Formula 1

F1 season preview: Mercedes set for battle as rivals play catch-up

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Thirteen weeks ago Lewis Hamilton crossed the finish line at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit to claim his second world championship following a year-long battle with Nico Rosberg.

Now we are just 10 days away from the beginning of the next chapter in the Hamilton/ Rosberg rivalry with the opening Grand Prix of the 2015 season in Melbourne, Australia.

After 12 days of pre-season testing, there is little to suggest that the Silver Arrows are ready to relinquish their place as the dominant team in the sport but how is the rest of the grid shaping up heading to Albert Park? Here's a full season preview.

Manor Marussia back from the brink?

The best place to start is at the back of the grid where despite not turning a wheel out on track, the new incarnation of the former Marussia team has been in news throughout the past few weeks.

Just 48 hours from officially being liquidated, the team, now racing under the name of Manor Marussia, has just another 48 hours to get two cars ready for the freight deadline if they want to make the trip Down Under.

Should they make it, their trip to Melbourne will be euphoric for fans who have seen internal politics try their best to keep one of the most respected outfits from making a triumphant return.

An effort to run with updated 2014 cars was declined by the Strategy Group but with work frantically continuing to get a full 2015-specification design ready they have been ticking the boxes.

Their entry was confirmed by the FIA, Ferrari have agreed to supply power units and McLaren are believed to be providing technical support to help Manor come back from the brink.

Former reserve driver Will Stevens has already been announced with a second driver likely to come from Ferrari's list of academy drivers.

There has been some resenting voices, however, arguing that Manor will simply turn up and be multiple seconds off the pace and really its all just a short-lived stunt.

Well its true that with so little time to design and build and will only run for the first time in the first Friday practice session the team turn up at, all Manor will realistically be doing is bringing up the numbers.

But teams like this are what F1 has always been about, the plucky, low budget privateers hanging around with the big boys like Ferrari and McLaren. Therefore their efforts to make it back to the grid should be applauded not criticised and while its true they may be in the group of one having a battle between their drivers for the wooden spoon, just seeing the red and white back on track will be an achievement in itself.

Lotus and Sauber look to rebound

Last year was a torrid one for two of Formula 1's more accomplished lower budget teams. Lotus and Sauber went from being genuine points and even podium contenders to the benchmark that Marussia and Caterham looked to match and all of it was caused by financial woes.

The stress of trying to compete with the big money teams had almost driven them out of business and as a result they were left unable to produce cars that could match their previous heights.

This year, however, both are in a stronger position with new income from sponsors and a restructuring of their operations and both have had productive pre-seasons.

Lotus' switch to the Mercedes power unit looks to have been as smart as Williams move was for them last year and with a car that seems to have the right bases covered they are a team expected to be fighting for points on a more regular basis in 2015.

In Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean they have two drivers who on their day can be race winners and, despite the reputation Maldonado has, if Lotus can produce a car that can fight higher up the grid then the battle with Grosjean will be one of the good team-mate scraps to watch during the year.

Much of Sauber's pre-season form has come from Ferrari's gains in engine performance as well as the team's usual ability to create a good car early in the year, but I worry that the line-up doesn't quite match the potential of that at Lotus and the financial problems are likely still going to be an issue when it comes to car development over the year.

Indeed, expect their best results to come early in the season before falling down and being likely companions for Manor in the Q1 knock-out zone.

Marcus Ericsson began to show some worthy results against former Caterham team-mate Kamui Kobayashi and he will have likely learnt from the experience of his rookie season, while he is joined by GP2 veteran Felipe Nasr who was considered one of the best drivers in the feeder series despite Jolyon Palmer winning last year's championship.

It could be a season of two halves between the two drivers as Nasr settles in and learns the new circuits at the early flyaway's but I feel he will have the edge on Ericsson as the seas progresses and that is why if Sauber can score points, the Brazilian will come out on top.

Toro Rosso youngsters jump in the deep end

A lot of focus this year has been at Red Bull's junior team Toro Rosso as they prepare to cope with the youngest line-up in F1 history.

