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Hamilton boosted by ’99 per cent perfect’ F1 practice in Australia

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Lewis Hamilton was given a boost ahead of the first round of the 2017 Formula 1 season in Australia on Sunday by enjoying a near-perfect day of practice at Albert Park.

Hamilton endured a difficult end to pre-season testing in Barcelona two weeks ago as Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel surged clear in the timesheets.

Ferrari’s pace was such that Hamilton said it was the favorite for victory this weekend in Melbourne, with the SF70H car produced by the Italian manufacturer appearing to have adjusted best to the new regulations for 2017.

Hamilton offered a plot twist in practice on Friday, though, heading up a Mercedes one-two in FP1 before leading once again in FP2, finishing half a second clear of the pack.

“It’s great to be back in Australia and I’m super happy to be back in the car, particularly after a first day like that. It was 99 per cent perfect,” Hamilton said.

“After struggling with some issues in Barcelona, we didn’t know if we’d have the same thing here. What’s really encouraging is that we’ve arrived at the track just a week later and the car is exactly where it should be. It’s feeling great out there and the guys have done a fantastic job.

“We’ve shown good form so far on both the long and short runs and we got every lap done that we wanted to. The tires performed really well today too.”

Hamilton refused to read too much into Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari in practice, believing the true difference between the two teams will only become clear in qualifying on Saturday.

“Coming into today, we really didn’t know where we’d be,” Hamilton said. “We knew from FP1 that the Ferrari’s weren’t at their maximum. Of course, in FP2 all of a sudden they were quick. We’ll see tomorrow how it really stands.

“I feel very much at home in Melbourne. There’s always a great buzz here and a lot of support. I’m just really happy to see everyone and receive their positive energy. I’ll be pushing as hard as I can to win this race.”

Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 2am ET on Saturday morning.

F1 Preview: 2017 Australian Grand Prix

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The waiting is finally over. After one of the busiest winters in the sport’s history, Formula 1 finally bursts back into life this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.

The city of Melbourne has played host to the race since 1996, acting as the curtain-raiser in all but two years since then, offering a real ‘back to school’ feel for all in the paddock.

2017 marks the beginning of a new era for F1 in a number of ways. Not only do we have a raft of new regulations to contend with for this season, prompting a radical change in the appearance of the cars, but the sport is also under new management following Liberty Media’s takeover in January.

For the first time since 1994, we head into the new season without the world champion following Nico Rosberg’s sensational decision to retire from racing just five days after his dramatic title success in Abu Dhabi.

As a result, the irons are stoked nicely for the new year: every driver starts from zero, none having the honor of racing with the No. 1. There is everything to play for.

So what can we expect from the start of F1’s latest chapter in Australia? Here are a few things to look out for this weekend.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Will Mercedes really be second-best?

The biggest surprise through pre-season testing was the pace shown by Ferrari. Coming off the back of a winless campaign in 2016, both Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel were rapid in Barcelona, while the SF70H was a reliable steed. Over one lap, it looked like the rest of the pack couldn’t get close.

Mercedes has been here before. We’ve seen the Silver Arrows stroll through testing before turning things up to 11 for the start of the season, having won over 50 races in the past three years. Lewis Hamilton enters 2017 as the overwhelming favorite for the drivers’ title, while new teammate Valtteri Bottas is expected to add his name to the list of F1 winners.

Yet Ferrari’s pre-season pace has Mercedes worried. Despite its best efforts towards the end of testing, it couldn’t get close to the times that Raikkonen and Vettel were setting. As a result, we’re looking at the very real prospect – perhaps for the first time since 2013 – that Mercedes may not be the fastest team at the start of the season.

Sandbagging is part of the game in testing, but come qualifying in Melbourne, we’ll see Mercedes and Ferrari show their true colors. It could make for a mouth-watering fight at the front of the pack.

Bottas gears up for his big break

When the F1 paddock last convened in Abu Dhabi in November, Valtteri Bottas was facing the prospect of a quiet winter. With a Williams contract extension all sewn up for 2017, he’d spend the off-season training and spending time with his family and wife, Emilia, in Finland.

