Formula 1

Hamilton led away in 2017 but Vettel claimed victory.

Australian GP Preview: Melbourne ready as lights go out on new F1 season

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After a four-month hiatus, Formula 1 returns for the 2018 season with the traditional curtain-raiser, the Australian GP in Melbourne on Sunday.

Once again it is world champions Mercedes that start the year as the team to beat, that despite main rivals Ferrari setting the fastest times in testing in Barcelona earlier this month.

Instead, the pace over a race distance and the knowledge that plenty more performance is ready to be unleashed from a new, even more powerful engine has many expecting the Brackley-based German manufacturer will hold the advantage.

The street circuit around Albert Park couldn't be any more different to the sweeping Spanish venue, however, and it is one where action and high attrition often go hand-in-hand.

Last year, it was Sebastian Vettel confirming the Scuderia's return to form as the four-time world champion beat Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight and, 12 months on, Red Bull are also looking to get in the fight.

The Anglo-Austrian outfit started development earlier on their new RB14 to be better prepared for this year and that change seems to have worked with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen showing better pace in pre-season.

With a first car upgrade coming for Melbourne, it is even thought Red Bull could surpass Ferrari as the closest challengers to Mercedes, something that would give local favourite Ricciardo great reason for optimism.

In 2018, an old nemesis could be a new threat as McLaren look to return to winning ways after several miserable years.

Gone is the Honda engine which proved so troublesome and in is the same Renault unit as used by Red Bull yet in testing, further reliability problems have left the British team on the back foot.

Racing director Eric Boullier is confident the issues have been fixed though and now it is up to Stoffel Vandoorne and double world champion Fernando Alonso to produce the goods.

AUTO-PRIX-F1-ESP-TEST

Whether the improvement is enough to make the 'top three' a 'big four' is unknown but certainly, Alonso will give his all to make sure he's as close as possible.

The Renault factory team is also threatening to join the fray but for now, at least, the French manufacturer will likely lead a very competitive midfield battle with the remaining five teams all jockeying for position.

In testing, Toro Rosso and Haas surprised many with their pace and reliability and both could go well on the technical Melbourne layout which demands as much from the chassis as it does power down the straights.

At Toro Rosso, much of that will depend on whether the significant gains Honda hinted at with their engine in Spain is repeated when it matters during the races.

While at Haas, it is more whether the American team's strong lap-times several weeks ago are surpassed by their rivals turning up the wick.

F1 Winter Testing in Barcelona - Day Four

One team, in particular, to watch is Force India. The fourth best squad in each of the past two seasons, their performance in 2018 hasn't looked as impressive so far.

But with improvements coming for Australia and two very motivated drivers in Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, the 'Pink Panthers' will be back on the prowl and keen to remain 'best of the rest'.

Bringing up the field, potentially, will be Williams and Sauber two teams currently heading in opposite directions.

Williams caused controversy by overlooking former Grand Prix winner Robert Kubica and inserting young Russian Sergey Sirotkin alongside Lance Stroll.

Two drivers very much at the beginning of their careers, along with change behind the scenes, has meant one of the great names of the sport is having to find its feet and after sliding down the order last year, expectations are not great at least for the early races.

F1 Winter Testing in Barcelona - Day Four

At Sauber though, things are on the up with a new technical partner and title sponsor, Alfa Romeo, as part of a closer relationship with engine supplier Ferrari.

Highly-rated rookie and current Formula 2 champion Charles Leclerc also provides a boost for the Swiss team, but, coming off the low of the past two years, returning as one of the top midfield teams will take time. 

Another major moment at the Australian GP is this will be the first race with the use of Halo, a cockpit protection device that has riled fans and, arguably, changed the DNA of the sport.

Though many expect the backlash to eventually die down, in Melbourne opinions will definitely be flying when 20 cars fitted with 'flip-flops' hurtle down to the first corner and it will be fascinating to see what impact its introduction has going forward.

That completes your look ahead to the first race of the 2018 F1 season. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes will certainly start the weekend as favourites but at one of the most unpredictable rounds of the year, who knows what truly lies in store.

What: Australian GP
When: Sunday, March 25 (6:10am GMT)
Where: Albert Park, Melbourne
TV Channel: Sky Sports F1

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Topics:
Max Verstappen
Daniel Ricciardo
Mercedes
Ferrari
Formula 1
Lewis Hamilton
Kimi Raikkonen
McLaren
Fernando Alonso
Max Verstappen

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