Formula 1 returns this weekend for the first Australian GP in three years. It’ll be held at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne, which has been modified to significantly increase qualifying speeds by 15km/h (9.5mph) and shave off around 5sec of lap-time.
Of the track’s previous 16 corners, seven have been modified, making it a much faster circuit.
Albert Park, a relatively narrow park-based street circuit at which overtaking in the past has been somewhat limited, has seen an extra DRS zone. The total number of these has now been brought to four, more than any other circuit – has been added this year in a bid to boost passing opportunities. Combined with the new F1 cars which can follow each other more easily, there is likely to be much more action at this year’s race.
The race was cancelled amid chaotic scenes in 2020 when Covid first hit, and a rescheduled November 2021 event was also called off due to logistical restrictions relating the pandemic, meaning grand prix racing takes to the streets of Melbourne for the first time since 2019.
Turn 1 has been widened by 2.5 metres on the driver’s right-hand side. Australian GP organisers hope this will encourage different racing lines, potentially prompting more overtaking manoeuvres, as well as further battles into the second and third corners.
The speed through the first turn will resultantly be increased by 17km/h (10.5mph), bringing the minimum average lap speed up to 183km/h (114mph).
Mark Skaife, the five-time Australian Supercars champion who worked in conjunction with engineering firm iEDM to make the circuit modifications has elaborated on the changes made.
“Some of the areas that we’ve widened will encourage the first lap activity that we love at the start of car races, so effectively [in] all the little slow corners you’re allowed to get up the inside now,” he says.
“There’s extra room on the inside to promote overtaking, and then as a consequence of that there’s more areas where you’ll be able to be closer to the cars in front. Vehicle proximity is a big factor in overtaking and that’s going to be encouraged.”
Turn 3 has also been widened, this time by four metres on the driver’s right-hand side. Again organisers hope this will prompt new lines and more overtaking, as well as increasing the minimum corner speed by 8km/h (5mph) up to 110km/h (68mph).
“The changes we’re going to make geometrically are going to make more aggressive driving and reduce laps times,” commented Australian GP CEO Andrew Westacott
The greatest change anywhere on the circuit can be seen at Turn 6. A huge widening of 7.5 metres means that the minimum corner speed has leapt from 149km/h (92mph) to 219kmh (136mph).
Organisers believe this could reduce turbulent air, therefore encouraging racing into the new high-speed zone through what was the old Turns 9 and 10.
Previous Turn 9 and Turn 10 (chicane removed)
The former chicane Turns 9 and 10 has now undergone a significant transformation.
9 and 10 was previously a stop-start right-to-left chicane which opened onto a curving passage towards Turn 11, the switchback now being altered to a more gentle righthand shift going onto a short straight, before the lefthand bend heading towards the eleventh corner.
As a result, cars will hit 330km/h (205mph) on the Lakeside Drive stretch before the new Turns 9 and 10 (previously 11 and 12), creating a huge braking point at the chicane.
Circuit designers are aiming for more passing into Turn 9, particularly as it is now part of a fourth DRS zone.
“I’d be excited about the Australian GP changes because you’re going to see more mistakes, it’s going to be faster, it’s more challenging, the character of the track has changed[…] but the way the track will be configured will encourage overtaking and be better for racing,” said Skaife.
Turn 11 (previously 13)
The ‘new’ Turn 11 has seen an extension of straight running into corner to create a tighter turn, as well as alteration to the camber and a widening by 3 metres on the driver’s righthand side, all of which should create a tighter apex.
Again a wider variety of lines and harder braking zone entering this corner hope to galvanise – you guessed it – overtaking moves.
Turn 13 (previously 15)
This has been widened by 3.5 metres on the driver’s righthand side, with the primary aim of making it trickier for the leading car to stave off attacks from those following.
Furthermore, the kerbs at Turn 3, 11 and 13 have been bevelled, meaning that drivers will be compromised by trying to mount them if they cut the turn.
Further to the on-track changes, the pitlane will also be widened by two metres, in addition to the pitlane speed limit being increased from 60km/h (37mph) to 80km/h (50mph).
This will have a knock-on effect on race strategy options for teams, as there’ll be less of a time penalty for changing tyres.
Four DRS zones
A big talking point prior to this weekend’s race has been the addition of an unprecedented four DRS zones – but with only two activation points.
Passing opportunities have been hard to come by at Albert Park, and so F1 has decided to take action.
The first DRS zone comes on the start finish straight, with the second coming up quickly between Turns 2 and 3. The detection zone is located before the penultimate corner (Turn 13), with the driver behind having the advantage for a significant period of time.
A coronavirus case in the Australian Grand Prix paddock was entirely predictable, writes Chris Medland. What came then, until the cancellation of the race, was a shambles
Traditionally, drivers have used the start/finish straight zone to close up on their rival, before passing into Turn 3. This combined with only one detection zone for this area means we’re likely to see less of the ‘DRS chess-game’ played between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen at the first two grands prix this season.
With the removal of the old 9/10 chicane, another DRS zone has now been added through the slalom to the new Turns 9 and 10 combination.
Leading up to these corners, drivers may be able to slipstream – described as “massive” by hometown hero Daniel Ricciardo – out of Turns 6 and 7 into the next two corners and effect an overtake. However, if a pass hasn’t occurred by now, there could therefore be the potential for a pass into Turn 11, with the final DRS zone leading up to that corner.
For the first time since the track’s completion in 1996, the Albert Park circuit has been resurfaced. Whilst the challenge of driving might be negated slightly by smooth new asphalt, racing and following should be easier.
The Australian GP has often been a race bereft of overtaking, as drivers have found passing opportunities scare on the tight parkland street circuit.
However, with these above alterations, organisers are hoping for wholesale changes in the quality of the racing. Qualifying speeds are thought to potentially increase by as much as 15km/h (9.5mph), from 236km/h (147mph) to 251km/h (156mph), whilst lap-time could be reduced as much as 5sec.
Watch this space, we could be set for the most exciting Australian GPs in years.