And then Nico Rosberg dropped his bombshell.

Despite a number of drivers being linked with the Mercedes seat, Bottas was always the sensible option. Through his four years at Williams, he has proven himself to be an adept and fast grand prix racer, leading its charge to third in the constructors’ championship in 2014 and 2015.

The Finn now has his big break, though. With Williams, he stood little chance of becoming an F1 winner. Now at Mercedes, it would surely be a knock-out blow to his hopes of staying in a top seat if he doesn’t claim at least one race victory in 2017.

Bottas has the kind of opportunity that is rare to find in F1. It is one that was never due, yet with just a one-year contract on the table, he is very much in a ‘sink or swim’ situation. If he doesn’t impress, Mercedes has no shortage of options to replace him in 2018.

Bottas was impressive through pre-season testing, and will be hoping to match new teammate Lewis Hamilton in Melbourne despite it being his first race in the white Mercedes race suit. How he handles the pressure of the big time will be fascinating to watch.

Overtaking, strategy option fears linger

The push to introduce new technical regulations for 2017 came as part of a bid to make F1 exciting again. Faster cars equals happy drivers and more on-track action, equalling happy fans – right?

Well, maybe not. Although the significant increase in downforce has seen lap times increase by the desired five seconds from 2015, it is not conducive to overtaking. Drivers have complained time and time again about not being able to follow cars closely in recent years due to the loss in aero grip, and the issue will only be worse this year. As a result, don’t go expecting more overtaking this year. If things are really bad, qualifying could be the settler for races.

Another worry for some in the paddock is tire management – or the lack of it. Pirelli has introduced new, wider tires for 2017, increasing in size by around 25 per cent. While they look awesome and offer a throwback to a bygone age of the sport, the reports from testing was that they were also far more conservative than last year’s offering. They will last much, much longer.

Drivers will appreciate the chance to push more on their compounds, having previously been nursing them from the very first lap in some cases, but these may have gone the other way entirely. There is a risk we could get an array of one-stop races this year, much as we did in 2010, the final year of Bridgestone’s F1 supply. That combined with the possible lack of overtaking is a worrisome prospect.

How bad are things at McLaren-Honda?

Uh, bad. Very bad. Unless something has been magicked up between testing and Melbourne, McLaren could be marooned at the back of the grid come Sunday following a tortuous testing program in Barcelona.

Honda entered 2017 hoping to make big gains following the removal of the token system for engine updates and a change in the layout of its power unit – but appears to have taken a big step backwards.

The McLaren MCL32 car completed a maximum of 11 straight laps in pre-season testing, such were the issues with the power unit, leaving drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne frustrated and exasperated. Neither arrives in Melbourne with much confidence of doing more than making up the numbers.

Honda has a big task on its hand to rectify things before the season is too far gone, while McLaren will continue to ponder the future of its relationship with the Japanese manufacturer, having already made an approach to former partner Mercedes over a possible supply in the future.

The relationship that served the likes of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost so well in the late 1980s and early ’90s is at breaking point. A flop to start the season in Australia will only lend more fuel to the forest fire.

How will F1’s young guns fare?

While the new season typically brings with it a batch of new drivers, there is just one rookie making his first F1 start in Melbourne.

At just 18 years old, Lance Stroll will become the second-youngest driver in F1 history, having stepped up from a title-winning Formula 3 campaign last year that was enough to secure him a seat at Williams.

Stroll endured a mixed pre-season, suffering three crashes in the first week that cost Williams some much-needed mileage before going a long way to making up for it in the second week. The critics may dub the Canadian as ‘just another pay driver’, yet his talent has been clear in junior series. Quite how he copes with his first race situation in F1 will be of particular intrigue.

If F1 had the same ‘rookie’ classification as IndyCar, we’d also be putting (R) next to Esteban Ocon and Stoffel Vandoorne this year. Ocon made his debut in Belgium last year, taking part in the final nine rounds of the year for backmarker Manor. His efforts were enough to secure a seat with Force India for 2017, replacing Nico Hulkenberg and leapfrogging Pascal Wehrlein in the Mercedes junior pecking order.

