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F1 returns to Melbourne

Two years after the Australian Grand Prix was scrapped due to COVID-19 hours before the first practice, Formula One returns Down Under to an upgraded Albert Park and a warm welcome from local fans starved of elite motor sport through the pandemic.

Grand Prix Formula One Australia 2019
2019 Australian grand prix Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Plenty has changed since Valtteri Bottas won the 2019 race for Mercedes in Melbourne, kicking off another season dominated by former team mate Lewis Hamilton and the Silver Arrows.

In its first upgrade in a quarter of a century, Albert Park has been re-surfaced and had corners removed to encourage passing and hopefully put an end to processional race-days.

Mercedes and Hamilton, meanwhile, have fallen off their perch, leaving Ferrari and Red Bull the talk of the paddock after the season-opening swing through Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

The Ferrari car's early strength and the budding rivalry between Charles Leclerc and Red Bull's world champion Max Verstappen has motor sport pundits raving.

Whether it is renewed interest in the series or just a spell of balmy autumn weather, fans thronged to Albert Park on Thursday and bumper crowds are tipped through the weekend in a city which spent some 260 days locked down through the pandemic.

"The drivers are smiling, fans are smiling and the weather gods are smiling on us," Australian Grand Prix Corporation boss Andrew Westacott said.

"It's a much, much quicker circuit and I expect it's going to produce great racing on the weekend."

Many fans will hope that means more duelling between Dutchman Verstappen and fellow 24-year-old Leclerc, whose battles lit up the Middle Eastern double-header.

Verstappen, who had a non-finish at Bahrain but bounced back a winner in Saudi Arabia, said he would prefer to avoid going wheel-to-wheel with Leclerc by driving an improved car.

"For the viewers, it's good," he said on Thursday of their rivalry which dates back to their go-karting days.

"Of course I enjoy the battles but I'm also more focused on actually trying to make the car better and to get a better feeling in the car, and then hopefully we don't need to battle in every single race."

Mclaren driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia.
Daniel Riccardo hoping to become the first Australian to win his home grand prix Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Verstappen said Red Bull had made "little steps" developing their car since Jeddah but stopped short of tipping a big weekend in Melbourne.

"We'll do our best but at the moment we don't know how the car's going to perform," he said.

Mercedes might also fall into that camp, having produced a car that bounces, or 'porpoises', on the straights as downforce comes and goes.

After Hamilton finished 10th in Jeddah and his new team mate George Russell came fifth, the team are 40 points behind Ferrari, and just one clear of Red Bull who suffered dual retirements in Bahrain.

Team boss Toto Wolff warned there would be no "magic fix" for the W13 car's troubles in time for Sunday's race.

"But we're pushing to steadily bring gains over the upcoming races, to hopefully move us closer to the front of the pack."

Four-times world champion Sebastian Vettel may be grateful just to be racing, after missing the first two rounds due to a positive COVID-19 test.

The Aston Martin driver's seat was filled by Nico Hulkenberg but he makes his return in Melbourne, hoping to notch his team's first points of the season.

Stats:

Lap distance: 5.275km. Total distance: 305.950km (58 laps)

The most recent race at Albert Park was in 2019 and the circuit has been shortened by 28 metres since, with two turns taken out and seven corners modified. It is now considered a new layout.

Start time: 0500 GMT (1500 local)

AUSTRALIA

No Australian driver has ever won a home grand prix.

There have been 13 Australian F1 drivers since 1950 and two world champions -- Jack Brabham and Alan Jones. McLaren's Daniel Ricciardo is the only Australian in Sunday's race.

This year's race will be the 25th to be held at Albert Park, and 36th Australian Grand Prix. It was held in Adelaide, as the final race of the year, between 1985 and 1995.

Four current drivers have won before in Melbourne and three are world champions: Lewis Hamilton (2008, 2015), Sebastian Vettel (2011, 2017, 2018) and Fernando Alonso (2006). The odd man out is Valtteri Bottas, winner for Mercedes in 2019.

Aston Martin's Vettel is starting his season this weekend after missing the first two races due to COVID-19.

Hamilton has been on pole in Melbourne for the last six editions and eight times in total (2008, 2012, 2014 to 2019), a record for the race.

The lowest starter to win was Britain's Eddie Irvine from 11th in 1999 for Ferrari. Fifteen of the 24 races in Melbourne have been won from the front row.

RACE WINS

Hamilton has a record 103 career victories from 290 starts, the most recent being in Saudi Arabia last December.

Ferrari have won 239 races since 1950, McLaren 183, Mercedes 124, Williams 114 and Red Bull 76.

Ferrari have made their best start to a season since 2004.

POLE POSITION

Hamilton has a record 103 career poles, most recently qualifying fastest in Saudi Arabia last year.

POINTS

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc is 12 points clear of team mate Carlos Sainz after two races. Sainz has finished the last 17 races in the points.

Haas have scored in successive races for the first time since 2019.

Aston Martin and Williams have yet to score a point in 2022.

MILESTONE

Mercedes are chasing their 125th win in Formula One.

Four drivers are racing in Australia for the first time -- Nicholas Latifi (Williams), Mick Schumacher (Haas), Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) and Guanyu Zhou (Alfa Romeo).

-Reuters

source: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/sport/464864/f1-returns-to-melbourne