World champion Max Verstappen hopes this weekend in Melbourne is without a hitch but is wary of the new layout of the Albert Park Circuit as F1 returns to Australia after a two-year absence due to the pandemic.
The Red Bull driver is looking to maintain the winning momentum he achieved in Jeddah last month after a tight duel with Charles Leclerc of the Ferrari team.
It was a relieved victory for Verstappen after Leclerc celebrated on the top podium of the Bahrain GP where the Dutch rider failed to finish.
The two young drivers are again favorites in the third race of the season, as seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton is still waiting for Mercedes to improve on a track where he has won eight pole positions, including the last six there.
Albert Park will offer a new challenge for all riders after undergoing significant modifications since hosting the GP for the first time in 1996.
The entire track has been re-paved with seven corners changed and two corners removed to have a total of just 14 corners.
In addition, the new track is expected to offer more overtaking opportunities and allow the car to go five seconds faster.
“It will be interesting to see the new ones from this track, I think they will make quite a difference, especially at Turn six which is the most significant change,” said Verstappen, who is 20 points behind Leclerc.
“There should be more overtaking opportunities now, which is positive. It will be interesting to see how the cars perform in Australia, a track that can get quite dusty at times. I hope we have a smooth weekend as a team.”
Verstappen made his F1 debut in Melbourne in 2015 with Red Bull youth team Toro Rosso.
Hamilton, who has more wins in F1 than any of his rivals, has been on the top podium twice in Australia (2008, 2015).
However, the chances of the Briton getting on the podium in Melbourne this weekend look slim as Mercedes still haven’t found good speed and downforce, with Hamilton even complaining that his car can’t be driven in Saudi Arabia.
After having the windfall of finishing third in Bahrain because two Red Bull drivers were damaged, Hamilton was only able to finish P10 in Jeddah after starting from P16.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff says Mercedes cars can’t be turned overnight into fast.
“Right now, our track performance isn’t what we expected, but everyone at Brackley and Brixworth is focusing their attention on understanding this issue and finding the right solution,” said Wolff.
Albert Park has always been the opening race of the season since 1996 but this year has been shifted to the third series on the calendar following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the state of Victoria.
Melbourne failed to hold a race in 2021 due to strict quarantine rules after the 2020 race was canceled before Friday’s first practice session due to concerns over COVID-19 after a member of the McLaren team tested positive for the coronavirus.
Valtteri Bottas, now racing for Alfa Romeo, won the last Australian GP three years ago, beating his then Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton by 20.886 seconds.
Australia will also see the return of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who missed the season-opening two races due to contracting COVID-19.
“For me, after almost a month without racing, learning throughout the training sessions will be important,” said the Aston Martin driver.
Vettel is a three-time champion at Albert Park, in 2011, 2017 and 2018.
Apart from Hamilton and Bottas, the driver on the grid who has tasted the sweetness of the top podium in Melbourne is Fernando Alonso, but that was 16 years ago when he raced for Renault.