Mercedes-Ferrari showdown, Red Bull's engine supply: Five key points ahead of F1

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Exciting season ahead: Big talking points.

With a new F1 season comes new hopes and expectations. Long days spent completing hundreds of laps around the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Spain adds to the anticipation but never provides the full answers to who will be fastest.

New cars and new driver line-ups are unveiled, but they are only put to the test once the lights go out and racing resumes.

Will Mercedes dominate once again? Will Ferrari close the gap? Who will be the surprise package in 2016? There are so many unanswered questions on track, and inevitably where F1 is concerned there will be controversies and stories which grab the headlines away from the racing too.

Ahead of this weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, Chris Medland takes a look at five key points which will be the focus of attention at various stages throughout the year.

MERCEDES vs FERRARI

Let’s be honest, this is the one battle that the majority of F1 fans are pinning their hopes on. Mercedes has dominated in the last two years but Ferrari’s progress in 2015 was a welcome boost and increased expectations that we could have a proper fight at the front of the grid this season. Pre-season testing provided some hints, with Mercedes keen to stress how close it feels Ferrari is.

The best example was Kimi Raikkonen setting a lap time marginally quicker than Nico Rosberg’s best for Mercedes when both cars ran on the soft compound tyre. Ferrari is perhaps the team to deliver a car with the most differences to its 2015 design, with its short nose a clear departure from last year’s solution.

However, while you get the sense neither team was showing its full hand, Mercedes’ innovative design concepts – which include a floor with a serrated edge which technical boss Paddy Lowe is particularly proud of – and incredible mileage suggests it may still just have the edge. We will find out if that impression is true or not during qualifying on Saturday.

One interesting spin-off of this battle surrounds Nico Rosberg, who is out of contract at the end of this season and could find his seat under threat should his own internal battle with Lewis Hamilton reach breaking point. It remains to be seen how the dynamic between the two team-mates could change given a fight with Ferrari.

​KIMI RAIKKONEN’S FUTURE

If Ferrari is as competitive as many hope, Kimi Raikkonen will need to show he still has the ability to be as consistent as in the past in a competitive car.

The Finn was hugely impressive in 2012 with Lotus as his ability to always get the most out of the car kept him in title contention until late in the season.

That was the form which convinced Ferrari to re-sign the 2007 world champion, but he has failed to hit those heights since.

While an uncompetitive car which did not suit his driving style excused Raikkonen somewhat in 2014, last year he was again comfortably outperformed by his team-mate.

With Sebastian Vettel having replaced Fernando Alonso, Raikkonen at least enjoyed a good relationship with the other Ferrari driver and it appeared to help secure him an extra year this season.

Raikkonen’s contract is up at the end of the season, and while he showed flashes of his best in 2015 he will need to produce it on a regular basis if he is to convince Ferrari to give him a new deal. If not, then one of the most coveted seats in F1 will be fought over by a number of high-profile suitors.

​HAAS THE NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

For the first time in six years, Formula 1 has a new team on the grid with the arrival of Haas. The American team (which boasts bases in North Carolina, the UK and Italy) has come in following a two-year preparation period, and will field an experienced driver line-up in Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez.

A close technical partnership with Ferrari has provided Haas with a boost, with a current power unit and a number of components coming from Maranello which ensures immediate quality in a number of areas. Haas has then tasked Dallara with building the chassis, with the team hiring a number of experienced personnel to try and turn all of the ingredients in to a competitive car.

The initial signs are promising, with Haas managing to get some solid running in during pre-season testing and showing it has the capacity to deal with problems already. The car looks a solid runner, but it may take a few races for it to reach its maximum potential as the team finds its feet. Another test will then come in the form of car development, which is often a weakness for new teams.

With the Ferrari partnership having been questioned by Mercedes in Abu Dhabi last year – leading to the FIA closing off loopholes in the regulations but clearing the teams of any wrongdoing – it will be interesting to watch Mercedes’ reaction should Ferrari beat it on a regular basis this season.

​RED BULL’S ENGINE SUPPLY

One of the biggest sagas of 2015 could well rear its head once again this year, with a few key differences. Red Bull threatened to quit F1 on a number of occasions having struggled to get a new power unit deal to replace Renault. Ultimately, Red Bull returned to the French manufacturer with its tail between its legs but ended up branding its power unit as Tag Heuer for 2016.

There is optimism at both Renault and Red Bull regarding the power unit development plan for this season, but it is easy to be positive at the start of a new season. Should more problems arise as they did last year, Red Bull will be left having to blame a Tag Heuer engine rather than Renault…

While it could well be a more stable partnership this year as Renault also focuses on its return as a constructor, Red Bull’s power unit deal expires at the end of the season. If the four-time constructors’ champion is not competitive, then Red Bull is likely to look elsewhere but already found such a scenario difficult last season.

With an Aston Martin partnership being announced ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, perhaps the relationship with Mercedes has thawed somewhat but either way Red Bull will need to be less publicly critical of its partners this year than it was in 2015.

​2017 REGULATIONS

It’s a strange scenario that a category which is often described as the pinnacle of motorsport is still yet to agree fully on what the regulations will be next season. A major change in aerodynamic regulations is planned to make the cars up to five seconds per lap faster than they are at present, but the final rules have yet to be written.

The biggest losers in this instance is the smaller teams, with the likes of Force India, Williams, Sauber, Manor and Haas not having the capacity to chase a number of different design concepts in tandem with their current development programs.

The longer the new regulations remain unconfirmed, the bigger the advantage will be for the larger teams next season.

The regulations which have been largely accepted were proposed by McLaren, with Red Bull having submitted a more radical set of rules in an attempt to move the prominence away from power unit performance and back towards aerodynamics. Naturally, when the teams are involved in the decision-making then there is always going to be somebody who is not happy with the outcome.

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