Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are the combination to beat heading into Sunday's season-opening Australian Grand Prix, but the defending champions are casting a wary eye over their shoulder at rivals Ferrari heading into what could be a hotly-contested season.
Mercedes have been the dominant force in Formula One's turbo hybrid era, sweeping to 32 wins from 38 races on their way to two successive drivers and constructors' titles. Their form over the eight days of pre-season testing has marked them out as favourites for a third straight title double in 2016.
"Testing was just incredible - the best I can remember in my career," said Hamilton, who clinched his third world title with three races to spare last year. "The car feels even better than last year's from both a performance and reliability perspective, which is saying something."
The Brackley-based squad easily completed the most mileage of anyone in pre-season testing, notching up so many laps a day that the team had to split each day's driving duties between Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg so as not to tire them out.
But whether the Silver Arrows will be as dominant as they have been over the past two years is a question that won't be answered until the cars hit the track in anger, especially with Ferrari appearing to have closed the gap.
"I think this year that the whole pack looks like it's a little bit closer but personally I think that they've got something up their sleeve this weekend," Hamilton told reporters at Melbourne's Albert Park yesterday. "I think Ferrari are going to be a lot closer than they talk about, just arriving on a low but going to deliver high."
The Maranello-based squad bounced back from their first winless year in over two decades to emerge as Mercedes' closest challengers last season. Though they completed fewer laps than their German rivals as reliability niggles limited running, the Italian marque topped the order on five of the eight days of testing and posted the fastest time of anyone.
However, given all the variables involved, the order in testing is not necessarily an accurate reflection of the pecking order. With Mercedes not yet having displayed their full potential Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel was cautious in his optimism heading into the season.
"I think Mercedes are the favourites going in," said Vettel, who won three races in his debut season with Ferrari last year. "They seem to be very reliable and also very quick in Barcelona. I think we are closer than last year, especially I think, in the race.
"I think we did a step over the winter. Whether it's big enough or not, we need to wait the first couple of races and see. But going into this season, I don't think it's a surprise when I say that Mercedes is still the favourite."
While Hamilton will be watching his mirrors for the Ferrari threat, he can also expect a stiff challenge for his crown from team-mate Nico Rosberg.
Rosberg won only three of the opening 16 races last year and was unable to really take the fight to Hamilton. But he rounded off the season as the man in form with a run of six straight pole positions and three wins. With his contract up for renewal at the end of the season, Rosberg is itching to do battle with Hamilton and beat his former childhood friend to the title.
"I look forward to the challenge (of beating Lewis). He's the benchmark and to beat him will give extra pleasure," Rosberg said. "(It was) great to have such a successful end to the season, gives me a little bit more of a positive boost for this year. I race to win."
A Mercedes vs Ferrari battle for the title will certainly liven up the on-track action but tweaks made to the rules could add a further dash of unpredictability to the spectacle.
Qualifying will be run to a new 'rolling elimination' format aimed at wrong-footing teams and mixing up the grid, while stricter limits on radio conversations between teams and drivers and new tyre rules have also been introduced.
"We're all in the same boat," Hamilton said of the changes. "Some of us will handle it better than others. I don't particularly see there being much of be a problem. But is it good? I don't really know but we'll manage it the best way we can."
The 2016 season will be the longest-ever in F1 history with a record 21-races scheduled between March and November. The German Grand Prix returns to the calendar while a new race through the streets of Azerbaijan's capital Baku is set to make its debut.
1.Australian Grand Prix, March 20th
2.Bahrain Grand Prix, April 3rd
3.Chinese Grand Prix, April 17th
4.Russian Grand Prix, May 1st
5.Spanish Grand Prix, May 15th
6.Monaco Grand Prix, May 29th
7.Canadian Grand Prix, June 12th
8.European Grand Prix (Baku), June 19th
9.Austrian Grand Prix, July 3rd
10.British Grand Prix, July 10th
11.Hungarian Grand Prix, July 24th
12.German Grand Prix, July 31st
13.Belgian Grand Prix, August 28th
14.Italian Grand Prix, September 4th
15.Singapore Grand Prix, September 18th
16.Malaysian Grand Prix, October 2nd
17.Japanese Grand Prix, October 9th
18.United States Grand Prix, October 23rd
19.Mexican Grand Prix, October 30th
20.Brazilian Grand Prix, November 13th
21.Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, November 27th
Eleven teams will field a total of 22 cars this season. Haas are the new kids on the block while Renault make their works return having bought over the erstwhile Lotus squad
Jolyon Palmer, Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto will make their Formula One debuts in 2016. Kevin Magnussen and Esteban Gutierrez return to active racing after a year on the sidelines while Romain Grosjean leaves Lotus for new entrants Haas.
1.Mercedes – Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg
2.Ferrari – Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen
3.Williams – Felipe Massa, Valtteri Bottas
4.Red Bull – Daniel Ricciardo, Daniil Kvyat
5.Force India – Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez
6.Renault – Kevin Magnussen, Jolyon Palmer
7.Toro Rosso – Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz
8.Sauber – Marcus Ericsson, Felipe Nasr
9.McLaren – Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button
10.Manor – Pascal Wehrlein, Rio Haryanto
11.Haas – Romain Grosjean, Esteban Gutierrez
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