As it has for the last 12 times in 14 years, the excitement and bustle of the new Formula 1 season will again be staged in our own backyard. The world’s media converges on Albert Park next weekend for yet another unforgettable weekend of speed, exhilaration and burnt rubber.
However, 2014 promises to be a season like no other. With the new regulations baffling teams during the winter testing period, there’s a good chance the 19th instalment of the Albert Park showpiece could well be one for the record books.
First used in 1996, the 5.3 km Albert Park street circuit was created to be the ideal replacement for the iconic Adelaide Grand Prix which had hosted countless duels over the years.
It has failed to disappoint, giving us many classic races that have left petrol heads on the edge of their seats.
Fisichella’s Renault win in 2005 comes to mind, as does Kimi Raikonnen last year. It has traditionally been the opening Grand Prix of the calendar (bar 2006 and 2010) and the drivers love to open the season here – just ask Jenson Button.
The Albert Park circuit does, however, have a dubious reputation of being an ‘unorthodox’ race-track due to its street circuit nature – it often contradicts the teams’ race simulations done in their testing programs.
It has a reputation of being hard on the brakes, while Pirelli’s tyres should be given a serious test in Melbourne.
Brakes and tyres aren’t the biggest issues going into Melbourne – just ask reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel.
The new V6 engines introduced as part of a radical change to the regulations means that the sport has been given its biggest shake up since… well, ever.
Winter testing started with a bang in Jerez and by the end of the first test it was clear that Mercedes powered teams had the edge in southern Spain.
Fast forward to after both Bahrain Tests and you not only realise how far Mercedes are in front, but how much Renault powered teams are behind.
This means that Mercedes GP, Williams and McLaren are all in fairly good shape while reigning world champions Red Bull Racing and heavyweights Lotus are all in ‘damage limitation’ mode come Sunday 16 March.
Mercedes were clearly the front-runners throughout all three tests. Boasting an exquisite downforce package and a clean rear-end, the Mercedes car was often the talk of the paddock with other teams and pundits tipping Mercedes as favourites for the season opener.
Boasting a strong driver line-up of 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton and reliable German Nico Rosberg, the Mercedes W05 has the potential to win many races this year – as long as they can get on top of the tyre issues that hampered the Brackley-based outfit last year.
Williams were a team that surprised most people during winter testing.
Pastor Maldonado’s departure to Lotus meant that Williams had the capacity for a new No. 1 driver. That role went to ex-Ferrari pilot and 2008 championship runner-up Felipe Massa, to be partnered with Valteri Bottas, the young Finn.
It was not the line-up that surprised people, however, but the quality of the car. With efficient reliability and amazing new fuel consumption, 2014 beckons to be a positive year for the Grove based ex-world dominators. Only time will tell.
Ferrari’s pre-season was not that much different to theirs of other seasons – quick, but not the best.
This mentality will surely annoy Spanish maestro Fernando Alonso, who has arguably been ‘the best of the rest’ during Vettel’s four-year dominance.
The arrival of former Ferrari driver and 2007 world champion Kimi Raikonnen is sure to make Ferrari a stronger team, but whether one of their drivers is to truly challenge for the title is still an unknown.
McLaren are doing well. The 2014 season beckons to be their ‘light at the end of a tunnel’, especially with former boss Ron Dennis taking charge of the team from Martin Whitmarsh.
Danish rookie Kevin Magnussen has impressed throughout all three winter test sessions, and by paring up with British veteran and 2009 world champion Jenson Button the Woking-based outfit are definitely in for a more positive season.
Mercedes, Williams, Ferrari and McLaren are the top four teams while the rest of the pecking order remains to be decided.
I believe Force India will be strong. They have spent a long time developing the current car while also boasting a fairly strong driver line-up of German ace Nico Hulkenburg and ex-McLaren driver Sergio ‘Checo’ Perez.
Expect Red Bull to discover their pace throughout the season, while Lotus – despite hurting from the departure of Raikonnen – should also have the pace to contend.
My prediction for the Australian Grand Prix is that the Friday practice sessions will be used as ‘test sessions’ for some teams.
One such team is McLaren, who have an aerodynamics package upgrade in Australia.
Qualifying on Saturday should be an interesting affair with Mercedes locking out the front row with a Lewis Hamilton pole, Nico Rosberg in second and a third on the grid for Kevin Magnussen.
On race day, Lewis Hamilton should win from Nico Rosberg, while a Fernando Alonso podium in third will open his account for the season.
In a hard-fought battle, but Expect Jenson Button and Felipe Massa to grab fourth and fifth respectively.
Kimi Raikonnen will finish a disappointing sixth while Kevin Magnussen will take a coveted seventh spot in front of Williams’ Bottas in eighth.
Daniel Ricciardo will finish his home Grand Prix with two points in the bag, while tenth could be Vettel, Perez or even Hulkenburg.