Vandoorne also has an F1 start under his belt already, having appeared in Bahrain last year as a replacement for Fernando Alonso who was forced out through injury. Vandoorne smashed his way to the GP2 title in 2015 and was in Super Formula last year before taking Jenson Button’s McLaren seat for the forthcoming campaign. He is one of the most exciting talents to hit F1 in recent years, but may not have the car to show what he can truly do in 2017.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Albert Park
Corners: 16
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:24.125 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Ultra-Soft/Super-Soft/Soft
2016 Winner: Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)
2016 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:23.837
2016 Fastest Lap: Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) 1:28.997
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T2 to T3

2017 Australian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBC Sports App 9pm ET 3/23
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1am ET 3/24
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports App 11pm ET 3/24
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 3/25
Race: NBCSN 12am ET 3/26

Hinchcliffe’s DTM test with Mercedes an ‘amazing blast of a lifetime’

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The second half of the James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens “ride swap” took place last week at the Vallelunga circuit in Italy, as Hinchcliffe stepped aboard Wickens’ usual No. 6 HWA AG Mercedes-AMG C63 DTM car for his first few laps in the tin-top beast.

After shaking off a tough end to what had been a dynamic weekend for both himself and the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda team at the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season opener in St. Petersburg – he’d led early but was caught out on a yellow flag timing and dropped back – Hinchcliffe arrived in Italy on Wednesday to prepare for his run in the DTM car. Wickens tested Hinchcliffe’s IndyCar prior to the St. Petersburg season opener.

The ordinary challenges of getting acclimated to a new car – getting a seat made and adapting to the different driving position – were erased because of a quick and easy fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat.

“It’s funny when we saw the three-week gap between St. Petersburg and Long Beach we thought there’d be down time, and that clearly hasn’t been the case,” Hinchcliffe laughed when speaking to NBC Sports.

“I flew over to arrive a day early, meet the team, and get the lay of the land for the following day. Luckily I fit right into Gary Paffett’s seat. There were very few adjustments needed and it was pretty straightforward. It led into an amazing blast of a time the following day, to rip around Vallelunga.”

The two-hour session that followed saw Hinchcliffe learn a lot, in what is a rare opportunity for North American drivers to have a chance to race in a DTM car.

Hinchcliffe has had some closed-top car experience, but limited outings in either Mazda’s previous Lola Multimatic chassis or Mazda RT24-P prototypes and the Mazda RX-8 aren’t quite comparable to what he saw in the Mercedes.

“Yeah I’d done the RX-8 back in ’12 and the prototype off and on, so it was a very different feel,” he explained. “The seating position is very unique, sitting back in the center. The visuals are very different. Very wide. I think I missed most apexes in right-hand turns the first couple laps, getting used to it.”

But with Wickens as his de facto engineer and driving coach, Hinchcliffe quickly got the hang of it for what would be an intense couple hours.

He’d have a mix of running qualifying simulations, long runs to see how the tires degrade and just general pushing once he got the hang of it. Hinchcliffe being a professional race car driver, it didn’t take long.

“They’ve done such a good job here; you there’s a lot of money spent to make the car magic, and that’s what they’ve done,” Hinchcliffe said. “The tires were very different. We had tire warmers, then did quali sims, did a long run and saw what the (tire) deg could be like. For only two hours of running, it was a pretty nice test.”

“We wanted each other to have a blast,” he added of Wickens’ input and advice. “At Sebring, I gave him some pointers, and we did a track lap in the rental cars. He did the same thing here.

“He’d just been there testing. He did a baseline run in the morning to dial the car in. He was great. He was my engineer for the test, to be honest. He’d pull out the laptop and show data comparisons; look for what to do different and better. It was a lot of fun.”

Hinchcliffe had always tried to keep DTM on his radar from afar, watching the races he could while trying to get to at least one per year. The same goes the other way for Wickens, who tries to make it to at least one IndyCar race per year too, and fully enjoyed his own day in Hinchcliffe’s car.

