COMPOSED: Lewis Hamilton walks towards fans in the paddock in Melbourne. Image: AFP / Paul Crock.
MELBOURNE, Australia - Mercedes, brimming with confidence after successful pre-season testing, is here Down Under for the season-opening Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix with 2014 champion Lewis Hamilton hungry for a third title.
Though the cars have yet to roll out of the Albert Park garages the 'Silver Arrows' might be forgiven for bringing some early-season swagger to the paddock.
An ominous pre-season was the launch pad to 2014's triumph; eye-catching lap times in the 2015 tests suggest Merecedes' rivals could again have to play catch-up on the street circuit.
Nico Rosberg, who won at Albert Park in 2014 and was championship runner-up to team mate Hamilton, told reporters in Melbourne on Wednesday: "We're looking good, we're very optimistic for this season. We just have an awesome team at the moment, really.
"We are the best in F1 now. We have the best individual departments... we have the best overall team... we have the best engine factory - they're all doing an awesome job."
Frequently exhilarating, though sometimes volatile, Hamilton and Rosberg's battle for in-house supremacy was a highlight of Mercedes's championship, which broke the four-year dominance of the Sebastian Vettel-led Red Bull team.
Though Hamilton ultimately crushed Rosberg's challenge, winning 11 races to five, the rivalry between the flashy Briton and his more reserved German team mate could again prove decisive. Each expects a tougher time from other challengers, however, after 16 race wins between them in 2014.
Hamilton, forced to retire at Albert Park in 2014 due to a reliability problem to give Rosberg the race: "We had a great 2014 as a team and we'd all love to repeat that but the others won't stop chasing us. I'm sure the competition will be close - we should get exciting racing with plenty of battling for position."
The race will be the 20th in Melbourne and organisers will hope local boy Daniel Ricciardo can become Australia's first home champion after scoring three race wins in 2014 and finishing third in 2014 Drivers' championship.
He was hugely impressive in his first year with Red Bull and has unfinished business at Albert Park. He was pipped for pole by Hamilton and hours after the end of the race was relieved of his second place (and first podium place) when disqualified for a fuel-flow problem.
Ricciardo out-shone four-times champion Vettel in 2014 at Red Bull; the latter is now with Ferrari which has parted with Spaniard Fernando Alonso who has joined McLaren but will be absent from Australia on doctors' orders as he recovers from his crash in testing in Barcelona in February.
Denmark's Kevin Magnussen will drive in his stead.
SAUBER LEGAL CHALLENGE
After Caterham folded in 2014 to leave 10 teams, the smaller F1 outfits will be under the microscope in Melbourne amid fears financial pressures may see further casualties.
Among them, Sauber's preparations have been overshadowed by a legal challenge from disgruntled Dutch driver Giedo van der Garde, who has accused the Swiss team of reneging on a deal to give him a race seat.
Van der Garde's 11th-hour bid to force the team to let him drive for them was upheld by an Australian court on Wednesday (March 11), though a final appeal by Sauber to overturn the verdict will be heard on today (March 12 2015).
Stay with Wheels24 for the 2015 F1 season – fresh reports every day.