Everyone has been dealt a new hand of cards for 2015, but all of Mercedes’ rivals arrive in Melbourne for the season opener convinced that the Silver Arrows will still be holding all the aces. Winter testing indicated that the new F1 W06 Hybrid has the speed to carry on where the W05 left off last year, but of course no one will really know if that’s true until Saturday’s qualifying session, when all the teams run flat-out for the first time…
“At this point in the year you don’t really know what to feel as a driver,” reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton admits. “You’re impatient to get back to racing but, at the same time, you never know what a new season will bring. Testing gives you a basic idea of whether the car feels good or not but, beyond that, it’s anyone’s game to win.
“The team have been working incredibly hard through the winter and it was great to see everyone in the factory before I left for Melbourne. I’m so thankful for everything they do and I want to show that in the best way I can out on track. 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. I’m sure the competition will be close and we should get exciting racing with plenty of battling for position – which is great because that’s what I love doing and that’s what the fans love watching.”
“2014 was a really incredible season for the team and I know everyone is pushing harder than ever to do it all again,” Hamilton’s team mate Nico Rosberg says. “This will be my sixth year with the team and we’re getting stronger with every season. It’s great to have a group of people working alongside you who are as passionate and driven as you are.
“I have focused on pushing myself even harder for the rematch with Lewis. In the end, it comes down to who can put the best season together overall and I have to make sure it’s the other way around this time. Having said that, my team mate is just one of many strong competitors who I have to beat if I want to be world champion, so I’m just focused on being the absolute best I can be.”
The question for Mercedes is: how will the opposition stack up? Williams, Ferrari and Red Bull all showed signs of promise in testing. But will Williams, with their new FW37, be able to maintain the Mercedes-bothering form they showed at last year’s season finale in Abu Dhabi, or have the Silver Arrows opened up the gap again?
“On the back of what has been a really good winter test period, where we met all of our objectives, we are heading to Melbourne in a really positive frame of mind,” admits Williams’ head of performance engineering Rob Smedley. “Melbourne is always a really interesting race as there are so many unknowns. There are always a few surprises as the competitive pecking order is established.”
Will Ferrari continue the significant improvement that testing suggested they have made? Can four-time champion Sebastian Vettel rediscover his mojo? Will the SF15-T’s superior front end turn Kimi Raikkonen back into a force to be reckoned with? The Scuderia certainly hope so.
At Red Bull, will Daniel Ricciardo remain the force he was in 2014, or will new team mate Daniil Kvyat challenge his position as de facto team leader? On his home ground, the Australian is desperate to impress, particularly after being excluded from second place in last year’s race.
“Testing has been relatively good for us,” Ricciardo says. “We had a few reliability issues but we racked up a lot of miles and learned a lot. I still feel that we have a bit more to go. But there is no better place to do this than going racing. I’m ready to go.”
There are more questions awaiting answers throughout the field. Can Lotus regain lost ground following their switch to Mercedes power? Are McLaren in as much trouble as they looked in testing, and will Kevin Magnussen grab his chance in the incapacitated Fernando Alonso’s car to upstage Jenson Button, the man who beat him to a permanent race seat?
At Toro Rosso, rookie Max Verstappen will become the youngest-ever Grand Prix contestant, as he vies for superiority with fellow debutant Carlos Sainz Junior. But are the inexperienced duo as ready to race as team principal Franz Tost claims? Has the delay getting their new VJM08 on track hurt Force India’s chances? Will Sauber be able to score their first points since 2013 with rookie Felipe Nasr and sophomore Marcus Ericsson at the helm? And what can the recently revived Marussia team do with an interim machine and an untested rookie line-up of Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi?
Pirelli have brought their white-marked medium and yellow-marked soft compound tyres to Albert Park, a circuit that’s often slippery, while demanding high downforce and heavy braking.
“Our fifth season of Formula One gets underway in Australia: one of the most exciting races of the year as it’s the start of a new season held at a venue that is always extremely challenging, popular and unpredictable,” says Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery. “Just like last year, we’ve nominated the medium and soft compounds, which cover the very wide range of usage conditions that are possible here. The new rear structure increases traction and helps drivers get on to the power earlier: one of the factors that has led to faster lap times this year.
“As always at the start of the season, there are big question marks about the pecking order and relative performance of the cars. All we know for sure is that performance will inevitably increase still further during the course of the year, which will naturally have an effect on the interaction between the cars and the tyres. The behaviour of the tyres was in line with our expectations during pre-season testing, but of course you cannot really compare testing to real racing, with drivers pushing to the limit. That’s why this weekend in Melbourne is so eagerly anticipated by everyone.”
There have been no major changes to the layout of the 5.303 km (3.295 mile) track since the Formula One fraternity last visited Melbourne, with the two DRS zones in the same places as last year. The first begins just after the exit of Turn 16, heading onto the pit straight, whilst the second starts on the exit of Turn 2. Like last year, they share a detection point which is situated before Turn 14.
The weather forecast for the weekend is mixed, with temperatures predicted to fluctuate significantly between qualifying, when it’s expected to be warmer, and the race, when it will be cooler. The Grand Prix will run over 58 laps or 307.574 kilometres (191.11 miles) and starts at 1600 hours local time (0500 GMT) on Sunday.