F1 returns to Albert Park this weekend for round 3 of the world championship. Image: Aston Martin Formula One Team

Is F1’s popularity boom fading? The crowds at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix would disagree.

More than 130,000 people are descending on Albert Park for this year’s Australian Grand Prix, and records are expected to be broken, with Friday, Saturday and Sunday tickets all selling out for the first time.

Last year, Max Verstappen took home, incredibly, his first Sir Jack Brabham Trophy from his seventh attempt. The race was chaotic, with a record three red flags and just 12 drivers crossing the finish line.

The Dutchman starts from pole and is the clear favourite to be the first driver to go back-to-back since Sebastian Vettel in 2018.

Ferrari gives false hope

We were teased in FP3. The crowd roared as Charles Leclerc eclipsed Verstappen’s time not just in the session but also his pole time from the previous year. Carlos Sainz was relatively quick on mediums, too.

We dared ask the question: Is Ferrari a chance for pole?

Of course not.

Max Verstappen set a 1:15.915 for pole position, 0.25 seconds faster than Sainz. He looks set to continue a run of form that has seen him win 19 of the last 20 grand prix.

The Scuderia rounded out the podium at the first two races of the year, one each for Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc. The battle between them has been close-fought over the last three years, and they once again start 2nd and 3rd on Sunday.

Sergio Perez has come under a lot of criticism for failing to challenge Verstappen. But he has followed his teammate home both in Bahrain and Jeddah and beaten the rest, which is all a second driver is expected to do.

His third place shouldn’t be of much concern to Red Bull, given that he’s yet to start on the front row this year but has worked up to second in both races.

Mercedes has had just one win in the last two years, an incredible dropoff for a team that had won nearly 70% of races in the previous eight seasons. A team that is usually used to being at the front is currently without a top 4 finish in 2024.

Trackside engineering director at Mercedes Andrew Shovlin said earlier in the week that “experiments” were being planned for Melbourne’s three practice sessions, with some adjustments hopefully translating into more successful results.

That doesn’t seem to have happened, with Lewis Hamilton sensationally missing Q3 and George Russell failing to beat the McLarens.

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Could Piastri break the Aussie podium duck?

Australians have been terribly unlucky in their home race.

Even during the height of Mark Webber’s career, the best he could manage at his home grand prix was fourth in 2012. Daniel Ricciardo was second on track ten years ago but was later disqualified for a fuel irregularity.

In his home city of Melbourne, Oscar Piastri is the new hope for Australian fans. He’s in the early stages of his career but already has a (sprint) race win to his name, and has stood on a grand prix podium once, at Japan last year. He’ll start the Australian Grand Prix from sixth place.

McLaren’s strength so far this year has been in high-speed corners, and Albert Park is much quicker than it used to be. Nevertheless, Piastri and teammate Lando Norris will have to overcome a Red Bull or a Ferrari to have a chance at the podium.

Piastri finished fourth last time in Saudi Arabia. Could he go one better?

“I’m so excited to be racing in front of a home crowd again.” he said. “There’s no feeling like it. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot of papaya in the crowd.”

Quietly, some might be hoping that this isn’t the weekend an Aussie finally breaks through at home, since the podium won’t be held in front of a sea of fans on the front straight as has been commonplace for years.

Following last year’s premature track invasion, the Australian Grand Prix Corporation has warned patrons not to enter the track as is a tradition at the end of a grand prix. Higher fences are at every entrance point and there are red signs plastered all over the circuit warning of fines and evictions.

The AGPC has indicated that the post-race track walk may return in future years.

Ricciardo’s return

The biggest cheer from the crowd last year came when there were no cars on the track.

During one of the three red flag periods, Daniel Ricciardo’s trademark smile flashed up on the big screen as he stood in the back of the Red Bull garage, eliciting a big response from the Melbourne fans.

His half-year without a drive didn’t make much difference to his profile at this race 12 months ago, with plenty of merchandise around the park donned with the number 3.

But this year, Ricciardo is back with RB, Red Bull’s junior team and the team where he spent his formative years in F1 over a decade ago.

The 35-year-old will be keen to put criticisms to bed from the likes of 1980 world champion Alan Jones, who earlier in the week suggested Ricciardo was “past his best”.

“If someone says something, I know it already, because I’ve told myself that, or I know what’s expected from me,” Ricciardo said.

Ricciardo is currently pointless in season 2024, as is his teammate Yuki Tsunoda. Unfortunately for Ricciardo, his lap time in Q1 was deleted when he ran wide at turn four during his last Q1 lap.

It means he’ll start 18th, while Tsunoda starts up in eighth.

If that car pace carries into Sunday, he has a bit of luck with attrition as this race showed last year, and he can channel some of the Ricciardo of old, the Australian might have a decent recovery result. But it’s always a tall ask from the back of the grid.

Off-track drama continues to linger

While Formula 1’s motorsport product is easily bettered by dozens of other categories, when you look at the stories and context around the racing, it’s no wonder F1 continues to thrive.

Red Bull has been in turmoil over the last few weeks as the fallout continues from the Christian Horner sexual harassment allegations. Verstappen has been asked about an exit clause should Helmut Marko or Adrian Newey leave the team, as has been rumoured recently.

“I’m happy within the team, and of course, it’s very important that we try and keep the key players in the team for a longer period of time, as of course that’s where the performance is as well,” he told the official F1 website.

The FIA ethics committee received a complaint from Horner’s accuser, and that same committee has also just cleared the FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem of wrongdoing following an investigation into race interference.

It was alleged that Ben Sulayem attempted to overturn a penalty for Fernando Alonso at last year’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix and also tried to prevent the Las Vegas circuit from being certified.

With that dismissed, the FIA has a new problem in the form of Susie Wolff, who has filed a criminal complaint in France against the sanctioning body.

The managing director of the all-female support series F1 Academy was under investigation after reports of confidential information being shared with her husband and Mercedes team boss, Toto Wolff. The inquiry was brought to an end just two days later, but not before a joint statement from the other nine teams in condemnation.

With all this keeping the news cycle ticking over while the on-track action is lacking, F1 continues to draw huge attention. Just ask any of the 130,000 fans that’ll line the Albert Park streets on Sunday afternoon.

The 58-lap Australian Grand Prix begins at 3pm (AEDT) on Sunday.

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