F1 Australian GP preview: Ferrari sets sights on Red Bull, Albon seeks redemption

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Max Verstappen will enter Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix chasing a record-equalling 10th consecutive victory, but the Formula One world champion hasn’t been entirely at ease so far this weekend.

It took until the final stage of qualifying at Albert Park for Verstappen to really hit his stride as he beat Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz to pole position by nearly three-tenths of a second.

But with Ferrari looking the strongest it has this season — even with Sainz still not at full fitness after undergoing abdominal surgery two weeks ago — and some big unknowns over the level of tire wear in Melbourne, Verstappen is braced for what he mused could be an “interesting race” at the front on Sunday.

Here are the key storylines to watch out for in the 2024 Australian Grand Prix.

Unknowns remain for Verstappen, even from pole

Midway through qualifying on Saturday, there was a genuine moment when it seemed Verstappen might not score pole position. He finished third in Q1 and Q2 and wasn’t comfortable with the balance of his Red Bull car, lacking the total confidence needed for the long, flowing corners around Albert Park.

A few setup adjustments – “tickles,” to quote Verstappen – helped remedy that for Q3, allowing him to make a big step forward. But he admitted after taking pole that Red Bull had been chasing things “quite a bit more than I would have liked” so far this weekend, opening the door for Ferrari to pose a challenge.

“Maybe it’s because we were not on top of things, but they looked well dialed in from the start,” Verstappen said. “Probably from our side, it was a bit the opposite way, and we managed to improve it.”

Red Bull typically holds an advantage over Ferrari over longer distances on race day. However, the added unknown in Australia is the high level of tire wear. Pirelli went one step softer with its tire picks for this Australian GP, giving drivers more grip and less tire life, especially in sunny conditions. The first two races suggested Ferrari has gotten on top of the tire degradation struggles of the previous couple of years, making it less of an Achilles’ heel.

It means a two-stop race is expected, with the soft tire unlikely to be used unless badly needed. The hard tires are so valuable to teams that none have used either of their two sets per driver, leaving question marks over how they will hold up tomorrow.

Throw in a safety car probability of 67 percent, according to F1, and the memories of last year’s late-race drama, and you can understand why Verstappen’s bid to match his own 10-race win streak from last year might not be a total cakewalk.

Can Ferrari really challenge Red Bull?

Carlos Sainz may be two weeks removed from surgery after being diagnosed with appendicitis, but the Spaniard may just be Ferrari’s best chance this weekend at beating Red Bull, even though he’s still not at 100 percent.

“I think it’s impossible to feel 100 percent after spending seven to ten days in bed like I did, just trying to recover. But the good thing is that I have no pain. I just have discomfort, and obviously, everything feels a bit weird inside, but I can push—especially today, I could push flat out.”

It’s an improvement from Friday when Sainz needed to make a few “tweaks.” But the adrenaline kicked in when qualifying began, and he felt he “could go for it, which is a good thing.” Sainz went fastest in Q1 and Q2 but came up 0.270s short in Q3 to Verstappen’s pole position lap. He knows he “left some time on the table in Q3,” which he said was “disappointing, but it’s normal also.” Sainz’s last qualifying session was on March 1 in Bahrain, and he is still learning the new SF-24.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the garage, Charles Leclerc felt “like it was going away a little bit from me, but I was confident it would come back, the feeling in qualifying, as is normally the case whenever we have a strange feeling in FP3. Then you put the new tires on in quali, low fuel, and everything comes alive again. Today wasn’t the case.”

Leclerc felt he didn’t have a clean Saturday and wasn’t driving as well as during Friday’s practice sessions (though he doubted pole position would be possible on Friday). “The feeling wasn’t right,” Leclerc said. “From FP3, it was much more difficult to have a clean lap. (On Friday,) every lap I was doing, it was all clean, all good, and today, there was either one axle or the other that could go away; that was mostly down to tire preparation, and I don’t think I’ve done a great job on that today. That’s a snowball effect for the rest of the lap. That’s where I missed out.”

Beating Verstappen is a tall order. The Dutchman is looking to tie his own record of consecutive race wins, which he set last year, and Sainz said, “Nowadays you need to be 100 percent to beat Max.” Pushing for the win would be rather challenging on Leclerc’s side when looking at it realistically, so he’s setting his target “to try and come back and be on the podium, and if beating Checo, we’ll try.” (Leclerc will start in front of Sergio Pérez after the Red Bull driver incurred a three-place grid penalty, dropping him to P6, for impeding Nico Hülkenberg in Q1.) But for Sainz, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

“If there’s one weekend where we have a good pace, it’s this one. Tricky track to overtake, tricky on tires so who knows. I think we might have a chance.”

Mercedes seeks consistency and confidence

No matter how upbeat Mercedes seems to get about its chances with the W15 car, like solving many of the deep-rooted issues that made its two predecessors such divas to drive, the team is struggling to find consistency right now.

Lewis Hamilton, an eight-time pole-sitter in Melbourne, was bumped out in Q2 by Lance Stroll and Yuki Tsunoda’s late improvements, leaving the Briton 11th on the grid. Teammate George Russell reached Q3 but could only qualify seventh, trailing the Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren cars. For a team that could have been Ferrari’s ballpark in Bahrain with some cooling issues, the reality is it has slipped into being the fourth-fastest in Melbourne.

