The new Formula 1 season gets under way this morning, and if pre-season testing is anything to go by, it looks like champions Mercedes are in for a fight with Ferrari and possibly Red Bull.

A whole raft of technical changes, mostly in aerodynamics, have come into play and the cars are now longer, wider and with bigger tyres. They also have shark fins.

As a result, the new cars are faster, possibly the fastest they have ever been. But will that make for better racing?

First impressions during testing show that overtaking has been made more difficult because cars lose more downforce as they follow the one in front, holding out the prospect of fast but processional races. Not good news for the fans.

The biggest thing to look out for as the season starts is obviously which team has the best car. Pre-season testing may not be an accurate barometer. Many teams ‘sandbag’ and do not show all they are capable of until the first race. And things change between the cold climate in Spain, where the tests are held, and the summer in Melbourne.

But first impressions are that while Mercedes, who dominated the past three years, continue to be a force to be reckoned with, Ferrari might well have caught up. And Red Bull are up there too, although the team seems to have some small reliability niggles.

Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton and chairman Niki Lauda have admitted that the reds are the early favourites and the silver arrows have a fight on their hands.

During the tests, the new Ferrari SF70H was at times faster than Mercedes and the most steady car in both the fast and slow corners.

The new Force India, in shocking pink.The new Force India, in shocking pink.

Of course, there other many other variables to look out for, not least reliability, tyre wear and fuel consumption. But nothing could be better for the fans than a battle royale between Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes, seeking his fourth championship crown, and Sebastian Vettel, in the Ferrari, seeking his fifth.

Ferrari are desperate for honours. They did not win a single race last year and they last won the driver’s championship, with Kimi Raikkonen, in 2007. The Finn is still in the red cockpit and could well upset Vettel’s plans for another championship.

Hamilton, meanwhile, also has a Finn as his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas having transferred to Mercedes from Williams after Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement after winning the championship last year.

The way he performs in the Mercedes cockpit and the kind of competition he offers Hamilton will be one of the points to look out for this season, especially as Hamilton and Rosberg were barely on speaking terms when the last season ended.

A former champion still on the grid this year is Fernando Alonso, but hardly anyone will bet on him winning a third championship this year. He will be lucky to even make it to the podium. The McLaren team he drives for has not won a driver’s championship since 2008 – courtesy of Lewis Hamilton – and it has not won a race since 2012.

The Renault powered Red Bull.The Renault powered Red Bull.

McLaren’s change to Honda power, now in its third year, has been nothing short of disastrous. Honda says that it changed the concept of its engine this year, but it did not show improvement. In two tests Honda used more engines than is allowed for the whole season and it was running with less power than it had in 2016.

“We are 30km/h down on the straight, every straight” Fernando Alonso complained.

Such is the depth of the crisis that there has been talk – which has not been denied – that McLaren is seeking a temporary engine supply from Mercedes for some races this season, a development which would require Honda’s approval.

McLaren saw a change at the helm during the winter, with long-serving supremo Ron Dennis having been forced out and replaced by American Zak Brown. His task will be to get the team back up to speed and also to find a team sponsor, missing for  three years at great financial cost.

The team has reverted to its old orange livery, but that is the only thing that appears bright for them so far this year.

A team to watch this year (as always) is Red Bull. They pipped Ferrari to second place last year and Dutch rookie Max Verstappen delighted the fans with daring overtaking, especially in the rain last year. Their engine suppliers Renault claim their engine progress has been  better than expected, and in design guru Adrian Newey, Red Bull have an ace where car design is involved.

Another former champion, Jenson Button will not be on the grid this year, unless something happens to the regular McLaren drivers.  His seat has now been taken over by Belgium’s Stoffel Vandoorne, who impressed when he replaced the injured Fernando Alonso for one race last year.

The McLaren Honda partnership is plagued by problems.The McLaren Honda partnership is plagued by problems.

Meanwhile, Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa has returned to Williams within days of officially retiring. The British team asked him to return because they needed an experienced driver to partner newcomer Lance Stroll, who has filled in the seat vacated by Mercedes-bound Bottas.

Stroll is, again, somebody to look out for. He is the son of a Canadian billionaire who has splashed out on his son’s Formula 1 preparations by renting circuits and old Formula 1 cars over the summer. But Stroll is not just rich, his Formula 4 races showed he is not short of raw talent, even if two crashes during testing earlier this month underscored how difficult driving the new Formula 1 cars is.

Mercedes-powered Williams also did well in testing and Massa said they are hoping for regular podiums.

Of course, to do that they will need to get past another Mercedes-power team, Force India – now in a shocking pink livery -  who jumped them in the standings in the second part of last year’s season and appear equipped to stay in front this year.

Renault, the works team, also say they have made progress and expect to be at the front of the middle bunch this year. They will likely battle with Ferrari-powered Haas, provided the la solve recurrent brake problems. Haas is welcoming Kevin Magnussen (formerly McLaren, Renault) to partner Romain Grosjean.

There will be a team missing this year. Manor have folded under the weight of financial problems. They had been hoping to get Mercedes engines this year. Some say those engines could now go to McLaren.

The Formula 1 administration itself has new management with Bernie Ecclestone, the long-time boss and his company having been bought out by a new company – Liberty Media. Its new technical consultant is a well loved man in Formula 1, Ross Brawn, who won titles as technical director with Benetton, Ferrari and his own team, Brawn. The new management is considering ways of winning back fading interest in Formula 1.

That’s another one to watch.

Will Ferrari be leading Mercedes this year?Will Ferrari be leading Mercedes this year?


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