Albert Park has become the customary curtain-raiser of the Formula 1 season in recent years, and the street-style circuit allows for close racing and a great spectacle for fans. Its colourful gravel makes the event aesthetically pleasing as well as punishing anyone that does not tread carefully - no tarmac run-off here. Taking over from Adelaide as the Australian Grand Prix in 1996, the temporary circuit consists of both high and low speed corners, closely lined by unforgiving walls that have caught many drivers out, including Pastor Maldonado’s lapse in concentration at the climax of the 2012 event. The safety car risk is high here at 60%. Kimi Raikkonen took his second and final victory for Lotus here last year, whilst Jenson Button is the most successful of the current crop having won the race three times. Raikkonen has taken victory twice whilst Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton have one win each.
Circuit length 5.303 km
Race distance 307.574 km
2013 race winner Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus)
Race Strategy Briefing
This first race under new rules with 1.6 litre hybrid turbo engines and Energy Recovery Systems will be a voyage into the unknown for many teams. Reliability and fuel consumption will be the most important factors, so we can expect to see some drivers using less than full power to be sure of finishing the race.
There is a high chance of a safety car at Albert Park, which would help. The Pirelli tyre choice of Soft and Medium with a performance difference of 1.5 seconds per lap between them means that most drivers will do a two stop race with the first two stints on Softs and a short final one on Mediums.
In collaboration with James Allen
The first Grand Prix run to the new 1.6 litre hybrid turbo formula featured some fascinating strategy details, some inspired decision-making and plenty for the drivers and strategy engineers to work with.
The original start had to be aborted, as the Marussia of Jules Bianchi failed to get off the grid. This was important because it stretched the teams into procedures that hadn’t been used for quite some time and very few of the teams, especially those with pre-season test problems, will have practiced an aborted start procedure. So this will have put quite a few people off balance and led to several cars having less than ideal starts. This was an early example of reliability dominating the racing at this stage and forcing teams into starting in a less than perfect way having prepared the cars for initial start.
Early in the race Lewis Hamilton, who had lost two places off the start, retired his Mercedes and world champion Sebastian Vettel retired the Red Bull. This meant that two strong competitors were taken out of the equation, creating opportunities for others to get a strong result.
Safety Car plays a decisive role - Button makes big gains
As we spelled out in the pre-race Race Strategy Briefing, Melbourne has a 60% likelihood of a Safety Car, but some teams raised that likelihood to 80% factoring in reliability concerns and also the difficulty of driving these new generation cars, particularly on corner exits lined with walls. All weekend we saw cars clipping the barriers.
On lap 10 a hard charging Valtteri Bottas hit the wall, puncturing his tyre and leaves debris from a damaged wheel rim on track. This caused Race Control to bring out the Safety Car. At the moment it was deployed, Jenson Button was 6 seconds away from pit lane entry and he made the decision, in quick conference with the team, to come in for a tyre stop. He was fighting the three cars ahead of him, Räikkönen, Vergne and Kvyat, none of whom took the same decision to stop on that lap, but instead did a costly extra lap at the reduced Safety Car speed limit.
By being first to stop, Button jumped all three of them.
Bottas benefits from his own error
Ironically, Bottas caused the Safety Car, but also benefitted from it. He dropped from 6th to 15th due to his puncture and was 106 seconds behind the race leader, but because the Safety Car closed the field up, he was only 8 seconds behind the leader at the restart and able to easily pass the cars ahead of him to rise back up to 6th.
Another key point about the Safety Car was that it allowed the cars to enter fuel saving mode, which helped them to get to the finish on this high fuel consumption circuit without problems.
Räikkönen lost out in this phase due to the Ferrari stop arrangements, as he had to back off to allow Alonso to pit and for the mechanics to reset, ultimately losing 2 places under the Safety Car to Button and Vergne. Sutil and Maldonado stayed out, but the strategy didn’t bring either of them a result.
After the restart, we saw the pace advantage of the Mercedes, as Rosberg set about rebuilding the lead he had lost due to the Safety Car. He pulled away from Ricciardo at around 1.3 seconds per lap, a greater than the margin Vettel had over rivals in the final part of the 2013 season.
The tyre graining phase
In the second stint, from lap 25 onwards, the left front tyres started to grain. This meant the lap times dropped a bit for many of the runners. They did recover, but crucially some drivers were able to close up some gaps in this time. Alonso closed on Hulkenberg, for example in their battle for fourth and fifth places. Bottas in 9th took over 3 seconds out of Räikkönen who was clearly struggling with the handling of the Ferrari, especially in the braking zones.
Mercedes makes the most of its margin over the rest
A graphic illustration of the improvement of the Mercedes in all areas came in the run up to the second stops. Last season Mercedes often found that it wasn’t able to dictate strategy due to overusing the tyres in races. But Rosberg was able to manage the gap to his pursuers and had the luxury of delaying his second stop. It takes just over 22 seconds to make a stop in Melbourne and his strategy team was monitoring the second place car, Ricciardo, relative to Räikkönen, waiting for Räikkönen to be more than 22 secs behind Ricciardo at which point they knew that the Australian would stop; he wouldn’t do it before as he would not want to be held up after his stop.
Ricciardo get the margin and duly stopped on lap 36, so Rosberg could then pit safely and still retain lead even if there was a sudden Safety Car.
This is a perfect example of the reactive strategy approach, where a team monitors the car behind relative to other cars that are within its pit stop loss time and reacts to its moves.
Melbourne proves difficult for overtaking
A graphic illustration of how hard it is to overtake in Melbourne, particularly late in the race, came from the Magnussen and Ricciardo fight. From lap 50 onwards, Magnussen attacked Ricciardo. The gap came down to 0.7 secs, but the McLaren could not pass the Red Bull, despite having a straight-line speed advantage of 24km/h. On lap 51, for example Magnussen went through the speed trap at 309km/h to Ricciardo’s 273km/h. At that stage there were a lot of tyre marbles off the racing line and there is the perennial problem of Melbourne being a narrow track, with most corners having a single line into them.
This should not be a problem at the next race in Sepang, which has many multiple line corners and two consecutive long straights. Given this and the variety in straight-line speeds we are likely to see a lot of overtaking in Sepang.
Ferrari makes a mistake on strategy
Although they played a good hand in their battle with Force India to get Fernando Alonso ahead of Nico Hülkenberg, Ferrari failed to cover Jenson Button at the second stop and as a result Alonso lost an important fourth place to him, as it turned into a podium with the disqualification of Ricciardo for fuel flow irregularities.
Button pitted on lap 32 and Ferrari did not cover it with a stop, but instead left Alonso out until lap 35. They did this was because they did not think that they could reach the finish on lap 58 on a set of medium tyres from lap 32. In fact that proved not to be difficult.
This raises a very important point at this early stage of the season: tyre testing is limited on Fridays now due to restrictions on engine mileage, as each driver has just five engines. This means that tyre simulations are even more heavily relied on than ever and this episode revealed that McLaren's model was better than Ferrari's.
It must also be noted that Ferrari said that they were managing an electrical problem on both cars throughout the race, which meant that they were down on maximum power.
In collaboration with James Allen