“When it got announced, I had a bunch of guys say they’d had a chance to test a DTM car. I understand now why it’s one of the most fun series,” he said.

“I’ve followed it more closely with Robbie driving. Having had a taste of the machinery, now you get it even more.”

2017 Formula 1 season preview: Five storylines to watch

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The start of the new Formula 1 season is almost upon us, with Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix marking the beginning of a fresh era for the sport.

Gone is long-standing CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Gone is World Champion Nico Rosberg. Gone are the old regulations. In comes Liberty Media, some young blood for the grid and a push for more aggressive-looking and faster cars.

2017 will be a big year for F1, be it for better or for worse, so here are five storylines that are set to define the season to come.

THE LAND OF LIBERTY

One of the biggest storylines that dominated the offseason was the takeover of F1 by Liberty Media, completed in January. Liberty announced last September that its offer to acquire the sport had been accepted as part of an $8 billion deal, with American executive Chase Carey becoming F1’s new chairman.

When the takeover was completed two months ago, Carey moved quickly to invoke change. Bernie Ecclestone’s reign as F1’s ringmaster came to an end, with Carey wanting to fully capitalize on the potential of the sport. Ecclestone had been expected to continue as CEO for another three years; he was gone in a matter of months, instead being given the honorary role of ‘chairman emeritus.’

Quite what Liberty’s takeover means for F1 remains unclear. Much has been said about a possible expansion in the United States and other key markets, with as many as 25 races in a year also being speculated. Most expect a change in approach to online media and a general ‘getting with the times’.

Perhaps the bigger question lies in how the political landscape of F1 will change. The current commercial agreements run to 2020, making any widespread change before then difficult to invoke. The F1 Strategy Group remains a strong body, yet with new sporting managing director Ross Brawn pushing for a more progressive, forward-thinking future and approach to racing, the self-interest fostered by its members may be hard to maintain.

The winds of change are blowing in F1. Liberty will be keen to leave an impression on the sport immediately, yet after so many years under Ecclestone, one of the biggest storylines this year will be how it adapts to the new regime.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Scuderia Toro Rosso STR12 in the Pitlane during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

TECHNICAL REVOLUTION

F1 may be enjoyed a sizable change behind the scenes, but it will also be very different visually in 2017. Following the first stanza of the V6 turbo era, the sport has changed direction following the introduction of a set of very new technical regulations for the forthcoming campaign.

A greater focus on aerodynamics and an increase in downforce combined with the introduction of new, wider tires courtesy of supplier Pirelli all adds up to an expected five-second gain on lap times from 2015. That was the target – one that was easily met through pre-season testing.

As with any regulation change, all teams have an opportunity to break free of the shackles of the 2014-2016 status quo in F1 that went largely unchanged. Much as Brawn did in 2009 and Mercedes did in 2014, teams have the chance to steal a march on their competitors. The somewhat predictable nature of F1 in recent years is not guaranteed to remain in 2017.

The pecking order and championship battle is something that warrants its own storyline; the bigger picture here is what the wider impact of F1’s new regulations will be. The goal is to make F1 ‘sexy’ again, and if testing is anything to go by, the technical revolution has been a positive one. Concerns remain about the amount of overtaking that will be possible given the increased levels of downforce, but three things are for certain: the cars are faster, more exciting to watch and more exciting to drive.

And that is a very good thing indeed for F1 as it looks to recover from a few patchy years of competition and constant regulatory change.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 01: Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 prepares to leave the garage as 2016 F1 World Drivers Champion Nico Rosberg stands at the garage exit during day three of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 1, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

A SPORT WITHOUT ITS CHAMPION

If Liberty’s takeover of F1 was the story to end the offseason, then Nico Rosberg’s sensational retirement lit the fuse to start a busy, breathless winter. Nobody saw it coming: he announced it out of the blue the morning before receiving his championship trophy, a mere five days after clinching his maiden crown under the lights in Abu Dhabi for Mercedes.