Lewis Hamilton didn’t make it out of Q2. (WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)

There’s also a lack of consistency across the garage in the drivers’ experiences. Hamilton continues to struggle for confidence in the W15, saying it felt like it was on a “knife edge” in qualifying as he played around with different setups in search of answers.

“There’s these spikes of ‘it could be good’ like this morning (in FP3), then it disappears,” Hamilton explained. “If we can find a way of (keeping) that goodness in the car, making it more consistent and holding onto that, maybe we can be more competitive.”

Russell is happier with how his car feels, simply acknowledging the performance isn’t there. “It was a difficult day, but we still qualified P7,” he said. For that to be Mercedes’ lead car, eight-tenths of a second back from pole, shows how much work there still is to do. Banking some solid points tomorrow may help provide answers and temper the current fluctuations.

The weight on Albon’s shoulders

It’s not a normal weekend for Williams.

The Grove-based team withdrew Logan Sargeant from the race after Alex Albon crashed his car during FP1 on Friday, causing significant damage. Without a spare chassis, Williams had to decide which driver would pilot the remaining car, ultimately landing on Albon, who scored 27 of the team’s 28 points and out-qualified Sargeant 22 times in 2023.

Was it a fair move? No. But the decision boiled down to performance.

“Every point will make a difference between now and the end of the year,” team boss James Vowles said. “You therefore put your money on the driver who this year has been slightly ahead of the other one, which is Alex.

“So I’ve reset everything. (I’ve) taken a view from Bahrain, taken a view from Saudi, and taken a view from here of which of the two drivers was more likely to score a point.”



Inside Williams’ ruthless Sargeant call in Melbourne, and why pressure looms for Japan

Albon qualified eighth ahead of this race last year, but on Saturday, he secured P12. The Williams driver will line up next to Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, and it’s unlikely the seven-time world champion will be outside of points for long, regardless of the W15’s “inconsistency.” Albon wagers that his race will be with RB’s Yuki Tsunoda, who made it to Q3 and qualified eighth.

“It’s one thing making a mistake and the pressure of trying to deliver a performance in qualifying, but it’s another feeling when you’ve been given responsibility, and I take that responsibility, it’s not lost on me,” Albon said when asked if he feels more pressure given the situation. “So yeah, it’s tough, but at the same time, the only thing you can do is focus on your job, and put it all behind you, and treat the weekend like a normal weekend. We’re obviously a session down, but generally, that’s all I can really do, and so far, we’ve done a good job and just got to keep it going, and the ultimate kind of payback to Logan would be some points.”

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Two very different weekends so far for the Aussie drivers, Daniel Ricciardo and Oscar Piastri. (Sipa USA)

Contrasting home fortunes for Ricciardo and Piastri

Saturday was likely a day of mixed emotions for Australia between Daniel Ricciardo qualifying P18 after exceeding track limits, his final lap time being deleted, and Oscar Piastri qualifying P6.

Ricciardo knew he went wider than usual at Turn 4, but what is interesting is that by the end of the lap, he had forgotten. The RB driver said, “I knew at the time, Turn 4, I was fighting it, and I remember taking more curb than I usually am, so I knew I was wider than usual. But it’s funny, you do it, and already after Turn 5, I’ve forgotten about it. So I did the lap, and then eventually, when Pierre told me, honestly, I’d forgot all about it. I think it took a while for it to sink in.”

It’s the first time in Ricciardo’s 14-year career that he’s been knocked out in Q1 at Albert Park. And to add insult to injury, his teammate once again out-qualified him. Around seven-tenths of a second separated Ricciardo and Tsunoda in Q1. Track evolution does occur as qualifying wears on, but not to that extent.

“I feel like I’m at the edge with the car, in terms of like four wheels sliding, so it’s balance and I feel now I’m at the limit of where its potential is,” Ricciardo said. “After Saudi, we saw some things across cars; the team changed quite a lot and gave me quite a few new parts for this weekend to address some of those issues and concerns. It looked like it was better, but I’m still not fully convinced. Like I said, we still feel like we’re struggling more than we normally are in a car that, again, I’m pretty happy with.”

Meanwhile, Piastri made it to Q3 but felt he had a bad session, leaving more time on the table as he struggled on tire warm-up. Ultimately, he made “too many mistakes when it mattered.” After Friday’s practice sessions, the Australian said in the team’s recap they “were a bit up-and-down” but felt “optimistic.”

The high-speed corners in Sectors 1 and 2 play towards McLaren’s strengths, but the slower, tighter corners in Sector 3 highlight a weakness. Even before cars hit the track, Piastri expressed caution when asked what would be realistically possible for the Australian GP weekend.

“Being in the fight for the third quickest team is probably where we’re at at the moment. I think we were a step closer to being close to Ferrari, at least anyway in Saudi, but we don’t quite have enough at the moment. So I think, probably, the fight is with Mercedes at the moment for us,” Piastri said Thursday. “Hopefully, we can start challenging a bit more later in the year, but for now, I think as much as I don’t want to put people’s hopes down at home, I think any more than sort of P5 is going to require some good fortune.”

Both Mercedes drivers are lined up behind him on Sunday, Russell qualifying seventh while Hamilton is in P11.

Top photo of Alex Albon and Carlos Sainz: Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images and SIPA USA/USA Today

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