Anyone fancy a bit of Hamilton vs. Rosberg, or Mercedes vs. Ferrari?
Yes, the new F1 season is upon us almost as soon as the 2015 season ended.
After a couple of pre-season tests in Barcelona the teams have packed up and flown to Australia for the first race of the 2016 campaign.
But, easily the biggest question that has circulated the paddock over the winter surrounds the improvement of Ferrari – can they beat Mercedes to the championship title?
Are Ferrari catching Mercedes?
Pre-season testing indicated little in the way of outright pace, headline times were unreliable and there were different teams using different tyres, engine maps, fuel loads etc.
Even so, some number crunchers have concluded that Ferrari may have edged a little closer to their German rivals.
Mercedes are predicted to continue their dominance but if Ferrari have closed the gap, hiding their pace in testing, it presents a very attractive scenario for the season.
F1 has been starved of a two-team title battle for the past three seasons. Not since the infamous Vettel/Alonso scrap in 2012 have two drivers from two separate teams been contesting the title until the last race.
Naturally, the sub-plot to Mercedes’ superiority is the decline in attendances at some races and, worryingly, falling television audiences.
That Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have been virtually untouchable during the hybrid era has been the final straw for some fans who are either upset at astronomical raceday tickets or the rising cost of pay-to-view television.
So, do Ferrari have more than their reputation on the line? Is their challenge of Mercedes vital to the future of the sport? With every passing race it certainly seems that way.
The answers will begin to become apparent when the 2016 season is established and we know where all the teams stand.
It definitely appears as if Mercedes and Ferrari are the top dogs, while Williams may just be at the head of a tight-looking midfield involving Red Bull, Force India and Toro Rosso – who have switched to 2015 Ferrari power-units this season.
Much of the spotlight will be on the latter’s Max Verstappen, who had a rookie season to remember last year.
Then there is McLaren, who have been encouraged by the news that Honda have fixed their ERS deployment issues, gaining the team multiple tenths of a second per lap.
Can they mix it with the four midfielders?
It’s widely expected that American newcomers Haas may struggle while they sort inevitable teething problems out, but they have decent pace and should be aiming for the occasional points finish with Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez at the wheel.
Renault might be fighting with McLaren, while Sauber will have to beat off competition from the revamped Manor team who are hoping to rid themselves of the perennial backmarker tag.
Over the winter F1 rushed to get qualifying updated to a new elimination format. The system is similar to track cycling’s elimination race where the slowest competitor is eliminated after a given period.
Q1 will last 16 minutes, with elimination beginning in the final minutes and seeing one driver omitted every 90 seconds until seven are gone.
Q2 is 15 minutes with the same system, while Q3 sees the top eight places decided in a 14-minute shootout.
The tyre rules have also been given a shake-up, with Pirelli adding a new purple-walled ultra-soft compound to the mix alongside the new rule that allows teams and drivers to pick their tyres from the three slick compounds Pirelli will bring to each race.
Theoretically this could see Hamilton on medium tyres being chased down by Rosberg and Vettel on super-softs – which is exactly the type of exciting scenario F1 bosses intended to craft.
Strict new radio rules also come into force in 2016, meaning drivers will have to think problems out without the help and guidance of their race engineers.
So, it’s an F1 season with some good racing ahead of it. Have Ferrari closed the gap to Mercedes or will it be Hamilton against Rosberg for the third successive year?
Stay glued to your screens to find out.
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