Brimful of confidence after successful pre-season testing, Mercedes’ bid to build a Formula 1 dynasty kicks off at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix this week, with world champion Lewis Hamilton hungry for a third title.
Though the cars are yet to roll out of the Albert Park garages, the ‘Silver Arrows’ might be forgiven for bringing some early-season swagger to the paddock.
An ominous pre-season was the launch-pad to last year’s triumph, and eye-catching lap times in this year’s tests suggest rivals could be again playing catch-up at the Melbourne street circuit.
“We’re looking good, we’re very optimistic for this season,” Nico Rosberg, who won at Albert Park last year and was world runner-up to team mate Hamilton, told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday.
“We just have an awesome team at the moment, really. We are the best in F1 now. We have the best individual departments, we have the best overall team, we have the best engine factory — they’re just doing an awesome job.”
Frequently exhilarating though sometimes volatile, Hamilton and Rosberg’s battle for intra-team supremacy was a highlight of Mercedes’ championship, which broke the four-year dominance of Sebastian Vettel-led Red Bull.
Though Hamilton ultimately crushed Rosberg’s challenge, winning 11 races to five, the rivalry between the flashy Briton and his more reserved German team mate could again prove decisive.
Both expect a tougher run from other challengers, however, having raffled 16 race wins between them last year.
“We had a great season last year as a team and, of course, we’d all love to repeat that. But the others won’t stop chasing us,” said Hamilton, who was forced to retire at Albert Park last year due to a reliability problem, leaving Rosberg the winner.
“I’m sure the competition will be close and we should get exciting racing with plenty of battling for position.”
The race will be the 20th in Melbourne and organisers will hope local boy Daniel Ricciardo can become Australia’s first home champion after grabbing three race wins last year.
Third in last year’s drivers’ championship, Ricciardo was hugely impressive in his first year with Red Bull and has unfinished business at Albert Park.
Pipped for pole position by Hamilton, he was also relieved of his maiden podium spot hours after the race and disqualified by stewards for a fuel flow problem.
Ricciardo out-shone Vettel in the German’s last year at Red Bull but the four-times world champion will re-boot with Ferrari, who parted ways with Spaniard Fernando Alonso.
Now driving for McLaren, two-times champion Alonso will be absent from Australia on doctors’ orders as he recovers from his crash in testing in Barcelona last month. Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen will serve as a stand-in.
After Caterham folded last year to leave 10 teams, the smaller F1 outfits will be under the microscope in Melbourne amid fears financial pressures may see further casualties.
Among them, Sauber’s preparations have been overshadowed by a legal challenge from disgruntled Dutch driver Giedo van der Garde, who has accused the Swiss team of reneging on a deal to give him a race seat.
Van der Garde’s 11th-hour bid to force the team to let him drive for them was upheld by an Australian court on Wednesday, though a final appeal by Sauber to over-turn the verdict will be heard on Thursday.
Australian Grand Prix Facts & Statistics
- Lap distance: 5.303km. Total distance: 307.574km (58 laps)
- Race lap record: Michael Schumacher (Germany) 1:24.125 (Ferrari, 2004)
- 2014 pole: Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes
- 2014 winner: Nico Rosberg (Germany) Mercedes
- Start time: 0500 GMT (1600 local)
- Tyres: Soft (yellow) Medium (white)
- Mercedes took a record 16 wins (from 19 races) last season. Double world champion Hamilton won 11, only the third driver to do that in a single season, team mate Rosberg five.
- Of current drivers, four times champion Sebastian Vettel has 39 career wins, Hamilton 33, Fernando Alonso 32, Kimi Raikkonen 20 and Jenson Button 15.
- Hamilton is the most successful British driver in terms of wins and is fifth on the all-time list.
- Ferrari have won 221 races, McLaren 182, Williams 114 and Red Bull 50. Mercedes have won 29.
- McLaren have not won for 38 races, a run that dates back to Brazil 2012. They went 48 races without a win from 1993-97.
- Ferrari have not won since Spain in May 2013, which was the last time a team other than Mercedes or Red Bull won. Last season was the first since 1993 without a Ferrari win.
- The last driver to win the season opener after ending the previous year with a victory was Vettel in 2010/2011.
- Mercedes and Williams were the only teams to start on pole last year.
- Ferrari’s last pole was in Germany with Alonso in 2012. Mercedes have been on pole in the last 11 races.
- Sauber failed to score last year, a run of 19 races without a point for the Swiss team — their longest barren stint since they entered the sport in 1993.
- Sixty one drivers have scored on their debuts, the most recent being Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat last year.
- McLaren’s last podium finish was in Australia last year, with Magnussen second and Button third after Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified.
- Button has won three of the last six races in Melbourne.
- All five active champions have won in Australia.
- No Australian has ever won his home race.
- Melbourne has been the season-opener on 17 previous occasions. Since 2002, the winner in Australia has ended the season as champion on seven occasions. The exceptions were David Coulthard in 2003, Giancarlo Fisichella in 2005, Button in 2010 and 2012, Raikkonen in 2013 and Rosberg last year.
- In total, the winner in Melbourne has gone on to be world champion 11 out of 19 times.
- The race winner at Albert Park has started on pole on eight occasions. The lowest starter to win was Eddie Irvine from 11th in 1999. Rosberg started third last year.
- Six of the last seven races have seen the safety car deployed.
- Honda return to Formula One, with McLaren, for the first time since 2008.