March 17th, 2013 (F1plus/B. Dixon).- The Greatest Show on Earth: Five red lights flick on in what seems like painfully long intervals. Twenty two of the fastest cars and drivers in the world pose on the grid, ready to be released. The rumble of the V8 engines and the pulsing anticipation become more intense with every passing second. The power in the engines building to an ultimate crescendo as they thunder into the distance snaking and writhing in their attempt to be the first to reach turn one.
The countdown to any Grand Prix is one of the most stunning displays ever to be witnessed, but acting as a curtain raiser to a fresh season, the spectacle holds even more effervescency.
Albert Park in Melbourne has been the home for Formula One in Australia since 1996. Consisting of 307.57 km of temporary street circuit, it has enjoyed the honour of hosting the opening race intermittently since then, and has proved itself as being worthy of providing the spectacular entertainment expected.
Due to its nature as a medium speed corner, allowing less time and space for braking, Turn 1 in Melbourne has been known to be the stage for opening lap collisions. If all cars successfully weave themselves through Turn 1 without incident, trouble can arise at Turn 3, as drivers try to make the most of it being a corner conducive to overtaking. Turn 6 can also be an accident hotspot, as the overhead umbrella of trees creates moisture on an already slippery track.
Albert Park’s inaugural Australian Grand Prix in 1996 showed that trouble on the opening lap was not to be an unknown quantity for the new circuit. Braking to enter Turn 3, the McLaren of David Coulthard darted across the track towards Johnny Herbert’s Sauber, catapulting Martin Brundle skywards in his Jordan. Having freed himself from the fragmented car and making the most of the race being red flagged; Brundle sprinted back to the pits to take advantage of the spare car.
The opening lap of the race in 2002 was also the scene of a spectacular pile up. Weaving across the track to the left, Rubens Barrichello caused Ralf Schumacher to miss his braking zone, hurling him into the air above the Ferrari. The incident at the front was the catalyst for further trouble behind them. Losing control of his Sauber, Nick Heidfeld speared into the core of the rest of the field eliminating a further nine entrants.
Kimi Raikkonen arriving at Parc Ferme (LAT Photo)
Unleashing twenty one cars at the same time will always create potential for opening lap incidents, but when you have five rookie drivers on the grid, that potential could change to inevitability. Although they arrive on the grid in Melbourne with a sizeable number of races under their belts, none have been in a Formula One car and none at this circuit. New Marussia driver, Max Chilton, confirmed that driving the actual track is definitely different to the experience created by the simulator. The lack of experience starting a Formula One race mingled with nervous excitement could be a heady mixture guaranteeing first lap commotion.
In addition to a significant number of rookies lining up for their debut Formula One race, there was also a high percentage of drivers with fairly limited experience. Sergio Perez, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Paul Di Resta, Pastor Maldonado, Jean Eric Vergne, Daniel Ricciardo and Charles Pic all have less than forty grand prix’s to their name. Grosjean in particular still shows immaturity and inexperience at the start of races. Labelled a ‘first lap nutcase’ by countryman Mark Webber, his string of eight opening lap adventures in 2012 began in Australia when contact with Maldonado at Turn 13 ended his race.
So what could possibly add more drama and spectacle to the first lap of a season opener that already promises to be provocative and enthralling? Rain of course... The two Friday practice sessions were dry, but Melbourne weather can be changeable and Saturday bore testament to this.
The third practice session gave drivers the opportunity to experience wet conditions as rain made its appearance fifteen minutes into the session. The inclement weather worsened as qualifying approached with torrential downpours creating substantial standing water on the track. Its status as a street circuit dictates behaviour that is far from ideal for such conditions. Drainage is far from perfect and the white lines painted black for the race add to its already slippery nature. After the first qualifying session, the decision was made by race control that qualifying two and three would be postponed until Sunday morning.
Intermediate tyres were used as the track continued to dry out during qualifying two, with the supersoft compound making an appearance for the third session. By the time the cars lined up on the grid for the race the possibility of rain was only a distant possibility.
he rookies, grouped together with Maldonado amongst them slotted their cars into their grid positions, engines throbbing, and nerves jangling. An inexperienced group with the potential for creating trouble as they reach turn one simultaneously, pushing their cold tyres and brakes to the limit as they attempt to squeeze through without becoming beached in the gravel trap.
Despite the chances of opening lap incidents being more than conceivable, all twenty one drivers made it through without incident leaving the battle for the lead to take centre stage spectacularly. Felipe Massa had a lightening start propelling him past Mark Webber to take second place, with his team mate Alonso carving his way across the track in front of the Australian, following this up with a move on Lewis Hamilton into turn three.
Eventual race winner Kimi Raikkonen made the most of his start making up two places into turn one. The spectacle created on the opening lap in this curtain raiser to the 2013 season was not one about contact and collisions. Instead, it was a magnificent display of courageous racing and a clever, respectful fight for the lead. If this display is a hint of what this season has to offer, it really will be the greatest show on earth.