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Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands arrives at the track ahead of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, Australia. Image Credit: AP

Melbourne: World champion Max Verstappen is eyeing a “smooth weekend” to build on his victory in Saudi Arabia, but is wary about a revamped Albert Park circuit as Formula One returns to Melbourne after a two-year hiatus.

The 24-year-old Red Bull driver was a relieved man after battling to a thrilling win ahead of Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc in Jeddah last month.

It was a satisfying triumph for Verstappen after Monaco’s Leclerc clinched the season-opening grand prix in Bahrain where the Dutchman failed to finish.

The young rivals again shape as the men to beat in the third race of the year, with seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton desperate for improvement from Mercedes on a track where he has taken eight poles, including the last six.

New experience

It will be a new experience for all drivers, with Albert Park undergoing its most significant modifications since first hosting a grand prix in 1996.

A full resurfacing has taken place with seven corners modified and two removed, bringing the number of turns down to 14, providing more overtaking opportunities and lap times up to five seconds quicker than in the past.

“It will be interesting to see the track updates, I think they will make quite a big difference, especially in turn six where the most significant change has happened,” said Verstappen, who is 20 points behind Leclerc in the drivers’ standings.

“There should be more overtaking opportunities now too which is always positive. It’s going to be interesting to see how the car performs in Australia, the track can sometimes be quite dusty. I hope we can have another smooth weekend as a team.”

Verstappen made his Formula One debut in Melbourne in 2015 for Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso.

Hamilton, who has won more Formula One races than any driver in history, has topped the podium twice in Australia, but not since 2015.

His chances of doing so again appear slim on the evidence of the opening two races, where Mercedes struggled with speed and managing downforce, prompting the Briton to complain in Saudi Arabia his car was “undriveable”.

After being gifted third place in Bahrain, when neither Red Bull finished, he managed just 10th in Jeddah, having qualified 16th.

Team boss Toto Wolff is not holding out hope of big improvements in Melbourne.

“There won’t be a magic fix for the next race weekend,” he said.

Albert Park had previously held the season-opening race every year since 1996, but was moved to third on the calendar this time to allow Covid restrictions to ease in Victoria state.

Melbourne missed out in 2021 due to strict quarantine and entry regulations, after 2020 was sensationally scrapped just before the first official Friday practice session as concerns spiked following a McLaren staff member testing positive.

Valtteri Bottas, now driving for Alfa Romeo, won the last Australian Grand Prix three years ago, ahead of then-Mercedes teammate Hamilton by 20.886secs, the biggest margin of victory in the Finnish driver’s 10 race wins.

Testing positive

Australia will mark the first grand prix of the season for four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who has been out of action after testing positive for Covid before the Bahrain season-opener.

“For me, after nearly a month out of the car, it will be important to learn throughout the practice sessions,” said the Aston Martin driver, whose team are yet to register a world championship point.

“I hope we can take some steps forward in what is usually an exciting and unpredictable race,” said the German.

Vettel is a three-time winner at Albert Park - in 2011, 2017 and 2018. Other than Hamilton and Bottas, the only other driver on the grid this weekend who has tasted victory in Australia is Fernando Alonso, but that was 16 years ago in a Renault.