March 15th, 2013 (F1plus/C. Cameron-Dow).- The 2013 Formula One season is underway! 22 drivers from 11 teams have taken part in the first free practice session of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. World Champion Sebastian Vettel picked up where he left off at the end of 2012, and set the fastest time in the 90 minute session.
Free Practice 1 does not normally yield lap times that can easily be interpreted, and today's session was no exception. In fact, due to this being the first race of the season, there is even more reason to analyse the order with caution, as many of the teams and drivers used the session to simply get used to their equipment in race conditions, having only run in cold winter testing conditions thus far. For the new drivers, mostly towards the back of the field, it was a chance to acclimatise to race systems, including their first encounter with safety car procedures which were tested at the end of FP1.
Ahead of the first session of the season, the major speculation concerned the pace of Mercedes, after Nico Rosberg set the fastest time in pre-season testing. The Silver Arrows were in a similar position at the start of 2012, but disappointed during the season. This time, the noises coming from inside the team are much more positive, and expectations from outside the team are quite high, so much so that the BBC commentary team was bold enough to make a unanimous prediction of a Lewis Hamilton pole position for this weekend's Grand Prix. Hamilton and Rosberg both had strong sessions, suggesting that Mercedes could well be in for a promising start to the season.
Ironically, Hamilton's former team, McLaren, seemed to struggle in the session, with Button finishing ninth, over a second off the pace, and Sergio Perez eleventh, a tenth and a half slower than his team-mate. McLaren did not look stunningly fast in pre-season testing, and in recent days have been talking down their chances, with both drivers suggesting that a strong result in Australia is unlikely.
The session started off as expected, with the drivers taking to the track for a single installation lap, allowing the teams to check all systems on the cars while on the circuit before everyone pulled back into the pits again. And then the real work could begin, as the teams got to work preparing to run through their pre-defined practice programme. Daniel RIcciardo was first out on track in 2013, followed by new Sauber driver Esteban Gutierrez. Fernando Alonso waited in his car for some time before setting off on his installation lap, but there was no indication of any particular problem that prevented him from going out earlier.
The Albert Park circuit is a temporary facility, and as a result there is no useful rubber on the track surface when the race weekend begins. Instead there is dust and dirt, and therefore very little grip. So it was no surprise that there was a period of inactivity as the top teams waited for others to go out and clean up the track a bit. But eventually, 34 minutes into the session, Daniel Ricciardo took to the track and set the first timed lap of the year: 1m36.089s - well off the ultimate pace, but a start nonetheless.
Ricciardo was joined by his team-mate, Jean-Eric Vergne and the two Marussia drivers, Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi. Chilton's car appeared to be running very low to the ground, with sparks flying out of the diffuser on the start/finish straight and again on the run down to turn 3. It's possible that it was simply a result of low tyre pressures from slow early running, but could otherwise have been an indication of a heavy fuel load or perhaps just a need for a tweak to the setup.
After 50 minutes of the session, only eight drivers had set times, and none of the top teams had yet featured. At that stage, Vergne led Ricciardo, Bianchi, Maldonado, Bottas, Pic, Chilton and Van der Garde. But the order soon started to change as the potential front-runners appeared, Raikkonen the first of them, and the lap times started to tumble.
With an hour gone, the order looked a bit more representative of relative pace among the teams. Alonso led Raikkonen, Rosberg, Hamilton, Sutil and Button. But even at that stage, Vettel had not yet set a time. He did so two laps later, putting his Red Bull 8th with his first attempt, and then rocketing to the top of the times on his second flying lap. Vettel was briefly deposed by Felipe Massa, who looked much more at home in the Ferrari F138 than he did in last year's car, but Vettel responded and set a time just 78 thousandths of a second quicker than the Brazilian.
The order remained fairly unchanged in the last part of the session, as the drivers were using tyres that had by then completed quite a bit of mileage. From the onboard footage shown, it also looked like a few drivers were carrying fairly heavy fuel, as they were being quite cautious on the throttle on corner exits and sometimes struggling to turn in well enough to make the apex of the corners. As the rear tyres degraded, there was also quite a bit of oversteer visible, particularly on the Ferrari of Felipe Massa. BBC pundit Gary Anderson speculated that Massa could have been testing his KERS harvesting - the system that uses the rear axle to generate electrical power under braking - which would explain the instability at the rear-end of his Ferrari.
Quite a few drivers ran wide on the exit of turn 5, a tricky and deceptively fast right-hand corner, but it was the next corner that finally caught out Paul di Resta, who put a wheel on the grass under braking and lost the back end of his Force India, coming to rest facing the wrong way in the gravel trap. He did not make it to the wall, so there was no obvious damage to the car, but it is possible that there is damage to the floor and there will almost certainly be a lot of gravel and dirt in the side pods. The team will have a small job cleaning all of that up before the second session gets underway.
Final results from Free Practice 1:
|1||1||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing-Renault||1:27.211||16|
|5||2||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing-Renault||1:27.668||0.457||18|
|8||15||Adrian Sutil||Force India-Mercedes||1:28.426||1.215||19|
|13||14||Paul di Resta||Force India-Mercedes||1:28.910||1.699||18|
|22||21||Giedo van der Garde||Caterham-Renault||1:32.388||5.177||18|