Preview: Australian GP

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This weekend, the Formula One season is kicked off, traditionally in Melbourne for the Australian GP. Leaving aside the excitement just for a moment, we take a look at the technical challenges this circuit poses to the drivers, teams and their cars.

This is one of the tracks where there is a reasonable amount of track evolution. Between first practice and qualifying, with a similar fuel load, the track can be up to three seconds per lap quicker. The weather can be blistering hot one day and freezing cold the next. There have been race weekends with 14ºC during qualifying and 40ºC during the race. It can change very quickly, and you have to set the car up to be able to cope with both. Normally at this time of year it’s in the mid-twenties and very pleasant, which causes no trouble at all, but you do have to keep one eye on the forecast as it can change rapidly. This affects not just engine temperatures and so on but also how you use the tyres. If there’s a chance that the temperature may significantly rise or fall you have to have a compromise between qualifying and race setup.

Australia will be a stern test for everyone. The average speed round the circuit is towards the top of the table, particularly the quick section at the back that requires good top end speed. The corners are however medium speed so the circuit characteristic and resultant engine requirements will be similar to Valencia, with good driveability and responsiveness through the whole rev range required. These short bursts of acceleration greatly increase fuel consumption while placing the internals under intense pressure. Albert Park actually has one of the highest consumption rates per kilometre, so the starting fuel load is one of the heaviest of the year. With the added challenge of the low grip, delivering good stability and response will really make a difference to the overall lap time.

The 7 braking zones on the track are all medium-high level difficulty for the braking systems and are characterised by deceleration greater than or close to 5G's. Braking stresses also generally increase as the track gets rubbered in.

While the FIA has chosen to retain its identical DRS action zones, Pirelli on the other hand have chosen to go aggresive with the super soft and medium tyre, the first time we see this allocation of tyres. With the tyres already softer than last year, more pitstops are almost a certainty.

Track highlights

Turns 1 + 2 The end of the straight is the fastest section of the track, with speeds of 300kph achieved. There’s then significant braking into turn 1. The gravel trap at the end of the start-finish straight sees a lot of action over the weekend. It’s particularly attractive to cars on the first lap.

Turn 3 After the quick flick of turn 2, the cars build up to 300kph, but this 90° right hander is taken at 90kph so engine braking on entry is crucial. There also needs to be good engine pick-up on the exit, as this immediately leads into a quick left-right flick: if the driver misses the exit the rhythm is compromised. The fuelling at the exit of the T3 is therefore key and there must be appropriate fuel in the combustion chamber to ensure the engine can produce the power needed. It also needs to be ignited quickly so the quantity has to be completely correct.

Turns 11 & 12 This double corner is the fastest turn on the circuit, taken at 225kph with the speed largely carried through. After exiting turn 11 there are two quick downshifts to fifth gear, but the driver will still be very aggressive on the throttle application. This sustained momentum, coupled with the left hand turn generates g-forces of up to 3.5g through turn 11. That sort of g-force pushes everything to the right for a short duration, including fuel and lubricants. The engine still needs to respond to the driver’s demand, despite this heavy load. It needs to produce a lot of torque aggressively, but still has to be precise in its delivery to go through turn 12 and get back up to speed on the run down to turn 13.

Turns 15 & 16 Turns 15 and 16 are linked as an extended chicane but the tendency is to brake too late into 15, which messes up 16. Engineers will work on giving a good balance by delivering the right level of overrun support into 15; ultimately keeping the engine torque stable when the driver is off-throttle and on the brakes. If the overrun support is correct, the rear of the car is stabilized without too much push so the driver does not struggle to turn in. The exit of turn 16 is tricky as the driver is not at full throttle until fourth gear, instead dancing and hovering around in third as he tries to get the power down.

Quick facts

Number of corners: 16 (6 left & 10 right)
Maximum speed (no DRS): 315 km/h
Minimum speed: 80 km/h
Corners below 100 km/h: 2 (T3, T15)
Corners above 250 km/h: 1 (T8)
Average lap speed: 200 km/h
Distance to first corner: 380 m
Braking events: 8, 6 heavy
Pit-lane length under speed-limit control: 289 m
Pit-lane time at 60 km/h: 17.3s
Pit-lane time at 100 km/h: 10.4s

Full throttle per lap: 71%
Longest full throttle: 61%
Gear changes per lap 54 (3132/race)
Tyre energy (1 - high, 3 - low) 2
Braking energy (1 - high, 3 - low) 2