Cool weather to turn F1 opener into lottery
Cool weather forecast for this weekend's Australian Grand Prix has left teams anxious about the performance of the new Pirelli tires and the risk they could turn the Formula One season-opening race into a lottery.
All teams struggled to adjust to the higher-degradation tires during preseason testing, but were assured by Pirelli the performance was due to the cool European conditions and that the new rubber would perform better in the warmer weather in Australia.
That may have been the case when Melbourne was going through a record-breaking heatwave, but that ended on Wednesday and the forecast on Saturday and Sunday was for cooler temperatures and rain.
McLaren driver Jenson Button was among those concerned about the tire performance this weekend, despite his deserved reputation for nursing tires better than most and the fact he has won three of the past four races at the Albert Park street circuit.
"This year, I don't think any team really knows or understands the competitive order," Button said. "It's been an extremely hard-to-read winter: Varying fuel loads and levels of tire degradation mean that it's hard to accurately predict."
Pirelli's F1 boss, Paul Hembery, predicted a two or three-stop strategy for Sunday's race, but that was predicated on warm conditions and on the evidence of winter testing. The cooler weather may change that calculation drastically.
Another man monitoring the tire performance with some concern is Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, who will be the most scrutinized man on track this weekend, having made the big-money move from McLaren in the offseason.
"With big changes to the tires again this year, we just don't know what will happen in the race," Hamilton said. "I love the circuit. It's a street track with a really bumpy surface so you try and put as much downforce on the car as possible and it really puts the drivers to the test.
"We had a good, reliable car during winter testing so that's the positive we can take with us into the weekend but we know that in terms of performance, everything begins again from zero in Friday practice."
While most teams and drivers are understandably cautious about predicting performance in any season-opener, Lotus was going against the trend, boldly tipping a strong performance in Melbourne after promising testing - albeit with some technical glitches.
"From right back in Jerez it was clear that there are a number of quick teams out there," Lotus technical director James Allison said. "It was also clear from the first test that we have the potential to be one of them and the evidence of our running so far hasn't done anything to dispel that.
"We'll be in the hunt for podiums and very much looking for race wins. A good Albert Park would be a first-row grid place from qualifying and a podium in the race. It's certainly possible."
Lotus, three-time defending champion Red Bull, Ferrari and most other teams have used a conservative approach to their 2013 designs, with only minor tweaks to the 2012 cars.
That was because there are few technical regulation changes this season, and a radically new design will be required in 2014 to accommodate six-cylinder turbo engines.
McLaren has made the most changes of the leading teams, and team principal Martin Whitmarsh acknowledged the potential for a slow start to the season, saying that whatever the team manages in Melbourne should be vastly improved upon as the campaign wears on.
"No team principal will be genuinely confident of his car's race-spec performance relative to that of his principal opposition until the flag drops and the proverbial stops," Whitmarsh said.
"In addition to that motor racing truism, it's important to remember that our MP4-28 is a new and uncompromising design that we intend to develop aggressively throughout the year."
The off-track politics of F1 will be put on hold for the season-opener, with series supremo Bernie Ecclestone opting not to attend the race.
Local organisers were keen to dispel talk of any rift with series officials despite F1's eagerness for a night race and local resistance to spending the required eight-figure sum to install lights around the temporary circuit.
"Bernie Ecclestone runs a business that spans 19 or 20 races, and he is simply unable to come this weekend," Australian Grand Prix Corporation chief executive Andrew Westacott said, stressing there will be efforts to extend the race contract, which expires in 2015.
"The government has always said that the negotiations are going to take place early next year or later this year, so it changes nothing from our point of view."