Ferrari won the winter World Championship, but can the injury-prone SF90 hold off a W10 determined to join its five predecessors as a race winning car?
After months of waiting, the new Formula 1 season is upon us with all the excitement of the brand new, the starting from scratch, the new fresh faces and, of course, the old rivalries.
This season the sport has again introduced partially new cars thanks to a few note-worthy aerodynamic revisions.
Simpler front and rear wings as well as smaller bargeboards are now part of the aero package in the hope of improving overtaking.
In a nutshell, the aim it to a make a bigger hole for the car behind with less choppy air thus allowing it to close up, making following and overtaking easier.
The Pirelli tyres have undergone changes to reduce the “surface over-heating” and reducing “the blistering we had last year”, according to Pirelli F1 boss Mario Isola.
There is more fuel to burn during grands prix and more to eat for the drivers with their weight, plus seat and other driving equipment, increased to 80kg.
The points are back to zero meaning no one is at a disadvantage, at least not until Sunday night in Melbourne, and the newbies have as much of a chance as the old hands.
There are four of those in George Russell, Alexander Albon, Lando Norris and Antonio Giovinazzi, the latter having only contested two grands prix during the 2017 season.
For those in the top 10 of each race, there is also the added incentive of going for a bonus point by setting the fastest lap after Formula 1 approved the directive ahead of the season opener.
As for the old rivalries, fans were given a brief glimpse of that on the final day of pre-season testing when the sandbags came off, the fuel loads were dropped and the C5 – the softest of Pirelli’s softs – were bolted onto the cars.
Sebastian Vettel went quickest in Spain with Lewis Hamilton, having just 24 hours earlier spoken of Ferrari’s advantage being as much as “potentially half a second”, finishing 0.003s down on his rival.
Despite Mercedes narrowing the gap on the day eight of eight, many believe Ferrari, despite several reliability glitches during the final test, are the team to beat.
But then again, the winter World Championship is their strong suit – it is in what comes after that where they falter.
Albert Park will be the first true test of the SF90 versus Mercedes’ W10 versus a midfield that is convinced it has closed the gap.
Last season Hamilton took pole position for the Australian Grand Prix on a drying track while Kimi Raikkonen was second for Ferrari, but a massive 0.664 seconds slower. Vettel was third after a driver error at Turn 13, his first mistake of the season.
The German fought back on the Sunday thanks to a VSC pit stop to take the victory by five seconds ahead of Hamilton. Raikkonen joined them on the podium ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, Fernando Alonso and Max Verstappen.
This year Raikkonen is no longer with Ferrari, having swapped red for red-and-white with Alfa Romeo, Ricciardo has joined Renault, Alonso has retired from the sport and Verstappen is team leader at a Honda-powered Red Bull team.
All those changes, as well as the arrival of Charles Leclerc at Ferrari, have raised one question: who will join Vettel and Hamilton on this year’s Melbourne podium.
Leclerc and Valtteri Bottas are the favourites to do so, however, if they – or even Vettel and Hamilton – slip up there could be space for a surprise.
While Red Bull reckon they are the third best team, the numbers in testing don’t back that up. It in fact seems Haas, McLaren and Alfa Romeo could be the ones to pull off a shock result.
Formula 1 has to go back to the 2014 Australian Grand Prix to find the last time a driver not from Ferrari or Mercedes finished on the Melbourne podium. It was McLaren – and there were two of them.
But while a double McLaren podium may be a dream too far, Formula 1’s midfield is at least hoping to give the big boys a bit of a scare when the season kicks off in Melbourne this Sunday.
One could go as far as to say that the only team without a hope in hell of fighting for a top-six showing is Williams, and from the top six anything could happen.