The new Formula 1 season gets underway this weekend in Australia with plenty of changes on the grid, but with expectations that one major factor will remain the same: Mercedes will be the team to beat. Nico Rosberg took the checkered flag in Melbourne 12 months ago, in what proved to be a fitting precursor to a year dominated by Mercedes and that ended with Rosberg’s teammate Lewis Hamilton edging him out for the drivers’ championship. While the first Grand Prix of a new Formula 1 season always brings an element of the unknown, an unchanged lineup and strong performances in testing suggest that Mercedes remain ahead of the pack.

“It's fair to say we are the best in F1 at the moment as a team, and we are the ones to beat,” Rosberg told reporters in Melbourne, according to Sky Sports. “We're keeping a very close eye on the opposition, but we're confident with the job we've done and we believe in ourselves. We have a strong team now. The others have been pushing hard -- some of them making huge steps - so we look forward to seeing where we are on Saturday, but we are optimistic.”

And, with Mercedes even looking to improve on the reliability issues that led Hamilton to retire from last year’s Australian Grand Prix, the smart money is on another battle between the two Mercedes men for the drivers’ championship. The pair won 16 of the 19 races between in 2014, with Hamilton victorious in six of the last seven to overhaul Rosberg’s lead and claim his second title. As he goes in search of number three to equal his boyhood idol Ayrton Senna, Hamilton is taking nothing for granted in Mercedes’ advantage over the chasing pack.

“We had a great season last year as a team and, of course, we'd all love to repeat that,” he said, reports Reuters. “But the others won't stop chasing us. I'm sure the competition will be close and we should get exciting racing with plenty of battling for position.”

There have been major changes in personnel for three of the teams looking to close the gap at the front of the grid. Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel has left Red Bull to join Ferrari and replace Fernando Alonso, who has returned to McLaren. Alonso, a two time world champion, won’t be lining up in Melbourne, however, after a crash in testing left him with a concussion. Instead a McLaren team, now featuring Honda power but which struggled through the winter, will feature last season’s lineup in Australia, with Kevin Magnussen taking Alonso’s place to partner Jenson Button.

Vettel will make his debut with Ferrari, and is charged with revitalizing the fortunes of Formula 1’s most successful team. However, the German, who failed to win a single race last season with Red Bull, is under no illusions about the scale of task to catch up with Mercedes.

“It’s about catching up,” he told the official Formula 1 website. “That already is an ambitious goal. Mercedes was the absolute benchmark last season - and you don’t lose that over a winter, not even when those behind put in a huge effort. My guess is that they’ve even made a step forward.”

Further back on the grid, there has been significant distractions approaching the start of the season. Sauber, having selected Magnus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr to drive for the team this season, have seen an Australian court back the claim of former test driver Giedo van der Garde that he has been promised a seat in 2015. Sauber now face the choice of dropping one of their drivers, who have brought millions of dollars up front to the team in sponsorship money, or risk being found in contempt of court by ignoring the ruling.

Marussia, meanwhile, had their very participation in Australia in doubt until last week after coming out of administration, and have since rushed to select Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi as their drivers.

F1 Australian Grand Prix Schedule and TV Info (all times EDT)
Practice 1:
Thursday, 9:30 p.m. (NBCSN on Friday, 12.30 a.m.)
Practice 2: Friday, 1:30 a.m. (NBCSN)
Practice 3: Friday, 11 p.m. (NBCSN on Saturday, 12:30 a.m.)
Qualifying: Saturday, 2 a.m. (NBCSN)
Race: Sunday, 12:30 a.m. (NBCSN)

All sessions will be available via a live stream on NBC Sports Live Extra.