Australian GP: Preview & five predictions for Melbourne

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Another year of Formula 1 racing begins this weekend, with the Australian Grand Prix once again the big curtain raiser.

There is perhaps no better place than Melbourne's Albert Park to kick-off the F1 calendar, thanks to a passionate crowd and a circuit that has provided plenty of thrills over the years.

Much of the drama is thanks to the unknowns that accompany the opening race, as teams understand their cars and tyres and drivers sharpen up their racecraft after a winter on the beach

But it has resulted in Australia becoming known for some pretty scary crashes on the street layout, with the moniker of this event often being to expect the unexpected.

This year is no different with new regulations, many new line-ups and a fresh dynamic at the front and Albert Park will provide a first indication as to whether the big driver moves were right and if the changes to the cars have worked.

As it is, Ferrari head Down Under as the big favourites based on pre-season testing with big rivals Mercedes appearing a little off the pace.

Red Bull and new engine supplier Honda are expected to be in the mix too, though just where remains a mystery having not posted a representative time during the eight days in Barcelona.

In the midfield, chaos is the only real expectation with upto 12 drivers capable of fighting for the final places in the top 10.

Among them, is home favourite Daniel Ricciardo in his first race with Renault and Kimi Raikkonen at the renamed Alfa Romeo Racing, having had his seat at Ferrari taken by one Charles Leclerc.

The only team really heading to Melbourne heavily compromised is Williams, who started late in testing after delays with the new car and appear someway off the pace from the rest of the grid.

All that being said, here are five predictions I have for Australia this weekend.

1. Ferrari & Vettel to win... but only just

Despite Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton being separated by just 0.003s at the end of testing, most accept it is the Scuderia that hold the advantage to start 2019.

Onboards of their respective laps show a Ferrari car that appears much more firmly planted to the racetrack than the Mercedes and that is exactly what you need on the technical turns of Albert Park.

The Italian team has also beaten their Anglo-German rivals the past two years in Melbourne so realistically, very little appears to be in the path of making that a three-peat.

However, there is the unknown of Red Bull, which appears strong over a race distance, and reliability was a problem for Ferrari in the second week in Barcelona perhaps meaning they play it safe to ensure making the finish.

That's why, while a Vettel win is still anticipated, it won't be as comfortable as some think.

2. Leclerc to just miss out on a podium

One of the most eagerly awaited stories of this weekend is how Leclerc will fare at his first race in red and the most likely outcome is a calm and solid performance.

The Monegasque will be keen to avoid mistakes, which do creep in from time-to-time, and a good haul of points will mark a very strong start.

Though Ferrari is expected to be the fastest team, the experience of Hamilton & Max Verstappen may well make the difference early in the year that's why Leclerc may have to wait to spray of champagne for the first time.

3. Ricciardo will finish in the top six

It has been one of the most talked about moves for 2019 and finally, we'll get a first indication of whether Ricciardo was right to leave Red Bull for Renault.

Signs have been mixed with the French manufacturer promising significant gains which were suggested in testing, but it hasn't been enough to shake off the like of Haas, Alfa Romeo and others.

In Ricciardo though, Renault has a driver that can make the difference with fresh motivation and a home crowd cheering him on.

Not only that, with Pierre Gasly looking shaky at Red Bull and Valtteri Bottas facing pressure to perform, they can be targets the Honey Badger could pick off.

4. Racing Point to score points

The former Force India outfit had a quiet pre-season but that was because work continued on a big upgrade for the first race in Australia.

It is a gamble in that the new package will only be tested for the first time on Friday, but the team is well-known for making significant progress in development and I would expect them to firmly join the front of the midfield.

In Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll, Racing Point also has two drivers that are capable of extracting the best from the RP19.

5. McLaren to disappoint

Based on pre-season there are signs of progress at McLaren, who finished last year battling with Williams at the back of the grid.

However, when the rest up the pace in qualifying, there is a worrying feeling that Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris may be left behind.

Certainly, the situation isn't as bad as last year, and there is a platform from which they can build, but it will take time for the results to some.