Downforce decision key to Red Bull’s pursuit of Ferrari in Melbourne RaceFans

As the traditional season-opener for Formula 1 having held more first rounds of the season than any other venue, the Australian Grand Prix is ​​usually a race shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.

However, after two weekends’ worth of data to draw from and two Friday practice sessions around Albert Park, it’s far easier to read into the results from the first day of running in Melbourne this time around – even with a revised track layout.

Ferrari had taken the first round in Bahrain with Charles Leclerc fending off Max Verstappen and Red Bull’s best efforts before reliability woes ended their race. Then, Red Bull fought back in Saudi Arabia by making effective use of a low downforce set up around the high-speed Jeddah circuit.

Heading into Melbourne, Verstappen was coy over whether the Red Bull would have an advantage in at Albert Park, given the injection of speed given to it by race organiser.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2022
Ferrari set the pace but Red Bull are on their heels

“We definitely have good top speed but I wouldn’t say we are quicker,” the world champion said on Friday morning, prior to the first practice session. “I personally think the Ferrari is a rocket on the straight but I don’t know. Maybe some other people might disagree, but it also depends on the wing level you take.”

After the checkered flag had flown for the second and final time on Friday, the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Sergio Perez held the monopoly over the highest velocities recorded through the second sector speed trap – the only cars on track to breach the 320ph, 200mph barrier . But Ferrari and Leclerc sat atop the lap times board, almost a quarter of a second faster around the entire 5.28km course than the man who had chased him so relentlessly over the first two races.

Despite setting the overall benchmark for the day, Leclerc admitted he felt Ferrari had work to do ahead of qualifying if they wished to keep Verstappen and Red Bull at bay.

“For me, today was a bit of a harder Friday,” said Leclerc. “FP1 was a bit tricky, I improved in terms of driving in FP2, but there is still quite a bit of work to do.”

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Leclerc’s caution was likely born out of the knowledge that Verstappen was likely faster than his quickest time suggested. The Red Bull claimed to have been “compromised” by Lance Stroll’s Aston Martin through the final sector. While Stroll was not slow enough or in Verstappen’s way enough to claim an impediment, the four tenths of a second Verstappen lost to Leclerc through the final sector alone suggests Verstappen has more lap time in hand for qualifying. For Red Bull, the key will be finding the right downforce levels for qualifying and the race without compromising the car’s balance.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Albert Park, 2022
Q3 could be a challenge for Mercedes

“I think FP1 and the beginning of FP2 we were lacking a bit of balance,” Verstappen explained. “Then I think for the final run we changed the car around a bit and I felt a lot happier. We were a tiny bit off Ferrari but I do think that we can maybe make it a bit closer.”

While Ferrari and Red Bull look set for another close encounter this weekend, Mercedes seems destined for another race out of contact of their rivals. George Russell had expected that Melbourne may be less challenging for Mercedes than Saudi Arabia had proved, but that they would be further adrift than in Bahrain and their performance on Friday appeared to provide evidence of that theory, with both Russell and team mate Lewis Hamilton outside of the top ten while struggling with porpoising on straights and a lack of speed through corners.

Mercedes trackside engineering Andrew Shovlin said that temperature and track conditions are playing a big role in where they find themselves on the timing screens.

“We’re finding it hard to generate tire temperature here so that’s the big thing we need to work on overnight,” Shovlin said.

“We were clearly more competitive in the first session than in the cooler conditions of the afternoon session, and the data we’re seeing from the car is supporting the fact we’re just not hot enough. If we can improve that then it’s quite possible to find a good amount of grip but at the moment, we’re in a vicious circle where the drivers don’t have the confidence to carry the speed through the faster corners, and it’s that speed that will generate the temperature we desperately need.”

As Mercedes chase performance, Alpine and McLaren will be focusing on how to maintain it. Both teams possibly enjoyed their best starts to a race weekend of the season so far. Fernando Alonso briefly topped the session before ending the fourth day fastest, ahead of Perez’s Red Bull, however Esteban Ocon – who ended sixth Friday – is under no illusions for how competitive the battle for the top ten positions will be tomorrow.

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“We know it’s all about tomorrow and Sunday and we can already see that it’s going to be very tight like it was in Bahrain and Jeddah,” said Ocon. “The competition is close, especially in the midfield, so we will be working hard to put it all together for qualifying.”

Fernando Alonso, Alpine, Albert Park, 2022
Alpine are closest to the top two teams

McLaren’s Lando Norris described the team’s day as their “best Friday” of the season, but he was keen to play down his team’s chances of strong points on Sunday, believing the team’s would be at their strongest on Saturday.

“I think we have a bit more work to do in the long run,” Norris said. “I’m a bit more confident in the short run. I think a bit of it is our car limitation and a bit of that is exposing a bit more in the high fuel pace.”

After tire management became such a crucial factor over the first two race weekends, many in the paddock were interested to see how the C5 tire – the softest available – would fare prior to the weekend. After a day of running, there was evidence to suggest to Pirelli’s motorsport director, Mario Isola, that the strategies for Sunday could revolve around the two harder compounds.

“We observed some graining on the medium and soft in particular during both sessions,” Isola explained. “As this obviously has a direct effect on degradation, managing it will be a key element to the race strategy — although we’d probably expect the teams to focus on the two harder compounds, using the soft for qualifying.

“With the track evolution here, we’ve not quite seen the full picture yet so the final data we get from FP3 tomorrow will also be important in terms of strategy.”

Combined practice times

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2022 Australian Grand Prix

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