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Australia preview - can Ferrari really dethrone Mercedes?

16 Mar 2016

After the shortest off-season in living memory, the teams have arrived in Melbourne ready to do battle again – and as usual there are plenty of riveting story lines waiting to play out. We've got Mercedes, looking over their shoulder for Ferrari; McLaren and Renault looking for speed and redemption; Manor desperate to make a jump in performance; and Haas stepping up to the grid at last after months of preparation...

Unusually, all of the teams look to have made good progress over the winter. Ferrari looked very strong in testing at Barcelona, and have an engine upgrade for Melbourne; chief rivals and reigning world champions Mercedes, however, had an incredibly solid test and rarely felt the need to showboat on anything but medium tyres as others tried the softs, the supersofts and even the new ultrasoft tyres. So were the Silver Arrows sandbagging? Do they still have something in hand over their challengers, and will 2016 be 2014 and 2015 revisited? Or can Ferrari give them a fight?

Hamilton begins search for title number four

Lewis Hamilton might have seemed very low-key in Spain, but don't be fooled – he's determined to become just the fourth man in history to win three consecutive world titles (and a Sebastian Vettel-equalling fourth overall).

Both Hamilton and team mate Nico Rosberg were astonished by how impressively their testing went – ominously the new Mercedes F1 W07 Hybrid seems both extremely fast and bulletproof.

"I've been with this team for four years now and, despite all the success, everyone just keeps raising the bar every season, which is super impressive," the Englishman says. "People keep asking me about motivation - but I just have to look at the faces of all the people at Mercedes to know what I'm fighting for. 

"Together, we're always searching for perfection. But that target is always shifting and you're constantly faced with new challenges to reach it. Just as you think you're close, suddenly you fall further back - like someone dangling a carrot on a piece of string and whipping it away just as you reach for it. It's tough mentally - but that's a good thing, as it forces you to be resilient and seek improvement in every area. I know there's still more to come from me - I think I've shown that in the past two years. There certainly needs to be some extra in my tank, as the competition will be stronger than ever this year."

Rosberg, who finished 2015 in breathtaking fashion with three successive wins, is determined to carry that momentum into the new season and make 2016 his year, but both Silver Arrows pilots are expecting stiff competition for the title from Ferrari, and in particular Sebastian Vettel.  

The German won three times in a sensational first season with the Scuderia and, having made a number of key design tweaks over the off-season, are very much the coming force. No wonder Mercedes are not taking the German's challenge lightly… 

"We had a great test and we have a better car than we had this time last year," Vettel says. "Now we have to prove that we can keep winning races, and challenge for the championship."

McLaren will have several new tricks

Everyone has brought revised aerodynamic packages to Australia, developments which weren't quite ready for the Spanish tests, but none more so than McLaren whose Honda-powered MP4-31 was not optimised in the tests.

"In Australia it's always a new slate each day in terms of set-up, as the track starts off very green on the Friday and wears in more and more as the weekend goes on," Jenson Button explains. "We are planning to bring some updates to this race, so we'll be working on configuring those into our set-up right from FP1.

"Albert Park is a tricky place to start the season at – it's an unforgiving, technical, bumpy street circuit, so it really gets you going after a few months off from racing, but that's why we love driving there."

"On Friday and Saturday, we'll be working hard to predict the track's characteristics on race day, and focusing on setting up the car in its final specification," team-mate Fernando Alonso says. "It'll also be interesting to see how the improvement in the power unit deployment pans out on this tricky circuit, too."

Gains made by Honda over the winter mean that Button and Alonso can now use their ERS for a full lap, rather than for three-quarters of a lap as in 2015, but the McLaren MP4-31 is still down on straight-line velocity.

Choice of rubber and new qualifying procedure hot topics  

Besides individual team performances, the key topics in practice and qualifying will the broader choice of tyre and the new qualifying format.

Seeking to inject some uncertainty and thus to improve the racing, Pirelli are bringing three compounds to each race rather than two. In Melbourne the Italian firm have brought the mediums, the softs and the supersofts – a good choice for a stop-start circuit where mechanical grip and downforce are extremely important and the left rear tyre gets a real workout with hard acceleration and heavy braking.

As last year each driver has access to 13 sets of tyres over the race weekend, but unlike last year they've been able to choose 10 of the sets themselves, which is an extremely interesting proposition in terms of strategy. For example, Hamilton has opted for a set of mediums, six sets of softs and six sets of supersofts, whereas team mate Rosberg has gone for two sets of mediums, five of softs and six of supersofts. The Ferrari drivers have gone for the same two-five-six choice, while the Williams duo have chosen a set of mediums, five softs and seven supersofts.

The idea is to give drivers greater scope to make strategic choices based on their own driving styles, the characteristics of their cars, and the nature of each track.

 Some are sceptical and suggest it won't make any real difference, but Rosberg thinks it could spice things up and create surprises.

"The tyres might have a bigger impact than we now predict. There's three tyres we can use now and people can gamble a little bit more and that will increase the variability. That could also increase the excitement."

Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery says: "With far-reaching changes to tyre regulations compared to 2015, we expect strategy options to have extended considerably, with more possibilities open not only to each team but also every individual driver."

The new qualifying procedure will be initiated here too. Though the same three-session knockout system remains, instead of a specified number of drivers being eliminated after set time periods seven will be eliminated at 90s intervals in Q1, seven more in Q2, and six in Q3, leaving two drivers going head-to-head for pole position.

As for the race itself, watch out for the performance of the revised construction tyres, for how the ban on radio communication affects individual driver's handling of their developing strategy, and for more than the one pit stop than last year's winner Hamilton had to make.

"This year, it'll be interesting to see how everyone's tyre choices play out, and the strategy each team picks, but it's only on Sunday afternoon that we'll get to see where we really are," Alonso suggests. 

"The tactical decisions for Albert Park already began last year, as each team nominated their tyres," Hembery says. "Only recently, like a poker game, did everyone have to finally show their hand. By Sunday afternoon in Melbourne, we'll see who made the right choices."

Throw in the return of Renault (with its newly revealed yellow livery) and Kevin Magnussen, the arrival of Haas and three rookies making their debut here: Jolyon Palmer alongside the Dane, plus Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto at Manor, and there are plenty of fresh ingredients for a great race. Right now we think we know what the likely form will be; by Sunday evening we really will know and can start to assess who will be challenging, and who will be challenged.

The forecast

The forecast for the weekend is changeable. Storms are expected on Friday morning and could effect FP1, and conditions are predicted to be similar on Saturday, though qualifying should be dry, as should the race. The race itself will start at 1600 local time (0600 GMT) and will run over 58 laps or 307.574 kms (191.11 miles).