F1 has not raced without its champion since 1994, when Alain Prost made good on his plan to retire after racing for Williams in 1993 when he romped to the title. While it may seem like a bad thing for F1, Rosberg was hardly the sport’s most visible figure during his 11-season stint. If it was Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel absent from the grid, that’d be a bigger loss to the sport.

It does, however, create a curious situation where we are guaranteed a fresh champion this year. Hamilton enters the year as the overwhelming favorite for the drivers’ crown, given his form last year with Mercedes and agonizing title defeat that some attribute to bad luck rather than reduced skill compared to Rosberg. But if Vettel or Daniel Ricciardo get the right car underneath them, particularly in the wake of the regulation changes, then there could be an open fight for the title.

The removal of the champion’s confidence gives this title race a unique dynamic. The likes of Hamilton, Vettel, Ricciardo and Rosberg’s replacement, Valtteri Bottas, all start this year as equals. Nobody has the right to race with the No. 1 on their car this year.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 on track during day two of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

CAN ANYONE BEAT MERCEDES?

The shift in the technical regulations may have opened up an opportunity for the chasing pack to cut the gap to Mercedes, yet few are expecting the Silver Arrows to capitulate and squander their advantage from round one.

Engine quality and power – the backbone for Mercedes’ success in recent years – remains a key focus in the regulations this year, while the W08 car appears strong in a number of other areas. Testing saw Hamilton and Bottas produce some impressive times, pointing towards another title bid.

Yet Mercedes was not the fastest team in testing. That honor instead went to Ferrari. Now without a championship in nine seasons, the Scuderia was left reeling last year when it failed to win a single grand prix. A couple of opportunities for victory were squandered, and when Mercedes truly dropped the ball, it was Red Bull who capitalized, not Ferrari.

The signs coming out of Maranello for 2017 are good. Raikkonen set a blistering pace in the Barcelona test running, with Vettel also looking strong. On-track, the SF70H car looks like a noticeable step up on its predecessor, offering the drivers confidence. Come Sunday in Melbourne, it could be a two-team race at the front.

Or even three. Red Bull was far more understated through testing, but is set to introduce a raft of aero updates come Melbourne for the RB13 car. Technical guru Adrian Newey is said to have his mojo back, and with the regulations favoring aerodynamic performance – an area Red Bull is traditionally strong in – much more this season, things are looking positive for Red Bull.

Some in the paddock believe that the ‘big three’ could be over a second clear of the rest of the pack even at this early stage. How the field jostles through 2017 will be fascinating. It’s an all-out arms race from here on in.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 07: Stoffel Vandoorne of Belgium driving the (2) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 7, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

THE NEW GENERATION

The start of the season in Australia ordinarily heralds the arrival of a number of rookies, yet in Australia, there will be just one.

Lance Stroll will make his F1 debut on Sunday, becoming the second-youngest starter in the history of the sport (Max Verstappen being the youngest). The Canadian driver won the Formula 3 title last year in record-breaking fashion before embarking on an intensive private testing program, trying out the 2014-spec Williams all over the world, racking up multiple seasons’ worth of mileage. He is perhaps the best-prepared F1 rookie in years.

Two more drivers will be starting their first full seasons in F1. Stoffel Vandoorne finally gets his chance to impress for McLaren, having replaced Jenson Button after spending a year in Super Formula following his magnficent GP2 title win in 2015. Vandoorne is seen to be one of F1’s future superstars, making his first year on the grid a big storyline. He made his first F1 start in Bahrain last year, deputizing for the injured Fernando Alonso, and was quietly impressive. Quite whether the McLaren-Honda MCL32 will be up to the task of letting the Belgian display his true talent remains to be seen.

Esteban Ocon will also be on the grid for the first time in Australia. The Mercedes junior made his debut in Belgium last year for backmarker Manor, and put in a string of impressive displays that prompted Force India to hire him as a replacement for Nico Hulkenberg following the German’s move to Renault. Ocon won the F3 title ahead of Verstappen – F1’s golden boy – in 2014 and has been quick at every step of his career. Now in an upper-midfield car, Ocon will be pushing to stand out as F1’s top rookie this year.

