Will Red Bull unleash their one-second advantage? Six Australian GP talking points · RaceFans

The final race to start the 2023 season before an unintended month-long break to the next round in Baku, Formula 1 returns to the fast, flowing parkland circuit in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix.

One of the most popular rounds of the year for fans, teams and drivers alike, Albert Park received a major facelift in 2022. The first race on the revised track saw Max Verstappen’s race end in retirement as Charles Leclerc and Ferrari took to win to consolidate their early championship advantage.

How times have changed. This season, Verstappen will be eager to hold onto his slim lead in the drivers’ championship by beating his team mate to win in Australia for the first time in his Formula 1 career. But whether he and Sergio Perez will even need to stretch their legs in the race is the question.

How hard will Red Bull push?

Two rounds, two pole positions, two one-two finishes, first and second in the championship. Reigning champions Red Bull are enjoying one of the best starts to a championship in Formula 1’s history, with little to suggest that they are likely to be stopped any time soon.

Heading into the third round of the season, Verstappen heads Perez by a single championship point, the pair sharing wins across the opening two races. And it’s hard to imagine Red Bull’s rivals will be able to suddenly bridge the performance gap between them and the champions this weekend.

Red Bull’s true performance advantage was seen in Jeddah

Red Bull controlled proceedings in Bahrain, Verstappen keeping well within his potential pace to take an easy victory as Perez followed 12 seconds behind after having to pass Leclerc’s Ferrari in the middle phase of the race. In Jeddah, Perez pulled away out front while Verstappen made his way through the field. In the end, the only time the two team mates had to push was when they were fighting each other for the fastest lap point, something Verstappen eventually took from Perez at the final attempt.

At this stage the RB19’s true advantage over the chasing pack – in excess of a second per lap – was glimpsed. But Red Bull may not need to unleash the full scale of their advantage over their rivals to keep on winning.

The last race gave their rivals one sign the RB19 is not unbeatable. Verstappen’s driveshaft failure in qualifying showed Red Bull are not bulletproof in their reliability when they are pushing, giving their rivals an incentive to put them under pressure whenever they can.

Aston Martin, Ferrari and Mercedes know it will be tough to keep up with the Red Bulls in the race, however, with Melbourne being another high speed street circuit that should produce a similar showing to Jeddah, the last round. If that is the case, then it’s possible that the only thing Verstappen and Perez will need to worry about will be each other.

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A home race – literally – for Piastri

Oscar Piastri, McLaren, Jeddah Corniche Circuit, 2023
Expect Piastri to be popular this weekend

For the first time since 2011, Daniel Ricciardo will not be part of the Australian Grand Prix grid – assuming nothing happens to Perez or Verstappen. Having lost his race seat at McLaren at the end of 2022, Ricciardo has to settle for third driver duties at Red Bull. Although he will be a highly visible figure this weekend, he won’t be competing himself. But that does not mean Australia will be without a home-grown hero to cheer on this weekend.

The local fans have rookie Oscar Piastri representing them, taking the seat vacated by compatriot Ricciardo. In what will be just his third grand prix start, Piastri will be especially eager to enjoy a decent result after two frustrating rounds to begin his F1 career with the McLaren team.

After being eliminated in Q1 on debut in Bahrain, Piastri’s race barely got started before he was pulled in to the garage to retire due to an electrical problem. Saudi Arabia was far more promising as he reached Q3 for the first time at the second attempt, but opening lap contact with Esteban Ocon led to damage that ended all hopes of a possible first points finish, but he still ended up beating team mate Lando Norris after running 49 of the final 50 laps on the same set of tyres.

Piastri will be especially determined to put on a good show in front of his home crowd – being from Melbourne himself – but while points could be hard to come by, simply having a clean, trouble-free race will likely be enough.

A better weekend for Aston Martin?

Aston Martin endured a horror Australian round in ’22

It’s easy to forget, given how well Aston Martin’s season has begun, just how poor their start to 2022 was. Having missed Sebastian Vettel due to Covid over the first two rounds, he returned in Melbourne only to endure one of the worst weekends of his career, crashing multiple times.

Team mate Lance Stroll fared little better. He also crashed in qualifying, earning a penalty for contact with Nicholas Latifi, then was lucky to avoid a penalty in the race for rudely shoving Valtteri Bottas at turn three.

At the end of a miserable weekend, Aston Martin left Australia as the only team to have failed to score a point. In a sign of just how much the team has turned its fortunes around, this year they will be disappointed if they are not in sole possession of second in the constructors’ championship at the least.

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Backmarkers no more?

While the battle at the front of the field looks to be fairly one-sided in 2023 with Red Bull looking untouchable, it’s hard to think of a time when the midfield was as competitive as it is now.

Alexander Albon, Williams, Albert Park, 2022
Albon claimed a memorable point last year

Only two drivers, Nyck de Vries and Logan Sargeant, have failed to escape Q1 in both races this season, with Sargeant only missing out in Jeddah after having his time deleted for crossing a white line on the final straight, invalidating a lap that would have been good enough to progress. Only two teams have not yet scored a point either, with AlphaTauri just missing out in 11th with Yuki Tsunoda in both races and McLaren suffering terrible luck with both drivers having heavily compromised races both times.

With such a long season, the development over the year will become crucial. But that actually only makes these opening races all the more crucial for midfield teams, as every point will matter for those final constructors’ championship positions – just ask Alfa Romeo and Aston Martin after last season.

Last year, Williams snatched a point in Melbourne with perhaps the boldest strategy call of the season, Alexander Albon pitting on the penultimate lap after running the longest first stint in the entire Pirelli era to beat Zhou Guanyu home to tenth. But while 12 months ago, Williams were the slowest team on the grid, it’s next to impossible to point to any of the lower six teams as being the clear backmarker in 2023.

Junior series join the undercard Down Under

Jack Doohan, Alpine, Bahrain International Circuit, 2023 pre-season test
Doohan will enjoy the support of fans in F2

For the first time, Australian fans will get to enjoy watching Formula 2 and FIA F3 cars in action as F1’s main junior series join this event’s packed support series bill alongside the Australian Supercars and others. The event has held junior single-seater series before – Australian F4 ran here in 2019 – but this weekend sees the full field of F2 and F3 drivers racing at a circuit where none of them have ever raced around.

There will be plenty of local interest this weekend with Jack Doohan flying the flag for Australia as well as Alpine during this weekend’s two races, while in F3, Tommy Smith – another Melbourne man – and Hugh Barter will also be looking forward to racing in front of a home crowd.

With its high speeds, low natural grip levels and lack of familiarity among its drivers, the fans could be in for four highly eventful races this weekend.

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First ever fourth DRS zone

Carlos Sainz Jnr, Ferrari, Albert Park, 2022
A fourth DRS zone will run along the back straight

Albert Park was where the first race using the DRS overtaking aid took place in 2011 and it also became the first venue to have a second zone added to it the year after in 2012.

By 2018, the circuit had developed a third zone, stretching down Lakeside Drive at the start of the third sector to complement the two along the pit straight and the run to turn three. But after two years off the calendar due to Covid, teams returned to a very different Albert Park circuit in 2022, with several corners modified and a long back straight along the lake with a fourth DRS zone place upon it.

Over the course of last year’s race weekend, however, race director Niels Wittich decided to deactivate the fourth DRS zone on safety grounds. TQhat zone is due to be reactivated this year, making this weekend’s grand prix the first to ever feature four active DRS zones and potentially offering easier overtaking opportunities into the very fast turns nine and ten chicane.

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2023 Australian Grand Prix

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