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Formula One preview: Australian Grand Prix

Written by Marcus Woodhouse, Edited by Vyas Ponnuri

Credit: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Formula 1 returns to the land Down Under this weekend for the Australian Grand Prix, and now with not one, but two home drivers to cheer on (three if Valtteri Bottas is included), a bumper crowd is expected to give this race a real vibrant atmosphere. 

We were treated to a thriller at the Albert Park Circuit last year, with only 12 drivers making it to the chequered flag so, fingers crossed, we’ll be in for a grand racing spectacle again this weekend.

Circuit Guide

Credit: Formula 1

The Albert Park Circuit is a winding one, set in a picturesque panorama of Melbourne by the lake. The track surface often throws a spanner in the works for the teams, with bumpy, undulating ground giving the engineers a headache. 

Three DRS (Drag Reduction System) zones are in place around the track, intertwined with free-flowing twists and turns, providing a canvas on which the drivers can make their overtakes. 

The street circuit nature, although veiled as an open circuit, means that the walls are never far away, as the two Alpine drivers Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly discovered near the end of the 2023 Australian Grand Prix.

Weekend Format

The standard weekend format of Saturday qualifying and Sunday race is restored, although the timings for European viewers may serve as a slight shock to the system.

Schedule (in BST)

Practice 1 - Friday, 01:30 am

Practice 2 - Friday, 05:00 am

Practice 3 - Saturday, 01:30 am

Qualifying - Saturday, 05:00 am

Race - Sunday, 04:00 am

Weather Forecast

It is somewhat a case of ‘out of the furnace and into the frying pan’, as F1 rounds out its opening leg in the desert with a trip to the sweltering sands of Melbourne. Temperatures will be high again this weekend, and while rain is more of a possibility than in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, it remains fervently unlikely.

Major Talking Points

  • Will Sainz be back to his best? - Appendicitis ruled the Spaniard out of contention for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, and while Ollie Bearman was a more than adequate stand-in, all eyes will be on whether Sainz can make his return and if so, will he be firing on all cylinders?

  • Two Home Heroes - After Daniel Ricciardo made his welcome return to the grid halfway through last season, we now find ourselves with two Aussie drivers, as the eight-time race winner shares the adoration of the crowd with bright young star Oscar Piastri. So, who can be the hero and give the masses in the grandstands something to cheer about?

  • Who can close the gap to Red Bull? - It is the seemingly ever-present question we grapple with going into a grand prix weekend, and while their start to the season is undeniably ominous, Ferrari have closed the gap at least from this time last year, so can they, or any other team give the champions a run for their money this weekend?

Albert Park in Years Gone By

Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

The first race to take place here in Melbourne was in 1996, when Williams teammates Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve went toe-to-toe. 

Neither driver was prepared to give the other any room to work with, until ultimately a mechanical issue for Villenueve forced him to yield the victory. 2002 saw another thriller — a proper back-and-forth affair between Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya, the German eventually squeezing past and taking the chequered flag. 

Last time out in Melbourne was highly entertaining too, with safety cars, red flags, and an unfortunate gaggle of late retirees only adding to the chaos, which the unsurpassable Max Verstappen expertly navigated to take the acclaim.

Last Race Recap

The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix had plenty of intriguing storylines, just not all too much action at the front. Despite a minor time penalty for Sergio Perez, he was able to follow home his teammate for a comfortable Red Bull 1-2, as Charles Leclerc could only make it to the lowest step of the podium. 

Oscar Piastri and Fernando Alonso had great races to score considerable points for their teams, while the seriously impressive Oliver Bearman managed to hold off the charge from fellow countrymen Lando Norris and Lewis Hamilton to claim seventh place. 

Nico Hulkenberg was aided by the rule-bending antics from his teammate Kevin Magnussen, who took multiple penalties in his efforts to hold up the chasing pack, securing a crucial point for Haas in their 2024 campaign. 

There wasn’t to be an upturn in Alpine’s fortunes, as they continued their catastrophic start to the 2024 season with an early retirement and the only surviving car getting lapped.

Drivers to Watch

Credit: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Oscar Piastri - Aussie Brilliance

The young McLaren driver has had a terrific start to proceedings this season, currently sitting fifth in the standings and importantly ahead of his very highly regarded teammate Norris. Born right here in Melbourne, Piastri will have the full support of the raucous crowd, and there is great potential for him to achieve a podium finish to cap a perfect weekend.

Fernando Alonso - Consistently Overachieving

When looking for drivers who are likely to go above and beyond expectations this weekend, the eye is naturally drawn to this man. A podium outing here last year and a solid fifth place finish in the last race two weeks ago can only provide the Spaniard with the perfect opportunity to show the world how good he remains at the ripe age of 42.

Marcus’ Predictions

Nothing short of victory will suffice for Verstappen here, and I can’t see anyone quite able to crack into the top two without a Red Bull at their disposal. I could see Piastri building on his strong start to the season with a podium, while Norris trails him in fourth, to stay in touch with his teammate in the standings. 

Charles Leclerc follows them in, while Alonso beats a still-recovering Sainz to take home a haul of points for Aston Martin. Mercedes still grab double points, while Alex Albon nabs the last point with a smart drive, as he did in 2022. Alpine still fail to achieve anything, and cannot escape the back row of the grid come qualifying.

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