Come March 16 and you will be watching the first race of the new F1 season in Melbourne, Australia. The picturesque Melbourne GP track is uniquely built around a man-made Albert Park Lake, some distance away from the city center. Until 2007, no other GP circuit could boast of a large water body in the middle but new tracks in Singapore, Abu Dhabi and Valencia have since imitated the Albert Park design. It is one of the smoothest GP tracks, with each lap measuring 5.303 kilometers. The 2013 Australian GP was won by Kimi Raikkonen, while Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel took second and third places. The lap record is still held by the legendary Michael Schumacher, who, while winning the 2004 Australian GP, completed his 25th lap in 1 minute 24.125 seconds. However, the fastest lap was done by Vettel in 1 minute 23.529 seconds in March 2011.
Since the rules of upcoming F1 season, have undergone substantial changes, drivers and teams are familiarizing themselves with their new cars. In this year’s competition, the cars have been mandated to employ 1.6 liter V6 turbo-charged engines in place of the 2.4 liter V8 engines used last year. Therefore, before the Australian GP, the drivers must fully learn about the equipment and other changes, in addition to several new F1 regulations. There have been two pre-season events already, where teams and drivers have had the first introduction to the new rules.
The first pre-season test was organized during January 28-31, 2014 at Jerez, Spain and the second one concluded two days ago, in Bahrain. While the new McLaren and Mercedes cars stood the test nicely, Red Bull team struggled with the new engine design. Beside the engine specifications, some of the other major changes in F1 regulations include; a) individual engine-units must complete at least 4000 kilometers before replacement as against 2000 kilometers until now; b) enhanced usage of Kinetic-Energy Recovery System to yield additional power; c) use of electronic braking devices for rear-wheel braking; d) lowering of the car nose-tips to 185 millimeters from ground, as compared to 550 millimeters used in 2012. In 2013, teams were informed completely banning the stepped noses for better safety; e) exhaust outlet in the engine must be angled upwards toward the rear wing rather than being downwards as has been the case so far; f) allowable minimum car weight has been increased to 691 kg from 642 kg; and g) banning of false camera mountings, which the teams used for aerodynamic benefits. The 2014 rules would allow camera mountings only for cameras.
On account of such wholesale changes, the Jerez practice session was very eagerly awaited. The current champions Red Bull couldn’t get beyond 21 laps on account of overheated engines and other related issues. In contrast, rivals Mercedes went for 309 laps. The other Mercedes-powered cars owned by teams like Force India, McLaren and Williams recorded an aggregate of 875 laps. 83-year old F1 Czar, Bernie Ecclestone says anything can happen with new rules in force. At Jerez, Hamilton-Roseberg led Mercedes team appeared most promising this season. Doing 21 laps over four days was an eminently forgettable occurrence for the reigning champion Red Bull team led by Sebastian Vettel. Other than Red Bull, Renault machines used by Toro Rosso and Caterham teams, also reported power unit issues. The combined lap coverage for three teams, relying on the Renault could only add up to 151. This was far lower than four Mercedes teams doing 875 and three Ferrari teams clocking 444.
In the second pre-season test at Bahrain, the Mercedes team led by Lewis Hamilton continued with good performance, while Ferrari and Red Bull still had troubles with their new engine configurations. Hamilton did 67 laps and his team-mate Nico Roseberg did 18 more. Jenson Button of McLaren had a great time, as he clocked 103 laps, without any major trouble. Team Lotus, which missed the Jerez event, because their cars were not ready, also had engine problems at Bahrain. That meant none of the Renault engines were race-ready yet. They need to resolve both hardware and software issues, since their engines are performing far below expectations. Chief Renault engineer Rob White said that even if the engines are running at low power levels now, the drivers can still learn the basics. White was confident that all tricky issues would be fully resolved well-in-time for Australian GP. Regardless of White’s confidence, it is mandatory for manufacturers to freeze engine specification by February 28, after which no changes can be entertained without the consent of the governing body.
Vettel’s new Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo could only complete 28 laps, before he found a mechanical problem. For the Ferrari team of Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, there were problems in telemetry set-up. Alonso completed 44 laps before stopping.
In Jerez, the most promising performance was delivered by Kevin Magnussen of Denmark, driving the McLaren. The guy, with only a limited experience in F1, clocked the fastest lap. More importantly, the 21-year old Dane exuded an utterly calm and relaxed posture in his debut for McLaren. In Bahrain too, Magnussen completed 127 laps with the best time of 1 minute 34.910 seconds and he was third behind Nico Roseberg and Lewis Hamilton. Incidentally, Force India has done very well and its drivers, Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez were placed fifth and eleventh respectively. Last year’s champion Vettel languished at no. 17.