World champion Max Verstappen is looking forward to a “smooth weekend” to build on his victory in Saudi Arabia, but is concerned about the revamped Albert Park circuit as Formula 1 returns to Melbourne after a two-year hiatus.
The 24-year-old Red Bull driver was a relieved man after battling for a thrilling victory ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in Jeddah last month.
It was a satisfying victory for Verstappen after Leclerc of Monaco won the season’s opening grand prix in Bahrain as the Dutchman failed to finish the race.
The two young rivals are once again shaping up as the men to beat in the third race of the year, with seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton desperately in need of improvement from Mercedes on a track where he climbed eight poles, including the last six.
It will be a new experience for all drivers, as Albert Park has undergone its most significant modification since it first hosted the Grand Prix in 1996.
The resurfacing was completely resurfaced with seven corners modified and two removed, reducing the number of turns to 14, providing more overtaking opportunities and lap times up to five seconds faster than in the past.
“It will be interesting to see the track updates, I think they will make a big difference, especially in turn six where the most important change has taken place,” said Verstappen, who is 20 points behind Leclerc in the drivers’ standings.
“There should be more overtaking now too, which is always a positive. It will be interesting to see the car perform in Australia, the track can sometimes be dusty. Hopefully we can have another smooth weekend as a team.”
Verstappen made his Formula 1 debut in Melbourne in 2015 for Red Bull rookie Toro Rosso.
Hamilton, who has won more Formula One races than any driver in history, has twice topped the podium in Australia, but not since 2015.
Vettel is back
His chances of doing so again look slim based on the evidence in the opening two races, with Mercedes struggling with speed and downforce management, leading the Briton to complain in Saudi Arabia that his car was “irreplaceable”.
After finishing third in Bahrain, when none of the Red Bull team finished, he managed to only take 10th place in Jeddah, having qualified in 16th place.
Team boss Toto Wolff is not hoping for big improvements in Melbourne.
“There will be no magic bullet for the next race this weekend,” he said.
Albert Park had previously held the season opener every year since 1996, but was moved to third on the calendar this time to allow for the easing of Covid restrictions in Victoria state.
Missed Melbourne in 2021 due to strict quarantine and entry regulations, after 2020 was dramatically canceled ahead of Friday’s first official training session as concerns mounted after a McLaren staff member tested positive.
Valtteri Bottas, now driving for Alfa Romeo, won the last Australian Grand Prix three years ago, ahead of then-Mercedes teammate Hamilton by 20.886 seconds, the biggest victory difference of the Finn’s 10 races won.
Australia will celebrate the first Grand Prix of the season for four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who was sidelined after testing positive for Covid ahead of the Bahrain season opener.
“For me, after almost a month out of the car, it will be important to learn throughout the practice sessions,” said the Aston Martin driver, whose team has not scored a point in the world championship.
“I hope we can take some steps forward in an exciting and unpredictable race,” the German said.
Vettel is a three-time winner at Albert Park – in 2011, 2017 and 2018. Other than Hamilton and Bottas, the only other driver on the grid this weekend who tasted victory in Australia is Fernando Alonso, but that was 16 years ago at Renault.