Following a two-week interval, Formula One is back for the third round of the season with the return of the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne.
It’s the first time the paddock have been back at what had previously been a traditional season opener since 2020 where the race was dramatically cancelled on the eve of Friday practice following the outbreak of Coronavirus.
Much water has passed under the F1 bridge since but heading into this weekend there is already plenty of talking points from the title battle between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen to the ongoing struggles at Mercedes for Lewis Hamilton for the third round of the season.
Including those topics, here are six reasons to look forward to the Australian Grand Prix.
Formula One is back for the Australian Grand Prix for the first time since the 2019 season
Can Mercedes find pace in Melbourne?
Following their relative poor performance at the start of the season there were hopes Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton could be hopeful of at least a slight up turn in fortunes this weekend.
And damn do they need it. Even factoring in a double retirement for Red Bull in Bahrain they could only scrape a third place with Lewis Hamilton, while the seven-time world champion was way off the pace in Saudi Arabia after finishing 10th.
George Russell showed a bit more performance by claiming fifth in Jeddah – albeit a distant one behind Ferrari and Red Bull.
Mercedes had trimmed their rear wing in Jeddah hoping to find a solution to their porpoising problem – which sees their car noticeably bounce on the suspension at high speeds.
While they found little, if any improvement, they had hoped to bring some upgrades to Albert Park including a new floor and a rear wing. It now looks like though the team will be running the same package that saw them struggle so badly last time out in Saudi Arabia.
That’s only bad news for Hamilton, who in his ambition to win an eighth world championship cannot afford to have many more weekends where he is dropping lots of points to his supposed title challengers. He has though been on pole position at the circuit every year since 2014… albeit winning just once in 2015.
Mercedes have been struggling in the early part of the season with porpoising issues
The seven-time world champion arrives at Albert Park standing alongside his father Anthony
Sebastian Vettel’s season finally starts
Not so long ago arriving in Australia for the first race of the season was what many of the drivers did.
Little has changed for Sebastian Vettel whose 2022 campaign at Aston Martin finally gets underway at Albert Park this weekend.
Problem is, everyone else already has two races under their belt and it leaves the German still waiting to make his debut in the new F1 cars while most others already have two full length grands prix in the tank following races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The 34-year-old was replaced by Nico Hulkenberg for the opening two races, but the team will now be delighted to have their four-time world champion back behind the wheel in a bid to turn around their fortunes.
Along with Williams, Aston Martin are one of only two teams without a point so far this season and have been left struggling outside of the points as one of the slowest teams in the field.
Vettel is a three-time winner in Melbourne and while a fourth success is out of the question his team will be desperate for him to help get their season back on track.
After missing two races due to Covid, Sebastian Vettel is back behind the Aston Martin wheel
Max vs Charles – round three
The major highlight of the season so far has been the duels in Sakhir and Jeddah between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen in what is already shaping up to become the title tussle to focus on.
The two produced the biggest highlights of the first two races, after swapping positions for the lead lap-after-lap to leave fans on the edge of their seats.
While Australia may perhaps not lend itself to a similar on-track battle emerging, the dynamics of Ferrari vs Red Bull will continue to be the major talking point in this early part of the season.
Ferrari managed to hold off Red Bull on pace in Bahrain but Verstappen hit back in Saudi Arabia to ensure there really is little to separate them on pace. Verstappen’s retirement in Sakhir means Leclerc already has a 20-point cushion over the world champion though so it’s another race that could lend itself to the Red Bull star going all out for victory in his early bid to play catch up.
It’s all smiles between the pair for now, but then even Hamilton and Verstappen’s early 2021 scraps were fairly good natured – and we know how that all turned out once the stakes became higher…
Charles Leclerc (left) and Max Verstappen (right) are set to resume their early season rivalry
The Ferrari and Red Bull stars have excited fans with their on-track battles this season
New track layout
Traditionally being the opening race, the Australian Grand Prix has always been one to look forward to as one of intrigue to see where the F1 land actually rests following pre-season testing.
But scratch beneath that and it has produced little on-track action especially in the last decade. Only Hungary and Monaco see typically fewer overtakes, but the F1 chiefs have worked on solving that issue this year.
The major update for the track sees the removal of the chicane at what was turn nine and 10, leaving a long stretch of road to produce a new back straight where DRS will be in use.
And DRS is sure to be a key feature this year, with three other areas of the circuit also featuring the device which stalls the rear wing and increases top speed to boost overtaking opportunities.
It’s been key to the highlights on track at the start of the season and in Melbourne it will also be in use on the start/finish straight, the short straight after the opening chicane and also on the high speed run down to turn 11 following the quick chicane after the end of sector two.
It promises to lend itself to more overtaking but Haas’s Kevin Magnussen is already unhappy with the removal of the chicane, claiming it was ‘over the top’, stating: ‘Maybe removing at least what was Turn 9/10 [before], I don’t think they needed to do that.’
The former chicane at turns nine and ten (above) has been scrapped as part of a new layout
Can Schumacher hit back for Haas?
We’ve only had two races and already the inter-team battles are taking shape, and so early in the season it’s become an intriguing one down at Haas.
Two races into his F1 return and Kevin Magnussen has already got his feet under the table again at Haas with consecutive race finishes – including outpacing Lewis Hamilton in Jeddah – seeing him record 16 points.
Meanwhile his team-mate Mick Schumacher has already been tagged at the first corner of Bahrain before finishing 11th, while in Saudi Arabia his huge crash during qualifying saw him wreck his car so badly that he didn’t start the race.
It puts the son of seven-time world champion Michael severely on the backfoot heading to Melbourne, especially with the team also admitting they have no spare chassis this weekend following Schumacher’s Jeddah crash.
Schumacher saw off the challenge of Nikita Mazepin last term, but Magnussen is already providing a sterner test and having been outpaced by the Dane so far, he will need to quickly reboot his season to get back on track.
Mick Schumacher will be looking to kick-start his stuttering season with the Haas team
Ricciardo back on home soil
While the first two races have delivered the bottom line by providing exciting grands prix, there’s been little for locals to get behind in terms of home favourites.
The Australian Grand Prix represents the first home race of the season for a driver and it brings Daniel Ricciardo back to his homeland in a grand prix car for the first time since 2019.
Australia is back on the calendar for the first time since having missed the last two seasons due to do Covid, and locals will be keen to see the McLaren driver on track who will be desperate to put on a performance following a slow start to the season.
The 32-year-old from Perth has struggled for form so far having finished 14th in Bahrain and retired from the event in Saudi Arabia to leave him without a point.
However Ricciardo admits McLaren’s early season struggles means just recording a points finish will feel like a victory.
‘Maybe we will be lucky and fight for points. I know we’re not aiming very high with that, but that’s the only thing we can go for at the moment,’ he told the Dutch version of GPfans.
‘Until we get major updates to the car, I think any place in the top ten feels like a win. Lando and I felt in Jeddah that the car felt a lot better.
‘It doesn’t feel bad, we just need a bit more grip and downforce. That’s encouraging. I don’t think we are out of the race, we just need to find improvements.’
Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo was mobbed by fans as he arrived at the circuit on Thursday
The McLaren driver will be cheered on by locals for the event at Albert Park, Melbourne
Advertising hoardings have gone up around the circuit supporting the home favourite