UNDISPUTED CHAMPION: Lewis Hamilton shakes hands with Thomas Weber, head of Mercedes F1 development on the grid in Australia. Image: AP / Mark Dadswell
SEPANG, Malaysia - Formula 1 has rolled into Malaysia this week for Round 2 of the 2015 championship at the Sepang International Circuit where talk surrounding the utter dominance of Mercedes will for once take a back seat to the belated arrival of Fernando Alonso.
The season-opening Australian GP bordered on the farcical as defending champion Lewis Hamilton led a Mercedes 1-2 ahead of Nico Rosberg in a race in which only 13 of a possible 20 cars were racing by the end of Lap 1.
Mechanical failure, under-prepared cars and injury accounted for most of the withdrawals but double champion Alonso was unable even to make the trip to Melbourne thanks to a pre-season crash in Barcelona.
Sitting out the race to minimise the chance of suffering sudden-impact syndrome, Alonso will be keen to get re-acquainted with a team where he spent an unhappy season in 2007 but judging by McLaren's performance in Australia, any joy is expected to be short-lived.
Struggling for pace and reliability with the new Honda engine, McLaren team mate Jenson Button crawled around Albert Park to cross the line last of the 11 finishers; Alonso's stand-in Kevin Magnussen failed to start the race due to engine issues.
The Spaniard will be hoping the team has been able to make significant improvements since Australia two weeks ago and can at least make the car competitive enough to keep pace with the back-markers, something out of reach in Melbourne.
Alonso said of the season-opener: "I watched the weekend in Australia very closely and I was in touch with the team from the moment they arrived. It's clear we have a lot of work ahead of us but Jenson's result in Melbourne was encouraging from the point of view of reliability and data collection, which are extremely important."
Turning to his recovery from the pre-season crash, Alonso will need to pass a fitness test on Thursday (March 26) before he can race but is looking forward to marking his return on a circuit at which he has enjoyed a fair amount of success - including three victories.
"I've been working hard on my fitness and I feel good and ready to go this weekend. It will be tough but I'm looking forward to getting into the MP4-30 for the first time in a Grand Prix and getting back to racing."
Up at the head of the field, Mercedes is once again expected to surge clear from the chasing pack with Hamilton and Rosberg continuing the battle for supremacy while the other teams scramble for minor honours.
Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel's distant third on his Ferrari debut was an encouraging start for a team seeking to re-establish itself among the elite, but the Italian outfit can expect a tougher challenge from Williams in Malaysia.
The Mercedes-powered team lost Valtteri Bottas to injury after qualifying in Australia and the Finn and team mate Felipe Massa can expect a better performance from the Williams around the sweeping corners of the Hermann Tilke-designed track.
In a week when the sport suffered another blow with the axing of the German GP from the 2015 calendar for financial reasons, anything other than a Mercedes victory would be a welcome lift for a series in which monotony has replaced drama.
The chances of that happening remain slim. Malaysia's volatile weather could intervene, as it did in 2012 when Alonso dodged the puddles in a modest Ferrari to win the race after qualifying ninth.
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