Max Verstappen has been the target of much of the attention as he becomes the youngest ever driver, at just 17, to take to the grid. The Dutchman has had quite a lot of preparation with three Friday morning outings last year and completed over 600 laps in testing but when the lights go out there will still be a lot of uncertainty as to whether he is really ready for such a steep challenge at such a young age.

At 20, Carlos Sainz Jr. is hardly a veteran but given he is the 'experienced' driver heading into the team, the Spaniard has had a much quieter arrival onto the F1 grid.

There is certainly a greater focus on how Verstappen handles the move to F1 rather than how he measures up alongside his team-mate but as the season progresses results will become important as the are with any Red Bull-related driver.

Predicting where they will be in the pecking order is always difficult as the team varies based on experience and performance, being the sister team to Red Bull you would expect them to be on the fringes of the points but I think they may struggle certainly earlier in the season and could be with Sauber and the next team I'll look at towards the lower part of the midfield.

Trouble at Force India?

If Manor's troubles to get to the grid aren't enough, Force India have had their own fair share of issues in recent weeks.

The team blamed startled suppliers for the delays to their 2015 car, the VJM08, claiming the issues with Caterham and Manor meant they were demanding up-front payments to avoid not getting their cash and with team boss Vijay Mallya having his own business problems, that has meant Force India is perhaps the most at risk of falling of the grid heading into the new season.

Indeed the team has received a £20m pre-payment from Bernie Ecclestone from the prize money they earned for finishing sixth in last year's Constructors' championship just to ensure they can make the trip Down Under.

Force India did get their new car to the final test in Barcelona and thanks to the reliability of the Mercedes power unit did get some good mileage over the three days it ran but the team are still far behind where they would want to be starting the season.

Therefore the team may struggle at the start of the season, but once they understand the new car they could start to move forward. The question is whether they can maintain a challenge throughout the season as that was key to McLaren finishing ahead of them in 2014.

In Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg the quality of their driver line-up is well documented with both seen as future stars but whether they will get the platform to show their skills remains to be seen.

McLaren-Honda ready to rumble?

The return of Honda to F1 would have been big enough news heading into 2015, but to do so with a team like McLaren has made it all the more anticipated.

Even without the storied history the two have together, for one of F1's great teams to take such a risk by moving away from the established suppliers, particularly when power units are as complex as they are today, is something you rarely see.

So far the McLaren-Honda rebirth has been a disappointing one full of poor reliability and underwhelming figures, even the new car, though impressive design wise, failed to capture the imagination with a dull mostly black and silver livery.

Then their pre-season was interrupted by the still hotly debated crash for Fernando Alonso, which will see the Spaniard miss the first race in Australia.

Theories continue to fly around just what happened but losing what was the other major new arrival at the team in 2015 even for one race is another setback after all the initial hype.

Despite the early concerns there is still great expectation that the new partnership can bring two of F1's greatest names back to the front of the grid.

Once the early niggles are resolved its only then that we will see just where McLaren stand in 2015, but this will be a transitional year where the results should improve as the season goes on.

In Alonso and Jenson Button there's no doubting they have an all-star pairing worthy of the McLaren-Honda legend, but I can't help feel that once Alonso gets into the season he'll easily have the beating of Button and by season's end there may be the same rumours and speculation over the 2009 champion's future as there was just a few months ago.

Is Red Bull's power waning?

Little is known as to where Red Bull stand heading to the new season. They got plenty of mileage at the second test and didn't do too badly when the batch of upgrades engine suppliers Renault introduced last week without setting any impressive lap times.

This being an Adrian Newey design you know its not going to be weak aerodynamically but the question remains whether it really can maintain a place at the sharp end of the grid with such a weak power unit.

Renault have said they will focus their attention on using the remaining tokens later in the season, where they feel they could be most effective, but that does still leave Red Bull exposed for much of the year.

Then there's the small matter of life after Sebastian Vettel, sure Daniel Ricciardo led the team pretty much throughout last year but without its former star does the team really have the line-up capable of matching their lofty expectations?

