Formula 1: Lights Out - What to look for in Australian GP
It's been a long two weeks for fans after the 2022 Formula 1 season kicked off with a dramatic double-header, but round three is upon us as the teams return to Australia after a three-year absence.
A lot has changed in the world of F1 since Valtteri Bottas took the chequered flag at Albert Park in 2019 and it would take a minor miracle for Mercedes to achieve another one-two here, with the Silver Arrows priced at 21.00 for a double podium finish.
While Mercedes have taken a step backwards, Ferrari have leapt towards the front and the Italian team are already in to 7.00 to win the Constructors' Championship after building up a 41-point lead over main rivals Red Bull (1.12).
Revamped Albert Park promises improved racing
The three-year hiatus from Albert Park has afforded bosses plenty of time to complete a revamp of the track which was originally planned in 2019 and the new-look circuit should provide a much more entertaining spectacle than we are used to.
Tight, narrow and with a very clear optimal racing line, overtaking in modern F1 cars was extremely difficult around Albert Park, but the new changes, on the face of it, look positive.
Two corners - the chicane of turns 9 and 10 - have been completely removed and five more - turns 1, 3, 6, 11 and 13 - have been widened, promoting a variety of possible lines and improving overtaking opportunities.
Add that to a freshly-laid surface, the increased pit lane speed limit and a record four DRS zones and all the signs point towards a much more unpredictable race.
Watch out for DRS shenanigans
The battle for the race lead in Jeddah was defined by both drivers' intelligent use of the DRS detection zone, with both Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc slamming on the brakes heading into the final corner in an attempt to gain the advantage of DRS down the pit straight.
The unprecedented four DRS zones in Melbourne, which cover almost all the flat-out sections of the track, could lead to yet more shenanigans.
Located on the approach to turn 13, the main point of interest is DRS Detection Zone 2. Any intentional attempt to be behind at this point would force the driver to follow his competitor through the final corner, but it then presents the opportunity to open the rear wing on both the pit straight and the flat-out section between turns 2 and 3.
Being on the exit of turn 6, the other DRS Detection Zone is unlikely to offer any opportunities for gamesmanship, but the third DRS zone, which this detection point covers, could present the clearest overtaking opportunity of the circuit as they fly into the 90-degree right hander of turn 11.
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Title contenders rise above the trailing pack
The regulation overhaul in 2022 promised improved wheel-to-wheel racing and a possible shake-up of the pecking order and, if the first two races are anything to go by, the rule-makers have made good on their promise.
Charles Leclerc has been a Drivers' Championship winner in the making ever since he won the 2017 Formula 2 Championship by a 72-point margin in his debut season. Now, he finally has the car to compete and the early signs suggest we could be in for another titanic battle between two generational talents.
The first two races of the 2022 season have been filled with enthralling battles between Leclerc and defending champion Max Verstappen and there is little to suggest any driver on the grid has the car or the ability to dislodge them from the top.
Leclerc leads the way by 20 points, but were it not for Max Verstappen's breakdown in Bahrain the gap would be just two points and Melbourne could be anybody's game.
The old layout of Albert Park would likely have favoured the Ferrari, which has looked fantastic through the corners with a high-downforce setup.
However, the removal of turns 9 and 10 has effectively created a huge flat-out section of the track, perhaps tipping the scales back in Red Bull's favour after Verstappen registered a 14km/h advantage over Leclerc in Jeddah.
With Verstappen and Leclerc priced at 2.50 and 1.90 respectively to win the race, it would be a surprise to see anything other than these two contenders driving off into the distance in Melbourne.
Mercedes struggles show no signs of ending
Lewis Hamilton has the chance to become the sole record holder for most pole positions at the same Grand Prix this weekend, but at 41.00 it is clear that Mercedes' issues are ongoing and his chances of a ninth pole - and seventh consecutive pole - in Australia are slim.
The seven-time world champion was eliminated in Qualifying 1 in Jeddah after an experimental set-up went wrong and his podium in Bahrain was gifted rather than earned after Red Bull's late double retirement.
The problem appears to be the need to sacrifice aerodynamic performance in order to stop the porpoising that has plagued the Mercedes W13, but, worryingly for Hamilton and team-mate George Russell, team principal Toto Wolff has claimed this won't be a quick and easy fix.
It's not just Mercedes suffering, either. All teams running the Mercedes power unit are having issues and the results in Jeddah showed it wasn't just a blip in Bahrain.
The bottom three finishers in Saudi Arabia were all piloting Mercedes-powered cars and a further two drivers running a Mercedes engine retired, while Hamilton could only manage to work his way up to tenth.
Lando Norris' seventh-place finish in Jeddah was a silver lining and there are suggestions the new-look Albert Park Circuit could favour the struggling McLaren.
Both Norris and Australian team-mate Daniel Ricciardo - who are 1.28 and 1.57 respectively to finish in the points - have stated their McLaren's main issue lies in the slower corners, so the faster, more flowing layout of the track should result in a more competitive car.
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