Beefier cars and bulked-up drivers will hit Albert Park circuit on Sunday for Formula One’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix where many fans will be hoping at least one team can strike an early blow against dominant Mercedes.
Revised aerodynamics and fatter tyres are among a raft of technical changes that pundits feel could bring the Silver Arrows back to earth after they swept the drivers and constructors’ championships for the last three years running.
Ferrari’s strong performance during winter testing has added to expectations that the sport is in for a shake-up, even as F1’s new American managers seek to rejuvenate a series plagued by inertia.
And yet Mercedes, once again, appear primed to ride roughshod over new-season hopes for a changing of the guard.
Nico Rosberg vacated his Mercedes seat in a shock retirement from the sport shortly after winning the drivers’ world championship but his old team mate and three-times champion Lewis Hamilton stands poised to take the title back.
German Rosberg thwarted Hamilton’s bid for a third successive title and the pair’s heated rivalry took its toll on both drivers.
Rosberg’s Finnish replacement, Valtteri Bottas, is not seen as someone who will create as many headaches for Hamilton, who will be going for his third victory in Melbourne and 54th overall after winning the last four races of 2016.
“I think he’s one of those guys who is not going to be that difficult to manage, especially in the battle with Lewis,” Rosberg said of former Williams driver Bottas in a video posting for Formula One sponsor UBS.
“I don’t know if he will be able to challenge Lewis or even beat Lewis. That remains to be seen.”
Bookmakers have Hamilton a heavy favourite to win at Albert Park, although the Briton has deflected the hype onto Ferrari and four-times F1 champion Sebastian Vettel.
“I think Ferrari are bluffing and that they are a lot quicker than they are showing,” Hamilton said at testing in Barcelona.
German Vettel has been busy playing down expectations of a Ferrari renaissance and has become a master of it since crossing to the ‘Scuderia’ from Red Bull in 2015.
Great expectations followed he and team mate Kimi Raikkonen to Melbourne last year after a similarly promising testing in the leadup but neither driver won a race all season.
Red Bull are the other team seen snapping at Mercedes’ heels if they can avoid reliability problems of the past and drivers Daniel Ricciardo and teenager Max Verstappen, seen as a champion-in-waiting, can keep their growing rivalry from spoiling their racing.
“We’ve been on six dinners already this week. He brought me breakfast yesterday morning. We don’t share a room … not yet,” Australian Ricciardo joked to reporters on Wednesday when asked about their relationship. We try to keep it as amicable as possible.”
With bigger tyres and more downforce, the new cars are expected to be up to five seconds quicker per lap in Melbourne and drivers have had to hit the gym to be fitter and stronger to cope with the driving demands.
There will be plenty of intrigue as to how the drivers and their tyres wear, with Melbourne’s changeable weather and the circuit’s tight corners adding to the air of unpredictability.
Australian Grand Prix Facts & Statistics compiled by Reuters
Lap distance: 5.303km. Total distance: 307.574km (58 laps)
Race lap record: Michael Schumacher (Germany) 1:24.125 (Ferrari, 2004)
2016 pole: Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes 1:23.837
2016 winner: Nico Rosberg (Germany) Mercedes
Start time: 0500 GMT (1600 local)
Mercedes won 19 of 21 races last season. The champions have won 51 of 59 races since the introduction of the 1.6 litre V6 turbo hybrid power units in 2014.
Red Bull, with Australian Daniel Ricciardo and Dutch teenager Max Verstappen, were the only non-Mercedes winners last season.
Triple world champion Hamilton has won at least 10 races in each of the last three seasons. He won 11 in 2014 and 10 in 2015 and 2016. He is the only driver to have won 10 races in a season and not taken the championship that year.
Hamilton has 53 career victories, putting him second in the all-time list behind Schumacher (91). Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel has 42, McLaren’s Fernando Alonso is on 32 and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen 20.
Ferrari have won 224 races, McLaren 182, Williams 114, Mercedes 64 and Red Bull 52. McLaren have not won for 78 races, a run that dates back to Brazil 2012.
Hamilton was on pole 12 times last season and now has 61, four short of the late Ayrton Senna’s career total and seven behind Schumacher’s record 68.
Mercedes were on pole in 20 races last year and have been on pole in 56 of the last 59.
There is only one complete newcomer this season – Canadian Lance Stroll at Williams.
McLaren’s Belgian rookie Stoffel Vandoorne did one race last year and scored on his debut, finishing 10th.
No Australian has ever won at home. There have been 13 Australian F1 drivers since 1950 and two world champions – Jack Brabham and Alan Jones. Daniel Ricciardo is the only Australian in Sunday’s race.
All four of the sport’s active champions (Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso, Raikkonen) have won in Australia.
Melbourne has been the season-opener 19 times. This year’s race is the 22nd to be held at Albert Park.
Since 2002, the winner in Australia has ended the season as champion on nine occasions. In total, the winner in Melbourne has gone on to be world champion 13 out of 21 times.
The race winner at Albert Park has started on pole on nine occasions. The lowest starter to win was Britain’s Eddie Irvine from 11th in 1999 for Ferrari.
Eight of the last nine races in Australia have seen the safety car deployed.
McLaren’s last podium finish was in Australia in 2014 (Magnussen).
Russian Daniil Kvyat has failed to start the last two races in Melbourne due to technical problems.
Formula One has no reigning champion on the grid for the first time since 1994, the season after French great Alain Prost retired.