Brimful of confidence after successful pre-season testing, Mercedes’ bid to build a Formula One dynasty kicks off at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix this week, with world champion Lewis Hamilton hungry for a third title. Though the cars are yet to roll out of the Albert Park garages, the ‘Silver Arrows’ might be forgiven for bringing some early-season swagger to the paddock.
An ominous pre-season was the launch-pad to last year’s triumph, and eye-catching lap times in this year’s tests suggest rivals could be again playing catch-up at the Melbourne street circuit. “We’re looking good, we’re very optimistic for this season,” Nico Rosberg, who won at Albert Park last year and was world runner-up to team mate Hamilton, told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday. “We just have an awesome team at the moment, really.”
“We are the best in F1 now. We have the best individual departments, we have the best overall team, we have the best engine factory — they’re just doing an awesome job.” Frequently exhilarating though sometimes volatile, Hamilton and Rosberg’s battle for intra-team supremacy was a highlight of Mercedes’ championship, which broke the four-year dominance of Sebastian Vettel-led Red Bull.
Though Hamilton ultimately crushed Rosberg’s challenge, winning 11 races to five, the rivalry between the flashy Briton and his more reserved German team mate could again prove decisive. Both expect a tougher run from other challengers, however, having raffled 16 race wins between them last year. “We had a great season last year as a team and, of course, we’d all love to repeat that. But the others won’t stop chasing us,” said Hamilton, who was forced to retire at Albert Park last year due to a reliability problem, leaving Rosberg the winner. “I’m sure the competition will be close and we should get exciting racing with plenty of battling for position.”
The race will be the 20th in Melbourne and organisers will hope local boy Daniel Ricciardo can become Australia’s first home champion after grabbing three race wins last year. Third in last year’s drivers’ championship, Ricciardo was hugely impressive in his first year with Red Bull and has unfinished business at Albert Park. Pipped for pole position by Hamilton, he was also relieved of his maiden podium spot hours after the race and disqualified by stewards for a fuel flow problem. Ricciardo out-shone Vettel in the German’s last year at Red Bull but the four-times world champion will re-boot with Ferrari, who parted ways with Spaniard Fernando Alonso.
Now driving for McLaren, two-times champion Alonso will be absent from Australia on doctors’ orders as he recovers from his crash in testing in Barcelona last month. Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen will serve as a stand-in. After Caterham folded last year to leave 10 teams, the smaller F1 outfits will be under the microscope in Melbourne amid fears financial pressures may see further casualties.
Among them, Sauber’s preparations have been overshadowed by a legal challenge from disgruntled Dutch driver Giedo van der Garde, who has accused the Swiss team of reneging on a deal to give him a race seat. Van der Garde’s 11th-hour bid to force the team to let him drive for them was upheld by an Australian court on Wednesday, though a final appeal by Sauber to over-turn the verdict will be heard on Thursday.