In Ricciardo they have a tenacious driver who has the ability to pull qualifying laps out of the bag and ambitious overtaking manoeuvres so really its whether the RB11 is a car that allows the Australian to shine rather than the other way around, but for Daniil Kvyat I'm still not convinced.

He showed his inexperience on the first day on the job at Red Bull damaging the front wing on his first lap meaning he was forced to run without one for the rest of the day.

Doing that for a midfield team maybe is not so surprising but to do it at a top team really sends to wrong message. The rest of his pre-season was reasonable but I do worry if he'll be holding the team back in some respects in terms of feedback and even performance.

He's still learning and won't have perhaps the level of expectation that Ricciardo had to face coming in last year but given the belief Red Bull could be as low as fourth in the pecking order heading to Melbourne it could be a long year ahead.

Ferrari prancing once again

Certainly the surprise of pre-season is the apparent strides made by Ferrari over the pre-season, the team has undergone major transformation in all areas but its in only a few of those that are really responsible for their apparent upturn in form.

James Allison's first full creation, the SF15-T, seems to have made huge strides aerodynamically compared to its predecessor. Whether its Allison's skill or a more aggressive approach, the car has looked much more settled out on track and has even got Kimi Raikkonen smiling.

The engine also seems much more competitive with improvements in both the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) and the ERS (Energy Recovery System). It really was a huge surprise when Ferrari, who pride themselves on their mechanical abilities, failed to make the most of the new engine formula, but this year it seems they have moved ahead of Renault and perhaps aren't so far behind Mercedes.

Finally they have the push and drive brought in by Sebastian Vettel, a man known for pushing a team to it's limits. His arrival seems to have reinvigorated the team but he still has to show he is a worthy successor to Fernando Alonso out on track.

The team-mate battle will be an interesting one as Raikkonen is much happier with the characteristics of the new car but pound for pound Vettel is the better driver in my opinion.

Ferrari should be in the battle for best-of-the-rest behind Mercedes with Williams and given the developmental race over the course of the season, a second place finish in the Constructors' championship could coming their way.

Mercedes connection a double-edge sword for Williams

If you are Williams, you may find yourself stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Mercedes power unit they have is easily the best on the grid and the slippery nature of their cars is often enough to see them second only to the works team in the pecking order, but that is where the problem lies because can you ever see a customer team being able to beat its supplier?

While it may be a bold thing to suggest, its just the normal thing in F1 in that somehow, some way a works team will forever have enough of an advantage to stay clear of those it supply's.

It is fairly clear that Williams are in the two, maybe three-team battle behind Mercedes for the final podium place but what is realistically stopping them from challenging Hamilton and Rosberg?

Maybe the car isn't quite as good in the corners and maybe doesn't look after its tyres as well but some of that will come from engine maps, something both Red Bull and Toro Rosso were trying during the final test last week.

In Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas they do have two good drivers with Bottas easily showing the hallmarks of a future champion, to finish fourth in last year's drivers' championship was testament to his abilities but he'll be aiming to go one better in 2015 and providing Williams can keep developing the car there's little to argue that he won't do so.

So, Hamilton or Rosberg?

As I said at the start of this preview, 2015 really is about the next chapter in the rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. It's pretty clear that nothing is yet in a position to challenge those incredible Silver Arrows with only unreliability or a repeat of Spa that could stop them from winning every race this year.

If anything it was Rosberg who had the edge in pre-season testing but much of that can be put down to the pair's respective approach.

The German remains methodical while Hamilton turns up and wrings the neck out of whatever is put in front of him. The key for Rosberg this year is to know where he has an edge over his team-mate and try to exploit it.

It was his change in tack in Belgium that caused the incident at Les Combes and lit the touchpaper for Hamilton to up his game for the rest of the season, its true that Rosberg needs to improve his wheel-to-wheel skills against Hamilton because on every notable occasion last year the Briton came out on top but his consistency over the year was second-to-none.

That being said, if you want a prediction heading into the new season, the confidence Lewis Hamilton will have after his championship triumph last year, should he can continue or even improve on that form from those final races, he will be a very hard man to beat. Therefore he is my pick to claim a third world title and second in succession in 2015.

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