While the biggest threat to a Hamilton hat-trick of successive titles is his Mercedes team-mate Rosberg, the improving Ferraris are also in contention There are no major rule changes for the new F1 season but there is real optimism that Ferrari might take another step towards challenging the Lewis Hamilton-Nico Rosberg power axis.
They will have to improve their qualifying but they took three races off Mercedes last year and this will be the first Ferrari totally developed under the vigilant eye of their brilliant technical director, Britain’s James Allison, who hopes to maintain the improvement the Scuderia made last year – they failed to win a single race in 2014, the first time that had happened for 21 years.
A really competitive Ferrari, who have retained Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel, would transform the sport. The reality is, however, that the championship is once again likely to be fought out between Hamilton and Rosberg. Last year Hamilton was more dominant than he had been in 2014. But the final race of the season, in Abu Dhabi at the end of November, gave everyone something to ponder.
Hamilton won the championship with his victory in Austin in October, with three races still remaining. Rosberg had the better of him in the next two rounds, in Mexico and Brazil. By the time the circus arrived at the Yas Marina circuit, where the British driver has enjoyed so much success, he was desperate to reassert his supremacy. But he couldn’t.
Rosberg, who had qualified for pole with a stunning lap the day before, romped home by 8.2 seconds. Hamilton won 11 of the first 12 poles last year, as well as 10 of the opening 16 races. But Rosberg finished with three straight wins and a run of six poles.
Hamilton is the most natural and fastest driver in F1. But there were signs that he was taking his superiority over Rosberg for granted. Suddenly, he was the second quickest driver in Brackley.
A leading figure at Mercedes said recently: “Lewis believes he is three-tenths quicker than Nico. But if he isn’t he automatically thinks there is something wrong with his car.”
Once again, there will be plenty of politics in Formula One this year. There is an epic power struggle going on between the chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, and the FIA’s Jean Todt on the one side, and the big engine manufacturers Mercedes and Ferrari on the other.
Look out too for a European Union ruling on a plea from the smaller teams for a more equable distribution of the big money, with half the outfits in the paddock permanently broke.
And, despite the absence of major rule changes, there are still new features to look forward to. The old Lotus team will be re-branded as Renault, and they will bring a new British driver, Jolyon Palmer, into the sport. There will also be a totally new team in the Ferrari-powered Haas, who have signed the gifted Romain Grosjean. Red Bull and Williams will once again struggle to confront the might of the Silver Arrows. McLaren, meanwhile, are just hoping for a fight with the mid-table teams.