In Review

F1: Can anyone catch Hamilton and Mercedes?

New season gets underway this weekend and it could be a fight to the chequered flag

Formula 1 returns this weekend, with the Australian Grand Prix from Albert Park providing the season opener once again and a 22-car grid set to take on the race's longest calendar in history.

Favourites to lift the crown are Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, an almost unbeatable combination since the introduction of the V6 turbo hybrid formula in 2014.

The Brit has won the last two drivers' world titles and while he had a fight on his hands in 2014, he eased himself to the podium ahead of team-mate Nico Rosberg last year.

Mercedes has won 32 of the last 38 races and secured all but two pole positions over the last two terms. During pre-season testing, the squad notched up 1,294 laps over eight days - longer than the race distance drivers will go this season.

However, its rivals have been plotting a fightback…

Can Ferrari catch Mercedes?

The way Ferrari bounced back in 2015 has some believing this could be the year it takes the fight to Hamilton and Rosberg. According to Allan McNish writing for the BBC, there are signs the scuderia is gaining ground.

A Ferrari has been on pole only five times this decade, but getting close to Mercedes on Saturday could be the key. "Whenever Ferrari made it on to the front row last year, they had a chance," writes McNish. "They put Mercedes under pressure, exposed some weaknesses and were able to get in the mix." If the team is a little closer this year, driver Sebastian Vettel "could make things awkward" for Mercedes.

Hamilton has warned the rival stable may have "something up their sleeve" this season, but the general consensus is that Mercedes is still the team to beat. According to Motorsport.com, the potential for Ferrari to catch up is there, but performance gains could be offset by reliability problems. "Might we get a fast but fragile Ferrari taking on rock-solid Mercedes?" the website asks.

Hamilton remains odds on with bookmakers to win his fourth world title where there are contrasting fortunes for the Ferrari drivers. Vettel is 4/1 with most places, but team-mate Kimi Raikkonen is 40/1 for a second world title. Rosberg sits as second choice at 10/3.

Will McLaren recover from disastrous 2015?

The signs are looking better for McLaren, but it's likely the team still won't be anywhere near where it expected to be when announcing the rebirth of the famous McLaren-Honda partnership.

Last year heralded just 27 points, the highlight being a fifth place for Spain's Fernando Alonso at an accident-strewn Hungarian Grand Prix.

In pre-season testing, however, the Honda engine seemed to be more reliable and more powerful than last year, with Alonso describing the step forward in reliability as "huge". But the pace still isn't there – McLaren were consistently 12mph down through the speed traps at Barcelona.

In the short term, the outlook is still grim. Sky Sports says that if McLaren's car, widely regarded as well designed, were powered by a Mercedes or Ferrari engine it might "win the occasional race, but certainly not a championship". The Honda partnership still has a long way to go - and one day might get there.

It may not be soon enough for the team's drivers, though. There are now yearly rumours of Jenson Button retiring - the 2009 champion is starting his 17th campaign - and Alonso has been tipped for a sabbatical if McLaren can't deliver. The Spaniard has also said he would feel a twinge of regret if his former team, Ferrari, win.

What about the rest of the grid?

Renault re-enters the sport as a constructor, but with very low expectations of itself for this season. After several public spats with Red Bull over the performance of the firm's F1 engines, the two squads have parted ways, with the carmaker feeling it did not receive enough credit during the dominant years but was blamed for everything post-2014. As for Red Bull, it will still be using a Renault engine, branded by Tag Heuer, and the season is expected to be a transitional year for them.

Williams are tipped to be best of the rest, with Toro Rosso and Force India both confident of good seasons. Towards the back, Manor should be far more competitive than last season thanks to an all new car and Mercedes power, though it's expected Sauber will pip them. F1 newcomers Haas appear to have a solid baseline and could challenge for points on occasion.

The Australian Grand Prix takes place on 20 March, starting at 5am UK time.

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