NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturday: Time for Light’s Out in Melbourne

And so it begins.  The Formula 1 season sets the grid and then goes lights out this weekend in Melbourne, Australia.  As much as there’s been change, much has remained as it had.  The cars themselves have been altered only slightly, and that adjustment is to make the engines sound louder.  Otherwise, teams used the offseason to update the engine package they’d already been running – as long as they stayed with the same engine.

That engine swaps and manufacturer changes are some of the big storylines for the 2016 season.  But the one that most people will be following with possible hopeful optimism is whether or not Ferrari has closed the gap on Mercedes.

For the past two seasons, Mercedes has had their way with the field, winning all but three races last year.  Lewis Hamilton earned his third championship with three races remaining – THREE!  That’s not just impressive as much as it also shows a sense of dominance.

The series needs a foil at this point, and Ferrari is to F1 what the New York Yankees are to baseball. Love them or hate them, things are better when they’re running at the front.  (That Ferrari has the biggest and most widespread fanbase would seem to indicate that more people have an affinity for the prancing pony than not.)

The preseason testing showed that Ferrari had made gains but that Mercedes still ran afront by a notch.  Testing is not always the best way to determine anything as one team may be looking for speed, while another may be checking reliability or testing new components.  Then there’s the fact that some teams may hold back in an effort not to show everything they’ve got.

Regardless of the testing, there is hope that this season proves to be more competitive.

Odds & Sods

Red Bull and Renault acted as if they weren’t partners for nearly the entire 2015 season.  Red Bull even went so far as to intone they may quit the sport.  Renault took a more diplomatic stance but the strained relationship made them view other avenues if they wanted to remain in the sport.  Now they’re back as a factory team, having taken over the remnants of Lotus from Genii capital.

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Renault is back, sporting its prominent yellow livery (credit: Renault)

They’re sporting Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer as their drivers and returning to livery that acknowledges their heyday in the sport.  While Lotus showed some competitive drives last year, they were not top of the grid material.  The question of whether or not having the company backing will immediately improve the team’s fate will be one to watch.

Toro Rosso v Red Bull.  With Red Bull acting like a spoiled child, they found that no one wanted to supply them with engines for this year.  Ferrari, Mercedes, and Honda all balked at the prospect of working with the Milton Keynes outfit, which speaks volumes.  Thus, Red Bull is back with Renault though it will be known as the Tag Heuer powerplant, which is less a slap in the face than the Infiniti branded one from last year.

Toro Rosso, however, played friendly and secured Ferrari engines for this year – albeit the 2015 iteration.  The question that surrounds the two teams is whether the junior Red Bull outfit, Toro Rosso, will outperform Red Bull proper.  At times last year Toro Rosso looked to be the better of the two, and another season of the same might indeed mark the end for Red Bull – or massive amount of changes.

– It took two years, but Gene Haas will finally see his $300 million investment take to the track.  With Esteban Gutierrez and Romain Grosjean piloting the two entries, there will be a lot of curious eyes looking at whether or not it is possible to start an F1 team in today’s climate.

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The Haas F1 entry (credit: Steiner Creazione/Haas 2016)

Haas F1 will be running Ferrari engines in Dallara chasis.  The team had thought about joining the grid last year but postponed their efforts in the hope of putting a more stabile car on the track.  So far they haven’t looked like the total rookies they may be and the decision has looked smart. How often the drivers finish in the points will be the true measure.

The Race

This race weekend marked the debut of the new qualifying system and it seemed to come off like a dud.  In each of the three sessions, drivers have time to post a lap but about mid-way through each (time varies between the three), drivers are eliminated on 90-second intervals. The hope was to make qualifying more challenging and to put more cars on the track at one time. Instead, the opposite occurred.

Teams looked like they had not quite strategized for posting their fastest times to remain alive and move on to the next session.  Bernie Ecclestone, politely called the new format “crap” but also noted that Mercedes is pretty tough to beat.

One of the benefits of failing to advance is that teams have more tyres left for the race.  Hence some teams that saw no realistic chance of making it on track to lap a better time or felt they would not improve instead chose to park their car and bank the tyres.  The option of having more super-soft tyres available provides for a better chance of moving through the field during the race.

The race itself has been held 79 times and in each consecutive year since 1947.  Since 1996, the series races at Melbourne’s Albert Park.  While relatively flat, the course is comprised of 16 turns and is 3.295 miles in length.  Michael Schumacher leads all drivers with four wins, while Jenson Button leads the active drivers with three wins, though his last came in 2012.

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