The wait is almost over. The first practice session for the 2019 F1 season begins on Friday.
Who will lead the way in the Australian Grand Prix? That’s the first of our five talking points for this weekend.
Mercedes versus Ferrari: Who’s on top?
Pre-season testing followed a familiar form. Before they’d even wheeled the W10 out of the garage Mercedes were lowering expectations, talking about how the new aerodynamic rules could make rivals of any of the other nine teams – a dubious claim from the team bidding to win a sixth consecutive constructors’ championship title.
Ferrari, who have flattered to deceive in testing before, looked quick straight out of the box. Sebastian Vettel raved about his new SF90 after his first day in the car.
In the second week Mercedes brought an extensive aerodynamic update for its car and showed rather more of its potential. When the chequered flag fell, the red cars were just three-thousandths of a second quicker on headline times.
However the Ferrari gave the impression of being a more benign, compliant car. Mercedes appears to have created another chassis with immense potential, but one which operates on a knife-edge.
But Albert Park in Melbourne is nothing like the Circuit de Catalunya. Which of these two teams is on top will come down to who finds the best set-up for the bumpy, point-and-squirt street track. Unless we’re going to get a real surprise…
Are Red Bull close?
Although Red Bull have said it will take a few races to judge the ultimate potential of its new partnership with Honda, the team has to have been pleased with how its pre-season testing programme went. New driver Pierre Gasly’s off-track excursions were the only significant disruptions to its running.
The team now says it has brought forward a planned aerodynamic update for its RB15 for this weekend’s race. Will that plus its new power units allow it to start the season in stronger shape than last year?
Max Verstappen was seven-tenths of a second off pole position at this track last year. That will be the first reference for the team this weekend. But expect a rapid rate of progress from them as the Honda relationship beds in.
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Williams: Just how bad will it be?
Will the FW42 prove to be a case of ‘better late than never’? The team didn’t get its new car finished in time for the start of testing, and its former chief technical officer has taken a ‘leave of absence’, though not before claiming its new car is more consistent than its slow and unpredictable predecessor.
It doesn’t look like being the F1 debut which F2 champion George Russell dreamed of, nor the return to the sport Robert Kubica has spent eight years waiting for. But never rule out the possibility of a first-round shock, particularly at this unconventional circuit.
Have 2019 changes added to the show?
Many of the visible changes on this year’s cars have been made in the name of improving the quality of racing. Simpler front wings to reduce ‘outwash’ and allow cars to follow more closely. Bigger rear wings to compensate for the lost downforce and create a more powerful DRS effect.
Will they do the job? We shouldn’t make that call on the basis of one race, and Albert Park is not very representative of many of the circuits to follow.
However it should give drivers the first proper chance to judge whether an improvement has been made in how closely cars can follow each other. The verdict in testing was mixed. Kevin Magnussen’s positive impression – on the strength of one occasion when he followed another car – received a lot of coverage. But the more muted reactions of other drivers such as Sebastian Vettel were not widely reported.
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What difference will a point for fastest lap make?
An 11th-hour rules change ahead of the new season will see the driver who sets the fastest lap of the race score a bonus point, providing they finish in the top 10. Will it make a significant difference to the action?
Are you going to the Australian Grand Prix?
If you’re heading to Australia for this weekend’s race, we want to hear from you. Tell us about your experience at Albert Park here:
Who do you think will be the team to beat in the Australian Grand Prix? Have your say below.