Melbourne has been a great track for you – what are the highlights?
“There are lots. My first grand prix was here way back in 2000 – it was just a buzz to be in Formula 1: it was pretty intense, the whole weekend just flew past pretty quickly. I had pole here in 2006 – another good memory. But I think the two most significant memories for me were, in 2009, winning from pole for Brawn GP. It was a momentous race for the entire team and it felt so sweet to give them such a reward.
“And winning here in 2010… just an incredible day. Going early for the dry tyre, then almost losing the car at Turn Three, putting the others off following my example, and then finding a rhythm and having a fantastic car underneath me. That was my first win for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes – it was completely unexpected, but a really significant result for me personally.”
What is it about Melbourne that makes it so special?
“It’s hard to put your finger on it. It is a special race – you step off the plane after a long, cold European winter and it’s usually very sunny and the people are incredibly welcoming. I think the circuit is a nice challenge too – it’s not a particularly technical track, but the surface is always rubbering in across the whole race weekend, and it’s a place that encourages nip-and-tuck racing. For a street track, it’s got a really good flow, you can really find a good rhythm – and it’s got some fast corners too, which is unusual for a road course.
“I think the new rules have definitely made it a more competitive place – it’s easier to pass here now than it ever was. And I think the potential of a second DRS zone will be a real benefit – last year, along the startline wasn’t quite enough for overtaking – I think we’ll get more benefit from a second zone. Finally, the walls around here are close enough to keep your mind focused. I can’t remember a race here that wasn’t eventful or surprising in some way – so it’s the perfect place to kick off the season.”
How confident do you feel after the winter that you’re set for a strong start to your campaign?
“I’m happy with our preparations. You always want more laps and more time in the car, but, unlike last year, we’ve had a very solid start to our pre-season. It’s been very difficult to read pace over the winter because a lot of teams have been playing their cards close to their chests: I think it’s going to be extremely close, and I can’t wait to find out where we sit in the pecking order.”
What does Melbourne mean to you?
“Melbourne is a city that has sport running through its veins – and the crowd lives and breathes it. It’s a great place to start the season. For me, Melbourne means sunshine, smiling faces, a great paddock – a bit compact but very friendly, a great city with a really positive vibe – and a racetrack that’s really made for racing. A place where you can really get the back-end of the car moving around quite nicely yet still feel like you’re fully in control of the car. The track has got a nice flow to it – I love the fast sweepers behind the pits, it’s awesome when you get them right – and it’s a place where, the more you can attack, the faster you go. My kind of place!”
After just three tests – six days each in the car – do you feel prepared?
“I actually feel more relaxed and ready for the new season than I think I’ve ever done. Everything has gone smoothly with the car – which is more than we can say for last year! – and it just seems to be a responsive and reliable package. My final day in the car – with the aero package we plan to run next weekend – also felt good: the car was a useful step forward.
“Of course, we haven’t tested it in competition yet, but there’s plenty to feel optimistic about. It’s a bit weird to have driven the car for a whole month and still not done a really fast lap – I guess we’ll really find the limit next Saturday. Obviously, this is always the time of year when you’re feeling positive, but we’ve got plenty to look forward to. I’m going to get off the plane in Australia with a big smile on my face.”
What are your hopes and aims for the Australian Grand Prix?
“It’s a realistic aim: to score some useful points and use the race to kickstart our challenge for the world championship. That might sound like we’re aiming low – we’re not – but, at this time of year, it’s good to remember that it’s going to be a very long season. There’s no point putting all your eggs in one basket – I’d love to win in Melbourne, sure, but there are 19 races afterwards, so it’ll be important to get some points on the board. As long as I can leave Australia feeling confident that we have a car that’s able to fight for the title, then I’ll feel happy. It’s as simple as that.”
“I’ve never lost my enthusiasm, optimism or motivation for the start of each new Formula 1 season – and this year is no exception. As is often the case, you can complete thousands of kilometres of testing, analyse hundreds of thousands of lines of performance data and read pages of web and magazine editorial and still not have a clear idea of overall form going into the first race.
“I think that’s an intrinsic and fascinating aspect of Formula 1: the resetting of the bar at the end of each season and the relentless, and often invisible, quest to emerge on top at the start of a new year. I think Australia will be fascinating: the winter’s testing has been so finely balanced that it’s particularly difficult accurately to judge who’ll be the quickest. And that’s fantastic for Formula 1 fans across the globe.
“At Vodafone McLaren Mercedes, we’ve had an extremely productive winter – I’ve never seen Jenson and Lewis looking so healthy, committed and prepared for a new season. There’s a real hunger within the whole organisation – I’ve witnessed it in conversation with our heads of department, our engineers and our mechanics: we want to win more than ever and we’ve left no stone unturned in our quest for performance.
“Make no mistake, this will be a long, arduous and difficult campaign, and I’m naturally reluctant to stick my neck out and make any predictions, but my greatest hope is that we go to Australia and put on a world-beating show to demonstrate to the world that Formula 1 is back, and back with a bang!”