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Australian GP Preview: Ricciardo at home but who can stop Mercedes?

Written by  Mar 21, 2018

Formula 1 fans rejoice! After four long months, the wait is finally over as the new season kicks off this weekend in Melbourne at the Australian GP.

Eight days of testing in Barcelona brought cold and snow but eventually, a few hints as to the lay of the land ahead of another year of racing with the question remaining the same, who can stop Mercedes?

The world champions may not have set any remarkable lap times in Spain but after some mighty race simulations and a new and improved engine just itching to be turned up, it would be a brave man who bets against them winning the titles for a fifth straight time.

But what about Australia? After all, last year it was Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari who stole the show at Albert Park beating Lewis Hamilton in a straight fight and solidifying the Scuderia's renaissance.

Then there's Red Bull who head Down Under with the whole country urging their hero Daniel Ricciardo to finally make up for the podium that was snatched away in 2014, something that would certainly raise a few shoes.

The Milton Keynes outfit is in a much stronger position too, after making major gains through 2017 and adopting a new approach which has seen their new car, the RB14, appear much more competitive pre-season.

In fact, with an upgrade coming for Melbourne, they could be the best hope to challenge Mercedes with murmurings of quiet uncertainty at Ferrari due to data correlation issues between the wind tunnel and the racetrack.

Also in Red Bull's favour could be the tyres, with the new Silver Arrow quite hungry with its rears in Barcelona, particularly on the softer compounds that will be used around the streets of Albert Park (Ultrasoft, Supersoft and Soft).

Behind the top three teams, most eyes will be on McLaren to see just where the British team, now with a Renault engine, will feature. Will Fernando Alonso be joining the fight at the front or is a major battle at the front of the midfield on the cards?

Poor reliability in testing also muddied the picture, but with improvements expected don't be surprised if papaya is seen keeping the front-runners honest.

The Renault works are also an unknown quantity after a solid two weeks of testing. Though McLaren is their target, don't be surprised if they are at the front of an almighty tussle in what is shaping up to be one of the closest grids in recent memory.

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All five of the remaining teams, Toro Rosso, Haas, Force India, Williams and Sauber appear capable of springing a surprise, but it is the first three which appear the most likely to potentially grab any points left on the table.

The junior Red Bull team with Honda was a big surprise with good pace and excellent reliability, with only a very minor anomaly causing the Japanese supplier to bring a precautionary early end to running on the final day.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is whether Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley are a strong enough line-up to challenge some of the highly-rated names they will be racing with.

Many people wrote Haas off ahead of this year after a disappointing second season, but they too have upped expectations with their pre-season performance and the American squad could well shock.

Force India had a subdued pre-season in many ways whether it be launching their car at the last opportunity to not really pushing it that hard on the track.

Yet with arguably the strongest midfield pairing in Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon and because of their known pedigree, it is very hard to rule out the fourth-placed team of the past two seasons jumping up the order in Australia.

Sauber is a team reborn for 2018 with a new partnership with Alfa Romeo as part of a closer relationship with Ferrari and the highly-rated rookie Charles Leclerc ready to validate his reputation.

Though it's doubtful the Swiss operation can jump into the front of the midfield rumble, don't be surprised if they claim a few scalps along the way.

The biggest one potentially being Williams, where the picture doesn't look rosy at least in the short-term. Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin have potential but their lack of experience could be crucial in a team that is also finding its way under Paddy Lowe.

Their pace in testing wasn't great and the new car is a work in progress, so don't be surprised if they bring up the grid at least for now.

As well as determining the competitive order, Australia is the first race with the controversial Halo cockpit device so expect plenty of opinions on social media, particularly should it play any role in any situation.

Otherwise, settle in for the first of 21 races to come in 2018, a race that will offer the first answer to the question everyone wants to know: who can stop Mercedes? 

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