ANOTHER MERC SHOW? F1 could be in for yet another Mercedes-dominated championship with a focus on drivers Lewis Hamilton (left) and Nico Rosberg Image: AFP / Marwan Naamani
LONDON, England - Two of Formula 1's top drivers made lucrative moves to new teams in 2015, so fans might think there will be a shake-up of 2014's established order.
That would be wrong.
The evidence of pre-season testing suggests the battle for the 2015 championship will again be a case of Mercedes vs. The Rest.
MERCEDES TO DOMINATE AGAIN?
Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton said ahead of the season-opening 2015 Australian GP in Melbourne on March 15: "We want to be better this year. We want to try to dominate even more."
Sebastian Vettel's switch from Red Bull to Ferrari and of Fernando Alonso from Ferrari back to McLaren will provide interesting sub-plots but the main narrative will again be Hamilton taking on Mercedes team mate Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton won six of the last seven races in 2014 to hold off Rosberg and secure his second Drivers' title. When his confidence is up and his car is, performing Hamilton is tough to beat - but Rosberg is taking encouragement and motivation from the close margins that separated them in 2014.
Rosberg said: "All the difficult times have made me stronger. I need to find small steps to beat him. And I'm going for it."
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Mercedes became the dominant force in 2014 as F1 introduced V6 hybrid engines. As one of only two teams to design both the engine and the accompanying chassis and aerodynamics - Ferrari is the other - Mercedes enjoyed a significant advantage.
With the 2015 regulations being only incrementally different, have the other teams been able to catch up? Ferrari and Renault-powered Red Bull are the top candidates given their spending power, but the evidence from testing was not convincing.
HONDA RETURNS TO F1
Honda returns to F1 as engine supplier to McLaren - a combination that saw the team dominate the sport from the late 1980s in the era of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. It is Honda's third entry into F1. It will be a game of catch-up for Honda against established engine suppliers Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari.
McLaren's predictable teething problems were evident in a succession of technical issues through testing. Unless those glitches are rapidly resolved, it looks like a season that will test the patience of experienced drivers Alonso and Jenson Button.
Alonso returns to McLaren in very different circumstances to his unhappy season with the team in 2007. Back then, he was coming off two successive Drivers' championships and felt entitled to the undivided backing of the team.
Instead, Alonso had to battle then-rookie team mate Hamilton throughout the season and he ultimately returned to Renault in 2008.
Alonso will miss the opening race after suffering a concussion in preseason tests, but is expected to be fit for the second Grand Prix in Malaysia.
VETTEL JOINS FERRARI
Ferrari hopes Sebastian Vettel, who won four successive Drivers' titles with Red Bull from 2010-2013, can invigorate the team in the same way his German compatriot, Michael Schumacher, did when he arrived as a world champion a couple of decades ago.
Vettel also arrives at Ferrari with something to prove after a chastening 2014 when he was outperformed by younger team mate Daniel Ricciardo.
RED BULL ACE RICCIARDO
Ricciardo won three races in 2014, the only non-Mercedes driver to take the checkered flag. It was a significant vote of confidence in Ricciardo that the team chose not to pursue another big-name driver for 2015, instead hiring young Daniil Kvyat from feeder team Toro Rosso.
Team principal Christian Horner said: "Our target is to close the gap down and put Mercedes under as much pressure as we possibly can."
Red Bull and Toro Rosso will be the only teams using the Renault engines in 2014, as Lotus switched to Mercedes power after a horrendous 2014. Lotus retained the same driver pairing in Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado, so will be counting on the new power-train to make the difference.
Sauber has taken the opposite approach to fix its problems: retaining Ferrari engines but changing drivers. Out went Adrian Sutil and Esteban Gutierrez and in came ex-Caterham driver Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr.
F1’S YOUNGEST DRIVER
Ericsson and Nasr may be inexperienced but that's nothing compared with the drivers at Toro Rosso, where 20-year-old Carlos Sainz Jnr. will make his debut in Melbourne alongside 17-year-old Max Verstappen. Both are sons of accomplished drivers: former rally great Carlos Sainz and former F1 driver Jos Verstappen.
Williams, which was much improved in 2014 and is coming off a good pre-season, has retained the same driver pairing in Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, while Force India has kept faith with Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg.
The Caterham team has dropped out of the sport after financial collapse, but Manor Racing - formerly Virgin, then Marussia - has been rescued from a similar fate this month by new owners, and is racing against time to be ready for the start of the season.
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