With the Australian Grand Prix this weekend, preview the 2016 Formula One season.
Grab your passports and meet me in Melbourne, as Formula One is back and ready to go. Just a few days now remain until the F1 paddock crawls out onto the streets and begins the longest season in Formula One’s history. But will Hamilton make it a hat-trick of championships or can someone stop Hammer-Time?
For the last two years it has been Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton battling it out within the same garage for the spoils of Formula One’s grand prize. But after a final round decider in 2014 falling in favour of the Brit, Rosberg’s (and Vettel’s – after Ferrari found their feat) 2015 challenge came to an end in America where Lewis made history to become the first back-to-back British Formula One Champion.
Now, can he go one stage further?
In pre-season testing for this year’s later than usual but earlier than first planned season, Mercedes showed Formula One teams that it is possible to rack up the laps over the course of the two tests. Something Mark Webber believes Porsche in the World Endurance Championship showed them.
Regardless, Mercedes totaled 1,294 laps of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, 46-laps fewer than they totaled over all three 2015 tests. They also amounted such a high mileage they would have completed nearly 19 Grand Prix distances, two fewer GP’s than on the full 2016 calendar.
But while racking up the laps showed their car was reliable – it only broke down once over the two weeks when a transmission failure stopped Hamilton’s running – they mainly only used the medium tyres, and allowed Ferrari to take the top testing time.
Of course, being the best for the past two years should give you some room to stay at the top without testing every element. Especially with very little change in the regulations, other than exhaust wastegate’s to improve the noise levels, a different qualifying set up and a new tyre from Pirelli.
And being the best has come from their power unit which from the off had no challenger. Ferrari last year made a huge step forwards and should make another stride into 2016 (with engine development restrictions eased so that providers such as Renault and Honda can play catch up). But as the restrictions get eased for others, Mercedes can still develop their unit and find more time, even if they didn’t want that to show in Spain.
Ferrari has also changed their front suspension to join the pack using push-rods rather than pull-rods. This, along with aerodynamic changes should help alleviate the understeer that troubled Raikkonen in 2015, potentially bringing another driver to the title fight.
But with no comparable times for flying laps between the Ferrari (who ran the ultrasoft new tyres) and the Mercedes (who kept running to longer runs), the gap could easily fluctuate around different circuits. After all, Ferrari made a strong start to 2015 by winning in Malaysia, only to spend the rest of the season chasing the odd victory.
Outside of the championship fight, the midfield should be closer than it has been for a while.
Williams as always with their Mercedes hybrid power unit will be quick on the lower downforce tracks. Something Force India showed they were capable off when they finally unleashed the B-spec car last year.
Toro Rosso and Red Bull will still be finding themselves in this pack as well. With Red Bull’s TAG Heuer badged Renault power unit still lacking the power they need to get them back to winning ways. As for Toro Rosso, their late change to Ferrari’s engine saw a few expected problems creep in but the team could easily beat its big brother outfit in the early races. A prospect Red Bull has thought about.
Like Red Bull, the now almost former great team McLaren will be looking at a lot of gearboxes again this year. The Honda unit is slightly better than last year. Even if it’s top horsepower output is still not where it needs to be to win and reliability issues are still there. But at least it has better ERS deployment than last year.
I would suggest McLaren are now running on the edge of points and the top-10 as a sign of progress from last year. But with their 2016 aero spec package not being ran in testing, more could yet come from the Woking MTC.
A lot is also expected of the new Haas team as America gets it’s own Formula One outfit. A lot believe they will be on the edge of the top-10 – like McLaren could be – after Haas has spent the last year or so working closely with Ferrari to harness as much know-how as possible and buying as much of a car from them as is possible to ensure they get off to a good start. Testing however showed Haas were not quite ready for racing with the team struck with a string of issues across the second test.
Then we come to Renault. They have taken charge again of a Formula One team after buying Lotus at the end of 2015 and have a solid line up with Palmer and Magnussen. But, like Toro Rosso, had to make a heap of changes to the car with a change of engine but unlike Toro Rosso, the rest of the car was not as complete last year so will need to do a lot to score solid points in 2016.
If we mix in the new qualifying format where drivers are eliminated every 90-seconds after a set point in the three rounds, the midfield could be even more mixed up on a Sunday afternoon. The front runners may not be as mixed with the new format, but tyre strategy could play a part in that.
For now drivers can use a choice of three compounds across the weekend, with different drivers in the same team able to go for a completely different strategy. At Mercedes for example, Hamilton has requested one set of the mediums, six softs and six supersofts for the season opening Australian Grand Prix. While Rosberg has opted for one les soft set for the harder medium compound.
Elsewhere in the paddock, most team-mates have opted for the same tyre sets for both drivers. The only others to differ are Haas and Sauber with Grosjean selecting one fewer medium sets than team-mate Gutierrez and Ericsson doing likewise at Sauber to team-mate Nasr.
Several teams have also opted to select seven sets of the supersoft compound, while only Manor have requested more sets of the medium tyres, with their two rookies – Haryanto and Wehrlein – going for four each.
If Ferrari has made the gains with their car that puts them closer to the Silver Arrows then we should be in for a thrilling three-way title fight between Hamilton, Rosberg and Vettel. If not, then for the sake of Formula One, Rosberg needs to apply as much pressure on Hamilton throughout the year to put himself in a position to claim his first World Title.
But if Ferrari has got a car capable of winning more races, a car capable of beating the Mercedes, then what a year we are in for. And for the first time, we could be looking at Hamilton vs Vettel. The two giants of the current Formula One era finally battling it out on track for the title, something the duo are yet to do despite the pair winning every title since Jenson Button’s 2009 victory with Brawn.
Not forgetting if Hamilton secures the title this year he will match the four-titles Vettel has won. Lewis will also become a three-time consecutive champion and join just two men – Sebastian Vettel and Alain Prost – on the list of four-time champs. Only Juan Manuel Fangio (5) and Michael Schumacher (7) have won more.