All three form part of a bright new generation for F1. Throw in the likes of Verstappen, Bottas, Carlos Sainz Jr., Kevin Magnussen and Pascal Wehrlein, and you can see why the future is very bright for the sport.

The new F1 season begins across NBC Sports Group this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix. For full broadcasting details, click here.

Formula 1 2017 team preview: Mercedes

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MotorSportsTalk’s preview of the new Formula 1 season begins with the first of our team-by-team snapshots – and where else could we start than with defending champions Mercedes?

Mercedes has dominated proceedings in F1 over the past three years, taking 51 race wins in that period and clinching six world titles (three drivers’, three constructors’) in the process. It has been a period of dominance rarely seen in F1.

But will that continue into 2017 with the new technical regulations?

DRIVERS

44. Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain)
77. Valtteri Bottas (Finland)

CAR

Mercedes W08 EQ Power+

ENGINE

Mercedes M08 EQ Power+

TEAM CHIEFS

Toto Wolff (executive director)
Niki Lauda (non-executive director)
James Allison (technical director)

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MARCH 10: Valtteri Bottas driving the (77) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO8 on track during the final day of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 10, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

What went right in 2016: Basically everything. The tense rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg was handled pretty well by the team, even with the title on the line in Abu Dhabi. Had it not been for their first-lap crash in Spain and Hamilton’s cruel engine failure in Malaysia, Mercedes would most probably have swept the board for wins. Still, 19 out of 21 ain’t bad.

What went wrong in 2016: Hamilton was particularly unlucky when it came to power unit reliability, undoubtedly costing him a fair shot at the title. The engine team at Brixworth will have focused on this over the winter. The clash between Rosberg and Hamilton in Austria was also unfortunate. Otherwise, Mercedes was spick and span last year.

What’s changed for 2017: The biggest change is the arrival of Valtteri Bottas in place of Nico Rosberg, who sensationally retired from racing just five days after winning the world title in Abu Dhabi. Bottas joins from Williams after four seasons in F1. The other big change is the exit of previous technical boss Paddy Lowe, who has joined Williams, and the arrival of ex-Ferrari technical chief James Allison. Oh, and the car is significantly different in design, but that’s the same for all teams in 2017.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: Anything but another double title success would surely go down as a failure for Mercedes. Its form over the past three years has been such that we’d be foolish to expect otherwise. But considering Ferrari’s pre-season pace and the expected revival of Red Bull, the pressure may be ramped up this year. At this rate, the question may no longer ‘how much by’ regarding Mercedes’ title win, but ‘if’ once again…

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 23: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP shares a joke with Valtteri Bottas of Finland and Mercedes GP during the launch of the Mercedes formula one team’s 2017 car, the W08, at Silverstone Circuit on February 23, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

MST PREDICTIONS

Luke Smith: Mercedes is something of an enigma heading into 2017 after a so-so off-season – but I will still back the Silver Arrows to take another title double, albeit not with the ease the previous three have arrived. Lewis Hamilton will take his fourth world title this year, with Valtteri Bottas becoming a grand prix winner at last. I’ll say for them to take say 14 of the 20 races this year, 9-5 in Hamilton’s favor.

Tony DiZinno: They’ve lost only eight races in the last three years and even with the changes to the regulations this season, it’s hard to see them losing too many more again. Lewis Hamilton should be primed to take the title in a cakewalk because I don’t see Valtteri Bottas being consistently fast enough to contend after taking over from Nico Rosberg, and I do see the Red Bull pair taking points off each other in their own intra-team rivalry.

Kyle Lavigne: Of the eight days of Formula 1 pre-season testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the Mercedes AMG Petronas cars led three of them. That’s less than Scuderia Ferrari, who led four, but still an indication that the Silver Arrows are just as strong as ever. What’s more, they began their race simulations on Day 2, a clear sign that they are very happy with the pace and reliability of the W08.

Valtteri Bottas should contend for race wins, and could easily win multiple races in 2017. However, it will be difficult for him to regularly challenge Lewis Hamilton for the drivers’ championship. Bottas will undoubtedly be a quick shoe, but Hamilton is still very much for the championship favorite.