Nearly everyone thinks Australia is the perfect place to start the Formula One season. It guarantees a huge, sport-obsessive and knowledgeable crowd, keen to give F1 a raucous welcome, while simultaneously providing a city race where all the demands of getting the season going are easy to arrange.
In fact, the only people who don’t think Australia is the perfect place to start the season are the old guard who miss the days of ending the season in Australia – though the reasons they produce are pretty much the same (except for the bit about sunshine). Australia, basically, is a wonderful place to hold an F1 race – and as ours tends to be one of the younger teams, we’re very happy to be going to Melbourne to kick things off.
While it’s the skyline of the Melbourne CBD that frames the race track, our team, in common with many, stay down on the beach in St Kilda. It makes for a very pleasant walk to work in the morning – though with the schedule skewed around a twilight race, that’s a little later in the morning than would be the case elsewhere.
The race itself is something of an oddity. The Albert Park Circuit is… difficult. Made up primarily from service roads through the park, and not used as a race track for the rest of the year, it starts off very dusty (aka ‘green’) and with very low grip. That changes over the course of the weekend as the passage of cars sweeps a racing line clean, and the track ‘rubbers-in’ – ie a layer of rubber is laid down by successive braking events, providing lots of grip. This track evolution is magnified by the stunningly busy racing programme around the grand prix. Australia does this better than anyone, with a constant stream of touring cars, GT races, historics, one-make series and demonstrations ensuring the track is busy from sun-up ‘til sundown.
It’s a headache for race engineers who, essentially, have a moving target to hit: preparing the car not for the grip they experience on Friday but the grip they’re expecting to see on Sunday. Not easy at any time but doubly difficult with a car that is still a new acquaintance.
Not that anyone in the crowd is going to worry about that. Over the years Albert Park has thrown up some unlikely winners because teams aren’t quite dialled in at this stage of the season, and things don’t always go by the numbers. The nature of the track aids this as well: big walls and low grip (it improves – but not to the extent that it’s ever going to be mistaken for a permanent circuit) tend to encourage things to happen.
The one drawback of Albert Park is that the tight, twisting circuit has a very short straight and doesn’t provide much in the way of an overtaking opportunity. This can lead to races being a little static. This year, there’s a range of new aerodynamic measures designed to combat this – but they’re unlikely to have a huge effect on an outlier circuit such as this. Australia may well remain a race for strategy, rather than blood and thunder passing.
It’s going to be an odd race for us. Our new driver line-up of Max and Pierre means, for the first time since 2006, we’re not the team with an Aussie in the cockpit. That’s going to be strange. Neither Mark nor Daniel ever had the best of luck at their home grand prix – but we have enjoyed some great days in Albert Park, winning the race in 2011 with Sebastian Vettel, who also finished on the podium in 2012 and 2013. Vettel also gave us pole position in 2010, 2011 and 2013. While our Aussies never won (or, at least, never got to keep) silverware in Albert Park, both Mark (2010) and Daniel (2016, 2018) have left their home race with the fastest lap.
The Australian Grand Prix is also, of course, the site of our Formula One debut. We had a pretty spectacular start to life in F1, with a double points finish: David Coulthard finishing fourth and Christian Klien seventh. We had a good party in Melbourne after that one!