It’s a different kind of Australian Open as the 2018 FIA Formula One World Championship heads to the land down under for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix March 25 at Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit.
While the championship battle will be waged among the big-three teams of Mercedes, Scuderia Ferrari and Red Bull, the ultra-competitive midfield is wide open. Seven teams consisting of Haas F1 Team, Force India, Williams, Renault, Toro Rosso, McLaren and Sauber appear to be on relatively equal footing as the 21-race season kicks off on the 5.303-kilometer (3.295-mile), 16-turn street course inside the city’s Albert Park.
A dark horse in this horsepower-laden Australian Open is Haas F1 Team. The American outfit enters its third Formula One season after turning heads in preseason testing Feb. 26-March 9 at Circuit de Barcelona – Catalunya.
On the penultimate day of testing, Haas F1 Team driver Kevin Magnussen put down a lap of 1:18.360. It was the second-fastest time of the day and it ended up being the sixth-quickest overall time achieved during the eight days of testing. Amplifying Magnussen’s mark was that it was earned using the Pirelli P Zero Red supersoft tire. Every driver ahead of him was on the grippier and subsequently faster Pink hypersoft tire. And when utilizing Pirelli’s estimated delta times to the softest compounds, it brings Magnussen’s fast lap close to the unofficial track-record time of 1:17.182 set by Scuderia Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel that same day.
Speed, however, must be paired with reliability in order to garner results. Magnussen’s teammate, Romain Grosjean, showcased Haas F1 Team’s reliability in the final day of testing when he led the way with 181 laps to set a new benchmark for the organization. Prior to this year’s test, the highest single-day lap tally of any Haas F1 Team driver during preseason testing was 119 laps by Grosjean, set on March 9, 2017. Grosjean augmented his laps with speed, as his best time of 1:18.412 on Purple ultrasofts put him fifth-fastest on the day and ninth overall among the 22 drivers who took part in testing.
Alas, it’s called testing for a reason. There was no actual racing. That, of course, begins in Melbourne, and it’s where the optimism of testing meets the abruptness of reality.
The Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit comprises public roads encircling Albert Park Lake, a man-made body of water just south of Melbourne’s central business district. The roads were rebuilt prior to Formula One’s debut at the track in 1996, but because the surface only sees racecars about once a year, grip is hard to come by, especially in the initial practice sessions. It’s a street circuit that behaves more like a natural road course. It’s quick too, with Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton setting a track-record time in qualifying last year with a blistering lap of 1:22.188 to take the pole.
Magnussen and Grosjean have proven to be quite adept at navigating the Albert Park layout.
Magnussen made his first career Formula One start in the 2014 Australian Grand Prix. It was an incredibly stout performance as he started fourth and finished second. The 18 points Magnussen earned for that runner-up effort put him in the Formula One record book for the most points scored in a debut. And unless a new driver wins in his first race, it’s a feat that won’t be beat. (Next best is Felipe Nasr, who scored 10 points in his debut via a fifth-place finish in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix.)
With his second-place finish, Magnussen joined an exclusive group of drivers who claimed a podium in their Formula One debut. Jacques Villeneuve did it in 1996 (second) and Hamilton did it in 2007 (third). Both accomplished the feat in the Australian Grand Prix. Villeneuve went on to win the Formula One title in 1997 and Hamilton is a four-time champion (2008, 2014, 2015 and 2017).
Not to be outdone, Grosjean added his own piece of history when he finished sixth in the 2016 Australian Grand Prix. That was Haas F1 Team’s first race, and it stands as the best debut for any Formula One team since 2002 when Mika Salo finished sixth for Toyota, also at the Australian Grand Prix.
Those pieces of history, along with Haas F1 Team’s recent testing history at Barcelona, bode well for the organization’s third trip to Melbourne. With the Australian Grand Prix shaping up to be a wide-open race at the very beginning of a wide-open season, Haas F1 Team seeks a serving of points in this Australian Open.