F1 Preview: 2016 Australian Grand Prix

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After one of the longest winter breaks in the history of Formula 1, this weekend marks a return to racing action with the traditional season-opener in Melbourne, Australia.

Due to the relative stability of the technical regulations between 2015 and 2016, there a few major changes of note on the cars themselves, but a few tweaks to the sporting rules could make things interesting.

New tire and radio rules place a greater onus on the drivers to manage their races, while the addition of quickfire eliminations to qualifying could catch a few out.

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Australia coming off the back of his third world championship success in 2015, but after suffering three straight defeats to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at the end of last season, the question will be whether it was a blip or a sign of things to come.

Outside of Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari will be keen to build on a year of resurgence in 2015 and carry the momentum gained into the new campaign.

Despite sharing around half of all race wins in their time together in F1, we’ve never had a straight title fight between Hamilton and Vettel. Might 2016 be the year?

2016 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Lewis and Nico prepare for round three

Hamilton and Rosberg have enjoyed a frosty, albeit successful, time together as teammates. However, it has been quite a one-sided battle in truth, with Hamilton enjoying the majority of the success.

Tired of being the bridesmaid and never the bride, Rosberg enters the new season hoping to get the better of his triple-champion teammate at the third attempt. His form at the end of last year signalled some kind of revival, appearing to banish the demons that hindered his title bid form much of the season.

Hamilton insisted that his late-season decline was the result of taking his eye off the ball as he was more interested in partying than racing, but is he back to full focus? Time will tell. Rosberg will want to strike early in this battle though.

Smoke and mirrors from Ferrari in testing, or genuine pace?

Ferrari made a significant breakthrough in 2015 with its power unit that allowed Sebastian Vettel to take three race wins and light the fire underneath both Mercedes drivers.

The hope for those wanting a good show in 2016 – so, everyone except Mercedes – is that Ferrari can build on this and match its German rival this season.

Testing suggested that Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen may be in a position to put up a more stringent fight, but as with all pre-season running, it is impossible to make any firm deductions.

Maybe Australia will provide some answers.

Midfield mayhem

One thing we can take from testing is that Mercedes and Ferrari are clear of the rest of the field. That, along with the hinted closing up of the teams further back, means we could be in for one of the closest midfield fights in F1 for some time this season.

Williams enters 2016 coming off the back of another strong season that saw it finish third in the constructors’ championship, but must be wary of the threat from Force India behind, who also had a great year.

With its engine saga solved in the short term thanks to a name change, Red Bull will be hoping for better this season. Renault (even if it is branded as TAG Heuer) has learned from the mistakes of last season and should grow in strength over the year.

Toro Rosso may enjoy an early advantage thanks to its 2015-spec Ferrari power unit, making Australia the perfect place to strike and pick up some big points. McLaren has also progressed, while Sauber and even the new Haas team will want to impress.

From P5 to P20, the margins could be very fine indeed.

America returns to the grid

After years of planning and widespread scepticism, NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas will this weekend see his eponymous F1 team finally make its grand prix debut.

30 years have passed since an American team raced in F1, making the achievement of the entire Haas team massively important.

Although expectations have been cooled heading into the new season after a tough second week of testing, regular points certainly appears to be within the reach of drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez this year.

Radio Ga Ga?

This weekend will see the implementation of stricter radio rules in F1, limiting what engineers can tell their drivers during on-track sessions.

Barring a safety concern, the drivers will be left largely to their own devices, putting a greater onus on them to manage their tires, fuel and other elements of the car.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes up the pecking order, perhaps hinting at who is more reliant on advice than others.

Furthermore, with the introduction of new quickfire elimination qualifying – a point of controversy recently – and the new tire rules, this weekend will be about getting to grips with some small but possibly significant changes.

2016 Australian Grand Prix – Facts and Figures

Track: Albert Park
Laps: 58
Corners: 16
Lap Record: Michael Schumacher 1:24.125 (2004)
Tire Compounds: Medium, Soft, Super-Soft
2015 Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
2015 Pole Position: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:26.327
2015 Fastest Lap: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) 1:30.945
DRS Zones: Main Straight (T16 to T1); T2 to T3

2016 Australian Grand Prix – TV Times

Free Practice 1: NBCSN 9:30pm ET 3/17
Free Practice 2: NBCSN 1:30am ET 3/18
Free Practice 3: NBC Sports Live Extra 11pm ET 3/18
Qualifying: NBCSN 2am ET 3/19
Race: NBCSN 12am ET 3/20

Click here for the full NBC Sports broadcast schedule for the Australian Grand Prix. All sessions will be broadcast live on Live Extra.