts wheels on the track. Or, if you want to play a game, try to figure out how long it will take for a McLaren car to be lapped (laps are taking about 1:26 or so for the leaders which would mean that lap 20 could be the mark).

Coverage begins on NBCSN at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 15. Enjoy.

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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Arguably the most popular team is Manor. The team supposedly has over 300000 Twitter follows. Seems that there problem is that the servers were wiped of data in anticipation of their being auctioned off. Hopefully they can get everything reinstalled prior to the next race.

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