Winter testing is now firmly in the rearview mirror and the 11 teams are now making their final tweaks ahead of the start of the 2016 Formula 1 season in Australia next weekend. While testing has provided plenty of hints, the first Grand Prix in Melbourne will be the first real chance to evaluate if, or to what degree, Mercedes have preserved their advantage over the rest of the grid and whether Ferrari can mount a real championship challenge.
Australia will also be the stage for the unveiling of a new elimination-style qualifying system that many of the top drivers have already come out in opposition to. The Grand Prix will feature a debut, too, for a new team, with United States-based outfit Haas making its long-awaited bow. Besides Haas’ arrival there have been a number of shakeups to the grid, as detailed below.
Mercedes (Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg)
Mercedes have retained their winning formula as they seek to extend their dominance of Formula 1 for a third season. Winter testing in Barcelona suggested that they remain the team to beat, although their advantage may mean that a repeat of 2015, when Hamilton sealed the drivers’ championship with three races still to go and Mercedes wrapped up the constructors’ title by a massive 275 points, is beyond them. Hamilton will still start as favorite to wrap up a fourth title and further etch his place in the sport’s history books, however Rosberg made a strong finish to 2015 and the long-simmering rivalry between the two could boil over to the detriment of the team.
Ferrari (Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen)
Fresh from the arrival of four-time world champion Vettel, Ferrari surprised many by their upturn in performance last season, leading to three wins for the former Red Bull man. But the challenge going into 2016 is now to catch and even beat Mercedes. And in the second test last week they showed that they should at the very least be significantly closer to their rivals. Vettel has the ability and experience to challenge Mercedes if the car is there or there about, although whether Raikkonen can step up is a much murkier question.
Williams (Valtteri Bottas, Felipe Massa)
The British team has kept the same driver lineup for a third successive season after back-to-back third-place finishes in the constructors’ race. That is, realistically, the best Williams can hope for in 2016, although that would represent some achievement for a team that lacks the same huge budget of the major manufacturers. After an up and down 2015, which perhaps cost him a move to Ferrari, Bottas will be looking to step up and show he is worthy of a seat at one of the real title challengers.
Red Bull (Daniel Ricciardo, Danill Kvyat)
Last season was a tumultuous one for Red Bull, as their four-year dominance was confined to distant memory amid a public spat with long-time engine supplier Renault. As it turned out, Red Bull will be staying with Renault for at least another season, although with it now rebranded as Tag Heuer after a partnership with the luxury watch maker. Still, with an unchanged and talented driver lineup, and some positive signs in testing, they will be hoping for better in 2016.
Force India (Nico Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez)
Force India have steadily improved since coming into Formula 1 in 2008, achieving their best ever finish in the constructors’ championship last year with fifth place. The team’s chief operating officer, Otmar Szafnauer has made fourth place the goal this time around and, with a stable driver lineup and healthy winter testing, that it not out of their reach.
Renault (Joylon Palmer and Kevin Magnussen)
Having stepped back to become simply an engine supplier in 2011, this season marks the return of Renault as a full works team after they completed a takeover of Lotus. The French team has gone with two new drivers for their return, with Dane Kevin Magnussen, who had one season with McLaren in 2014, being joined by British newcomer Joylon Palmer.
Toro Rosso (Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz)
The sister team of Red Bull has faced a challenging few months after a late decision to ditch Renault as its engine partner and instead go back to Ferrari, which previously supplied its engines from 2007 to 2013. Given the significant redesign that shift involved, Toro Rosso will surely be happy with the pace they showed in testing, which suggests that they will be right among the pack behind Mercedes and Ferrari and, with the hugely talented teenager Verstappen, could even top Red Bull.
Sauber (Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson)
While last season saw an improvement on the miserable zero-point year of 2014, 39 percent of their 36 points came in the opening Grand Prix and they finished without a point in the final three races. With finances still a major constraint, there has been little to suggest a real improvement in 2016, and another tough season for the Swiss team could well lie in store.
McLaren (Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button)
No team suffered a more chastening experience in 2015 than McLaren. One of the standard bearers of the sport and eight time constructors’ champions, the British team suffered a disastrous fall from grace, often failing to make it through the first phase of qualifying and not scoring a single point until the sixth race. It was a particularly miserable time for Alonso, who jumped ship from Ferrari hoping for a fresh challenge where he could finally add to his two drivers’ titles, but was instead stuck at the back of the grid. And it could be another painful campaign for Alonso and veteran Button, with little sign of the hoped for improvement in testing.
Manor (Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto)
After barely making it onto the grid last year, it has been all change at Manor, most notably in the renaming of the team formerly known as Marussia. The ownership has also changed, as has the engine supplier, from Ferrari to Mercedes. That has been followed with the selection of two drivers with previous affiliation with Mercedes, in German 21-year-old Wehrlein and Indonesia’s first ever F1 driver, Harynato.
Haas (Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez)
The introduction of Haas has been mooted for at least five years, so it is perhaps no surprise that the American team appears better prepared than recent newcomers to Formula 1. They are benefiting from a close relationship with engine supplier Ferrari and have two drivers with F1 experience. Grosjean has 10 podiums under his belt and showed plenty of pace during four years at Lotus, while Gutierrez spent two seasons with Sauber.
Drivers’ championship betting odds (via Oddschecker)
Lewis Hamilton: 8/15
Nico Rosberg: 3/1
Sebastian Vettel: 4/1
Kimi Raikkonen: 33/1
Fernando Alonso: 40/1
Daniel Ricciardo: 66/1
Jenson Button: 66/1
Valtteri Bottas: 100/1
Felipe Massa: 125/1
Danill Kvyat: 150/1
Max Verstappen: 300/1
Nico Hulkenberg: 300/1
Sergio Perez: 300/1
Carlos Sainz: 500/1
Romain Grosjean: 500/1
Esteban Gutierrez: 1000/1
Joylon Palmer: 1000/1
Felipe Nasr: 1000/1
Marcus Ericsson: 1000/1
Formula 1 2016 schedule
March 18-20: Australian (Melbourne)
April 1-3: Bahrain (Sakhir)
April 15-17: China (Shanghai)
April 29-May 1: Russia (Sochi)
May 13-15: Spain (Barcelona)
May 26, 28-29: Monaco (Monte Carlo)
June 10-12: Canada (Montreal)
June 17-19: Azerbaijan (Baku)
July 1-3: Austria (Spielberg)
July 8-10: Great Britain (Silverstone)
July 22-24: Hungary (Budapest)
July 29-31: Germany (Hockenheim)
August 26-28: Belgium (Spa-Francorchamps)
September 2-4: Italy (Monza)
September 16-18: Singapore
September 30-October 2: Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur)
October 7-9: Japan (Suzuka)
October 21-23: USA (Austin)
October 28-30: Mexico (Mexico City)
November 11-13: Brazil (Sao Paulo)
November 25-27: Abu Dhabi (Yas Marina)