Melbourne possesses an interesting climate. For most places in the world, it’s unusual to have a 10-15 degree temperature shift within the space of just a few days or weeks, but this is a frequent occurrence here. The challenge presented by these variations comes in setting cooling levels on the cars. While teams are attempting to tune cooling packages to within one or two degrees, there is a huge variable that they must attempt to forecast and predict. Performance can be lost through over-cooling the car, but if cooling levels are insufficient then a mistake has been made which will likely lead to a non-finish. It’s quite easy to see which path to prioritise, but the engineers must work as close to the line as possible.
Tyres can be affected by a few degrees change in track temperature. To give an order of magnitude, pre-season testing in Bahrain often saw more than a second and a half difference in lap time from the worst part of the day to the best. As track temperature changes, so do the balance of the car, the performance of the tyres and the feeling for the driver. The race in Melbourne is slightly offset in terms of timing with the 17:00 start. Conditions on the Friday morning will likely be much warmer, causing the tyres to behave in a different manner to that expected during the race. Free Practice Two will provide more representative conditions with a track that cools throughout the session, and teams will have to find a setup that’s flexible enough to cope with that variable.
Albert Park has seen 11 Safety Car deployments spread over five races in the past ten years. The first race of the season not only sees cars that are fundamentally less reliable but also drivers who are anxious to score as many points as possible. Although one early result will not decide the championship, it is a huge psychological advantage to come away from Melbourne with a win. This naturally means you get a few more incidents than you would do normally. The fundamental reason for Safety Car deployments, however, lies in the fact that there is very little space around the circuit. In the event of an incident, the Safety Car is therefore necessary to neutralise the race so that marshals can safely clear debris or remove a car from the circuit if it has broken down.
Albert Park is not a permanent circuit. This is most obvious in the wet, when drivers frequently make mistakes over the painted lines. In the difficult conditions between dry and wet running there is a lot more variability than at a ‘normal’ circuit, which teams must capitalise on where possible. Unlike most race weekends, however, there are a large number of racing series running in parallel to Formula One. While there is no circuit in the world where track evolution is not a factor, this is far less significant a factor in Melbourne than you might expect, as there are so many other cars running that the circuit actually gets cleaned relatively well.
Overtaking is not as prevalent here as at some other circuits. The straights are shorter, and the layout has not been formulated with the same design principles as some of the more modern circuits such as Malaysia, Bahrain or China for example. Overtaking is still possible – the main opportunity arising into Turn Three after the DRS Zone – but clear-cut opportunities are few and far between. Drivers must be brave and committed in the risks taken to grasp these opportunities, with the probability of accidents high.