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The race is on!

March 11 - 17, 2015
Gulf Weekly The race is on!

It was late on the Friday afternoon of the third and final test that Nico Rosberg and Mercedes confirmed what many had previously suspected but not known for sure – that the team has got even faster than their dominant 2014 F1 season, possibly even increasing the gap on their rivals.

Up until that point Mercedes had confined themselves to testing on the slower tyre compounds with suspected heavier fuel loads. The earliest indication was Lewis Hamilton doing his race simulation in which he was lapping consistently 0.8 seconds faster per lap than Daniel Ricciardo.

However, here was Rosberg on the soft tyres setting fastest laps 1.2 seconds better than his nearest rival, Williams’ Valterri Bottas in another Mercedes-powered car.

Mercedes has not even run on the super-soft compound of tyres on which the other teams set their fastest laps. It is estimated this rubber provides an advantage of 0.5-0.8 seconds per lap and yet Rosberg and Hamilton are faster by approximately half a second – per lap! By the start of the season the cars are expected to be 2-3 seconds per lap faster than those witnessed last year.

The other crucial factor in determining the level of competitiveness in a race is reliability and consistency. However, in a stark warning to their rivals, Mercedes lead the charts here as well, despite both drivers having suffered from illness at various stages. Mercedes racked up over 6,100km – all with the same power unit, a common area for technical failures and complex to fix.

Of course, how much relevant information can be obtained when the teams are testing in wintery European conditions when the majority – if not all - of the races will be conducted in much warmer climates?

So, can Rosberg pip Hamilton to the title? After a meeting with F1 supremo, Bernie Ecclestone, he jokingly tweeted that he had been ‘told the result of the 2015 season’ and was ‘delighted’ with the outcome!

Statistics suggest otherwise as this will be the fifth time that he has been paired with Hamilton in the same team, twice in karting and this will be the third in F1. Yet, while Hamilton has won on every occasion, Rosberg’s performance in qualifying gives him some optimism.

If he is looking for other morsels of hope then he will wish that Hamilton’s unresolved contract negotiations with Mercedes prove to be an ongoing distraction, while the reigning champion has also split with his girlfriend and management team – the last time he did this he went on to have his worst season in the sport.

Little in Formula One stands still and there are a number of changes to look for this season welcoming back the ‘old’ while also ushering in the ‘new’.

Honda is back in F1 returning to the winning relationship that secured four consecutive world titles from 1988 as they team up again with McLaren. The relationship, to date, has been beset with difficulties as a series of reliability issues have curtailed their testing.

Mexico is also welcomed back to the schedule for the first time since 1992 (which was won by Nigel Mansell) while the double-points system for the final race has been scrapped.

Controversy exists, of course, and specifically the high cost of competing for the private teams. Ecclestone has subsequently offered an advance to Sauber, Force India and Lotus to appease the situation.

The season also sees the reduction in the number of engines available and days of in-season testing to the teams to use their allocated ‘tokens’ for improving performance.

Jenson Button, one of the elder-statesmen of the sport (Kimi Raikonnen is the other driver aged 35), did manage to score a century of laps on one day of testing although that was the exception. However, there is no better driver you would want to provide the engineers with feedback which makes a mockery of the wait he endured before being offered a contract for this season.

After the raft of changes last season there will be minimal differences. The nose of the car has again changed for safety reasons while there will also be a new ‘virtual’ safety car employed where necessary, in recognition of the lessons learned following the crash suffered by Jules Bianchi.

At the other end of the scale F1 will welcome 17-year-old Dutchman, Max Verstappen, whose composure and consistency in testing belie his inexperience and prove that Red Bull’s academy is working. He will break the previous record set by Jaime Alguersuari by nearly two years.

There is further evidence of this in the Red Bull garage as last season’s graduate, Daniel Ricciardo, has ousted four-time world champion, Sebastien Vettel. Technically he may have chosen to leave for Ferrari yet he was out-performed in both qualifying and the races by the young Australian with Italian heritage.

Red Bull’s pre-season performance has been the cause of much debate and has been as closely guarded as their new ‘camouflage’ livery would suggest. With Vettel gone and star-designer, Adrian Newey, spending time with Ben Ainslie on his yacht, how will they do?

Testing has suggested that they maintain excellent cornering speed although lag behind in the speed-gun ratings as a result of a weaker Renault power unit that also causes ‘driveability’ issues. However, in Ricciardo they have the only driver to have defeated the Mercedes to a race win last year and hopes will be high that they can challenge again, although perhaps not consistently. Daniil Kvyat becomes only the third driver to come from the academy into the senior team and will be expected to push for wins. He did become the youngest driver to ever secure F1 points while racing for Torro Rosso in 2014.

Vettel, of course, now hopes that it will be Ferrari that is the closest rival to Mercedes. He leaves Red Bull after his first win-less season to join a team that arguably would have been worse if not for Alonso’s heroics.

However, pre-season has been promising proving it may have been more than romantic appeal that brought him to the team. This is the first car produced exclusively by new designer, James Allison, and it topped the timesheet on three of the first four days in Jerez, although it did not do quite as well in Barcelona.

Williams are the team most likely to upset the status quo and will be challenged to repeat their above-expectations third place finish in the constructor’s championship. In Massa and Bottas they have retained two drivers who placed the team regularly on the podium while times in testing show that they have made improvements. The main question will be whether they have managed to harness the power provided by the Mercedes engine to allow for high cornering speeds.

Elsewhere, it is delightful to welcome back Marussia, as Manor Marussia, albeit still wearing last season’s outfits!

The season starts this weekend in Australia with the focus likely to be on the rivalry between the Mercedes drivers and then the teams behind them!

Ultimately, Rosberg’s best chance will be to hope that Hamilton fails to manage his distractions. However, with the team likely to be further ahead it will only be a failure to finish that enables either to put distance between their main rival in the points table. With reliability likely to be less of a concern, and pressure on Rosberg to ‘drive fair’, I expect Hamilton to win the title again, thereby matching his hero, Ayrton Senna, on the list of all-time greats.

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