Why Max Verstappen is set to face Ferrari threat in Australian GP

Tyres and strategy will play a massive role in deciding who wins the 2024 Australian GP

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Max Verstappen showed his class yet again just as Ferrari looked like they were going to deny him pole position at the 2024 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz both looked strong throughout practice at Albert Park but Verstappen delivered when it mattered most, as he’s done so often over the last three years.

Sainz, who is returning from successful appendix surgery, starts on the front row alongside Verstappen, with Lando Norris then Leclerc on the second row following Sergio Perez’s three grid place penalty for impeding.

It’s fair to say the 2024 Bahrain and Saudi Arabian GP were largely dull affairs but there are several variables which should make Sunday’s race in Melbourne a fascinating one.

Ferrari will run Verstappen close

Ferrari‘s long run pace was very quick during Friday practice with both drivers lapping faster than the Red Bulls in second practice, when most teams conduct a race simulation.

But, Pirelli increased the minimum tyre pressures from Friday to Saturday and Verstappen also suffered floor damage, which may explain why Red Bull were not quicker.

That said, the Ferrari just looks so easy to drive on the medium and hards, and Sainz was the last driver not named Verstappen to win a race.

Carlos Sainz wins the 2023 Singapore Grand Prix | Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

“I think nowadays you need to be 100 percent to beat Max and in qualifying I wasn’t,” said Sainz. “Probably due to that, I missed out on pole. I think if I would have done 100 percent good job, pole position could have been possible.

“If I would have felt 100 percent and I would have done Jeddah, I think that 1:15.9 (Verstappen‘s pole time) was achievable with the way I was driving and the way I felt in the car, and the race will be the same.

“I need to be 100 percent to beat Max. I will give it my absolute everything to do it because it’s been a while since Singapore, and he’s been on that top step since. But, if there’s one weekend where we have a good pace, it’s this one. Tricky track to overtake, tricky on tyres. So who knows? I think we might have a chance.”

If Leclerc can get ahead of McLaren‘s Lando Norris at the start to slot into third place after the first lap, Ferrari can fight Verstappen on two fronts.

Should they match Verstappen in terms of outright pace, they can put Sainz and Leclerc on two different strategies to win the race. That’s a bit if though.

Of course, if Sainz can jump Verstappen and get track position, then it’s definitely game on. The four DRS zones might keep the field closely bunched too so there is a lot more anticipation about an exciting race in Melbourne compared to Sakhir and Jeddah.

Carlos Sainz during qualifying at the 2024 Australian GP | Ferrari

Two stops on the cards

Graining will be the word of the day at the Australian GP as Pirelli‘s decision to bring the softest tyre compounds has thrown a spanner in the works.

The soft tyre has very high wear, so it would be a surprise if anyone used it. The medium is actually not that far off in terms of speed and lasts longer, so expect to see several drivers start on that compound.

Everyone had two sets of new hard tyres left but haven’t used them, so who knows how well that will hold up? If the hard also wears a lot, there will be a lot of head scratching going on.

Red Bull‘s tyre wear has been excellent but Ferrari have almost been a match for them in the opening two events and we may see a Las Vegas situation where Leclerc probably would have won without the final safety car.

“The biggest thing we saw is that it’s very easy to grain the medium tyre,” explained Sainz, who is hoping to get through the 58 laps without any issues after his surgery.

“So being in traffic behind the Red Bull might not be the best for that tyre. And then let’s see how the hard behaves, if the hard is a good tyre or not. But for sure, having two cars is always better than one.

“But the race pace in practice has been good enough to make me believe that if I’m feeling good, I can give it a run for the win.

“If not, we will have to keep learning and keep seeing how we can keep getting closer to Max, obviously leaving everything to see how I feel also during the race physical-wise.”

Verstappen going for 10 in a row

Verstappen is bidding to equal his own record of 10 consecutive F1 wins on Sunday, just six months on from making history with 10 successive victories.

The Dutchman overcame three red flags and multiple standing start restarts to win the 2023 Australian GP and the high chance of a safety car will be on everyone’s mind this year too.

With a multiple stop race expected, if you can make a pit stop during a safety car, you will gain a lot of time compared to a driver who has stopped under green flag conditions.

“That’s still not a given that the race is going to be good because it seems like Ferrari are very strong over one lap but also in the long run it seems that they can keep their tyres alive a bit better than others,” Verstappen told Sky Sports F1.

“They seem very quick also in the long run. So a bit of a question mark for, but I guess that makes it very exciting.”

John Smithhttps://total-motorsport.com
Editor at Total-Motorsport.com and all round Motorsport journalist specialising in Formula 1, IndyCar and Formula E.
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