F1 season preview: Mercs, the ones to beat

Mercedes looks set to continue its reign this season too, while Ferrari, going by its performance in the pre-season testing, appears to have the speed and reliability to close in on the champion team.

The cover is off... Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg (right) unveil the new Mercedes F1 W07 outside the team garage on the first day of the winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Spain.   -  REUTERS

Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari has a tyre change in the garage on Day One of winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya in Spain. The German driver, running on supersofts, finished the testing on top.   -  Getty Images

For the last two years, ever since Formula One moved to turbocharged hybrid engines, Mercedes’ dominance has been absolute. Of the total 38 races held in the previous two seasons, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have won 32 races between them and secured 23 one-two finishes. Such has been the team’s authority.

 

When the 2016 season gets underway at Albert Park, Australia, on March 20, with no major rule changes in terms of technical regulations, it looks unlikely that the Silver Arrows can be dislodged. Hamilton is chasing a personal glory of a third successive World Drivers’ Championship, while Rosberg certainly isn’t in the mood to let his team-mate steal the thunder again this year.

Amidst the domination of Mercedes, Formula One, however, seems to have lost a considerable amount of its charm. While the might of Mercedes shone through, other teams, playing catch-up, seemingly gave up on their title aspirations. As a result, the competition declined, and with it, the viewership.

In an attempt to liven up the proceedings, the FIA has approved a new elimination-style qualifying format besides imposing further restrictions on pit-to-driver radio communication during the races this year.

The new qualifying system will see drivers being eliminated every 90 seconds in the closing minutes of the three sessions. In the 16-minute Q1, the slowest driver at the end of seventh minute will be eliminated. Thereafter, the slowest driver will be eliminated every 90 seconds until the chequered flag, with 15 progressing to Q2.

In the 15-minute Q2, the slowest driver after six minutes will be eliminated, and thereafter the slowest every 90 seconds will return to the pits, with eight cars heading into the final qualifying session.

In the 14-minute Q3, the slowest driver after five minutes will be eliminated, after which the slowest every 90 seconds will go out, with the top two contesting for the pole in the final 90 minutes before the chequered flag.

 

McLaren driver Fernando Alonso, just like many other drivers, did not think high of the new qualifying format. “I don’t think it’s right. There are too many changes, and the complexity of the rules for the spectators is quite high,” the former world champion told autosport.com.

As for the restrictions on pit-to-driver radio communication, the drivers are surely happy, as it would give them the freedom to employ their own strategies and driving skills. Giving back more control to the drivers means better on-track battles. And this should come as a relief particularly to Rosberg and Hamilton, whose fight for supremacy had largely been restricted by Mercedes’ ‘team first’ policy.

“We are stakeholders in Formula One. A good show is essential for the sport. We want lots of fighting on the track. And the rivalry between these two guys is important,” team director Toto Wolff said, letting his two drivers chart their own course.

The FIA has approved two exhaust tailpipes, which would make the cars sound louder. Though this may not have any effect on the competition, it should definitely increase the excitement for the traditional F1 buffs. There are also new tyre regulations with Pirelli adding a new set of tyres — purple-walled ultrasoft —and each driver will be given a choice of three compounds for every race.

The 2016 season will also see the return of Renault with its works team. Debutant Jolyon Palmer of Britain and Kevin Magnussen of Denmark are the Renault drivers. The re-entry of the French automobile giant, who has taken over Lotus, should up the competition in the seasons to come though it is difficult to see the team hit the ground running.

In Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari has a four-time world champion still hungry for success. If the pre-season testing is any indication — Vettel topped the charts using supersoft tyres — the Prancing Horse certainly has improved its speed and may close in on Mercedes. But how close, we will know only after the first race, the Australian Grand Prix, gets underway.

Williams, which finished third in the Constructors’ Championship, could also pose Silver Arrows a major challenge if it can improve upon its performance last season. Red Bull Racing, powered by TAG Heuer-branded Renault engine, and with the charming Daniel Riccardio and promising Daniil Kvyat, has its task cut out against Mercedes.

>Read: Haas F1 looking to be competitive

Torro Rosso, considered by many as the dark horse this season not merely because it would be powered by an upgraded Ferrari engine, but for the fact that the talented Max Verstappen is expected to carry on from where he left off last season. The youngster made a sensational debut in 2015 with his daring overtaking manoeuvres from the outside. He has given his team an outside chance of causing a few upsets.

Sahara Force India rose steadily in the second half of last season and finished fifth in the Constructors’ Championship, thanks to a great Mercedes engine and dependable drivers in Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg. It may be difficult for them to repeat the performance this year with the return of Renault and the entry of the new team, Haas. They are certain to crowd the competition in the middle section.