Technical tweaks and revamped rules usher in Formula One’s longest-ever season.
But while much has changed, much will likely remain the same.
Mercedes and reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton again will dominate. Ferrari again will be the main challenger. And Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo again will be mid-pack.
“This year, to be honest, it’s unrealistic,” Ricciardo said this week of his hopes of usurping Hamilton and Mercedes’ Silver Arrows.
“I’d love to say that it’s realistic. But the fact is Mercedes, in normal circumstances, they’ll probably win most races.”
Ricciardo tempers any expectation of his Red Bull claiming a podium finish at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, starting in Melbourne on Friday.
He, and the rest of the F1 fraternity, know who is boss – Mercedes.
And with good reason.
Last season, Mercedes’ Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg won 16 of the 19 grands prix – Sebastian Vettel in a Ferrari won the other three.
Mercedes have won 32 of 38 races since 2014.
They’ve collected the constructor’s championship in the past two seasons. And by whopping margins – 296 points and 275 points respectively, the biggest margins ever since the constructor’s championship was introduced in 1958 as the International Cup for F1 Manufacturers.
Hamilton believes he’s well-placed to grab a third consecutive title.
“The car feels even better than last year’s from both a performance and reliability perspective, which is saying something,” Hamilton said earlier this week.
But this season, Mercedes does face some challenges – just not necessarily from on-track rivals, but from various alterations introduced by Formula One’s governing body.
The Melbourne Grand Prix on the Albert Park circuit marks the introduction of some minor, though key, rule changes.
Among them, engine development restrictions have been loosened in what is hoped to give previously struggling engine suppliers such as Renault and Honda a chance of catching up to the pacesetters Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari.
And in a bid to put more of the drive back into the drivers, stricter radio communications between team boffins and drivers have been introduced.
Now, between the one-minute signal and race-start signal, teams can’t instruct drivers on various vital topics including the balance of the car.
And the Australian Grand Prix will also be the first run under new knockout qualifying conditions – the slowest drivers will be eliminated every 90 seconds in the closing minutes of each of three qualifying sessions.
The move will ultimately eight drivers contesting a final 14-minute long shootout for pole positions.
Other changes include F1’s exclusive tyre supplier Pirelli revising the basic construction of their tyres in an effort to reduce overheating, and also introducing a fifth dry-weather tyre compound.
And in a move to appease spectators unhappy in past years with the sound, or lack of, coming from the cars, exhaust systems have been changed to make them louder.
The season has also been extended to 21 races, with a new European GP at a street circuit in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the return of the German GP.
But don’t hold your breath that the extension, to place greater emphasis on durability, will somehow weaken Mercedes.
All teams were afforded eight days of official pre-season testing which finished earlier this month at Spain’s Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.
Mercedes basically performed an entire grand prix season over the eight days – some 31 per cent more laps than main rivals Ferrari.
But Ferrari did clock the fastest lap – albeit on an ultra-soft compound tyre, which was largely shunned by Mercedes in what was seen as a move to keep an ace up their sleeve for Melbourne.