Schedule: March 18, Friday practice 5.30am and 9.30am; March 19, Saturday practice 7am; Qualifying 10am; March 20, Sunday race 9am (all times UAE)
Dubai: The 2016 FIA Formula 1 World Championship is nearly upon us with the new season firing up this weekend at Albert Park, Melborune.
Winter testing, as ever, hasn’t painted the full picture, although it’s clear that Mercedes and Ferrari are ahead. By how much, though, won’t become obvious until the lights go out.
Circuit length: 5.303km Race distance: 307.574km Laps: 58 laps Lap record: Michael Schumacher, 1:24.125 (Ferrari, 2004) 2015 pole: Lewis Hamilton, 1:26.327 (Mercedes) 2015 winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
Melbourne has been the season-opener on 18 occasions, and this year is the 21st Australian Grand Prix to be held at Albert Park. It was previously held in Adelaide. Interestingly, all five of the sport's active champions, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, and Sebastian Vettel, have won the Australian Grand Prix. Button has been the most successful at Albert Park, having won it three times.
Who will rule the Mercedes roost?
The battle for bragging rights within the Mercedes camp has been the main talking-point in Formula 1 over the last two seasons. All the signs point towards this trend continuing for 2016. Lewis Hamilton has generally been the man ahead, surrounded by a glow of confidence that is seldom seen with other drivers. But he was clearly second-best to his teammate Nico Rosberg in the final races of 2015, so is his time as the de facto top man over?
In 2015, Mercedes won 16 out of 19 races, notching up a record 11 1-2 finishes. Ferrari picked up where Mercedes couldn’t and won the other three.
Rosberg, left and Hamilton share a happier moment
Lewis Hamilton is, on paper, looking like the man to beat once more. However, and despite now being a triple world champion, Nico Rosberg’s end-of-season charge last year, where we won the last three races convincingly and on merit, clearly flustered the Briton. He has won at least 10 races in each of the last two seasons: 11 in 2014 and 10 in 2015. But you’re only as good as your last race, and there’s no escaping the fact that Rosberg ended the year the more confident man.
Rosberg won five races last year, but qualified on pole seven times to Hamilton’s 11.
There’s no denying that Hamilton is on course to become one of the all-time greats. He now has 43 career victories, putting him third in the all-time list behind Michael Schumacher (91) and Alain Prost (51). More interestingly, he has pushed Ferrari's four-time world champion, Sebastian Vettel, down to fourth – who has 42 wins. Hamilton is also third in the all-time pole position rankings, with 49, behind Michael Schumacher (68) and the late Ayrton Senna (65). Rosberg has been on pole 14 times.
Rosberg has scored 14 wins, but he didn’t win his first race until 2012, some five years after Hamilton had opened his account. The German has proved that he can be the match of Hamilton, and has grown ever-more ruthless as their off-track relationship has deteriorated. He qualified on pole position in each of last season’s final six races, which clearly frustrated Hamilton.
Winter testing gave nothing away as far as the Mercedes intra-team battle was concerned. Lap times were meaningless and the deciding factor will be a simple case of who is more confident on the day.
Hamilton has been all over the media throughout the close-season and has let it be known that he is ready for the new campaign. Rosberg, as a polar opposite, has barely been seen.
If the German can maintain his form from the end of last year then Hamilton should be very concerned. If they’re even, then who would want to be in Toto Wolff’s shoes?
What’s new for 2016?
A new qualifying format has been adopted for this year. Q1 will run for 16 minutes with the slowest driver of the 20 being eliminated after seven minutes. The next slowest driver will eliminated every 90 seconds thereafter until there are 15 drivers remaining.
There will be a short break before Q2 begins. The session will last 15 minutes with the slowest driver eliminated after six minutes. As was the case in Q1, the slowest driver will be knocked every 90 seconds until only eight remain.
The final session will last 14 minutes. After five minutes, like before, the slowest driver will be eliminated after 90 seconds. The next five drivers will be eliminated at 90 second intervals leaving the final two drivers to fight it out for pole in the final 90 seconds.
A fifth new tyre is now available to the teams. The purple-walled ultra-soft was used for the first time in testing and offered drivers even more grip. However as it will degrade the quickest, it will only likely be used at low-speed circuits like Monaco and Hungary.
Three drivers are making their F1 race debuts in Australia: Britain's Jolyon Palmer (Renault), Germany's Pascal Wehrlein (Manor) and Indonesian Rio Haryanto (Manor). Haryanto is the first Indonesian to race in Formula 1.
The new Renault team, with Magnussen and Palmer
2016 sees the return of Renault, who took-over the beleaguered Lotus team at the end of last year. Renault owned the Enstone-baed team beforehand. However, as a reuslt of Lotus' money troubles, this years’ car is mainly the same as last years.
Partnering new-comer Palmer is McLaren exile Kevin Magnussen. In 2014 Magnussen proved that he is quick landing his only podium to date on his debut in Australia. How he will cope with the role of team-leader, having been on the side-lines last year, will be a hard test.
This year also sees the arrival of a brand new team: the all-American Haas F1 Team. Gene Haas has been running IndyCars for a long time, and is no stranger to the workings of major racing series, but his new venture into the political world of F1 is already proving to be a steep learning curve. Haas has a technical deal with Ferrari, which means they are using Ferrari engines and gearboxes among other things, but their chassis has been made by Dallara.
Haas is the first all-American F1 team in 30 years
Dallara has a chequered history in F1, with their last chassis being the dreadful tail-ender used by the now defunct Hispania Racing Team.
The team have had some testing problems, which is to be expected, but they certainly look stronger than other new teams have done at this stage previously.
They have proven talent in the cockpit on both sides of the garage with Frenchman Romain Grosjean and Mexican Esteban Gutierrez.
Haas is the first all-American outfit in Formula 1 in 30 years.
Australian Grand Prix in numbers
58 – The number of laps of the race
12 – In the last 20 years, the winner in Australia has gone on to become World Champion 12 times.
9 – On nine occasions, the driver on pole position has gone on to win the race.
11 – The lowest grid position from which a driver has won the Australian GP was 11th, when Eddie Irvine scored his first ever F1 win in 1999.
7 – Seven races in the last 10 years have seen a safety car at some point.
26 – Despite the 2014 Australian GP being the last time McLaren finished on the podium, they are still the most successful team in Melbourne: 26 podiums, and 11 wins.