Can Ferrari topple Mercedes at the top?

As we count down the days until the five lights go out at Melbourne, there are a lot of questions rumbling around my head.

Will Mercedes be toppled? Will Ferrari win races? Can Red Bull make it a three-way fight? Are McLaren going to be worse this year? Will Toro Rosso get a podium?

They’re all valid questions in what has to be a pretty open first race of the season. I’m not convinced Mercedes will have lapsed in performance, after all they have been the benchmark for the last three years. Even with the departure of Paddy Lowe and Nico Rosberg, they have recruited two formidable characters in James Allison and Valterri Bottas.

The question is, will Lewis Hamilton be able to adapt to these new surroundings? He was one of the key members in bringing Lowe to the team from McLaren, which ultimately resulted in the departure of Ross Brawn (now running the sport alongside Chase Carey and Sean Bratches). Mercedes have assured him that there will not be a shuffle of mechanics like there was last year, so you would think that this was a fresh start for the world champion having spent last year trailing Rosberg.

But Hamilton seems keen that Ferrari will reignite the battle they had two years ago, having shown formidable pace in pre-season testing. Both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen were completing laps in the centuries, nearly doubling the mileage that the team produced when these hybrid engines were introduced back in 2014 – when arguably the Ferrari was the worst power-wise.

Ferrari stand with a good chance of taking a surprise win this weekend. Last year they nearly won had it not been for a strategy call, which seemed to haunt them for the rest of the season when they got so caught up in the fear of losing that they forgot how to win. But this year they seem to be heading back on the right track, with Vettel predictably coy on their chances during the Drivers Press Conference earlier today.

Vettel was right to discard the question regarding whether they are title contenders this year, after all we’ve barely even seen what these cars can do on a proper race run. If they do have something up their sleeve, the talk of the paddock is that they could be within a tenth of a second of Mercedes over the course of a lap.

Their nearest challengers are of course Red Bull, who haven’t given away too much regarding their overall pace during testing either. Their chassis is more than likely going to flatter the Renault Power Unit again this year, although they have brought their own innovations to the table with their Mobil 1/Esso partnership.

Although they did suffer some teething problems during testing, most notably when Verstappen had to wait four hours while they changed his engine because of an electrical glitch. They are also the same problems that sister team Toro Rosso suffered during their shakedown, but they seemed to bounce back once the issue was identified.

Red Bull did loose some people to Renault over the off-season, notably Pete Machin who joins from the team’s aero department. They were also the other team (along with Mercedes) to get caught up in the pre-season suspension trickery row brought on by Ferrari, who protested that elements of the unit were helping influence aero, and have now been forced to change bits before this weekend.

But for what it is worth, I think with the strong driver line-up of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen the team stand another chance in winning races this year with the increased focus on the aero departments.

Williams look to be best of the rest, just edging out Toro Rosso who get my vote for having the best looking car on the grid. With the former poaching Paddy Lowe from Mercedes along with Dirk De Beer from Ferrari’s aerodynamics department, and the latter having the aerodynamic genius of James Key at the helm, I think these two teams will be ones to watch in a similar fashion to what it was with Williams and Force India last year.

There was a lot of fighting talk between Renault and Force India during the car launches, mainly over who will be fighting for podiums. Realistically I don’t think either team can claim that their drivers will be drinking champagne on Sunday afternoon, but Renault probably look in better shape with their car.

The team took on ex-Red Bull engineer Ciaron Pilbeam as chief race engineer over the winter, who was at McLaren for the last three years. Race strategy seemed to be an area that they lacked in last year, something Jolyon Palmer was fairly vocal about. With them taking on Nico Hulkenberg you hope that he has better luck in races this year, than he’s had in previous years at Force India. Always the bridesmaid never the bride, but can Hulk finally help build this team back into the great force from Enstone it once was with Fernando Alonso at the helm?

The mercurial character looked like he needed a hug in today’s press conference, such is the reality at McHonda that they could well be in for another long season. The team look to have departed from their previous size-zero aero philosophy, however their engine is still lacking the performance where it matters on the straights. Add to that their oil tanker woes – which could see them DNF-ing the first three races – and you can see how much of a brave face everyone at that team is putting on in the face of adversity.

The team completed 217 laps in total at the final pre-season test, by contrast Renault completed 293 laps overall despite suffering a similar amount of stoppages. I’m fairly confident that this new management headed by Zak Brown can pull off a comeback, they don’t seem to be lambasting Honda for their performance like Red Bull did with Renault. But it will take time before they are able to challenge the likes of Williams after they were only just about able to beat Toro Rosso (who were running 2015 Ferrari Power Units) in a straight fight last year.

Elsewhere Haas look to be showing fairly average form after their impressive start to Formula 1 last year. They will be aiming to build on that this year, although with the increased focus on aerodynamics, we should be able to really see how they cope in the relentless development war.

Sauber didn’t look hugely impressive in pre-season testing, not finishing last on few occasions when either the McHonda had stoppages or Renault had problems. Although I’m not sure Pascal Wehrlein will be enjoying yet another season at the tail end of the grid, after impressing on his debut with Manor last year.

We’ll have to wait and see.

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