The new Formula 1 campaign is finally upon us. Today’s Australian Grand Prix kicks off what will be the longest season in the history of the series, featuring 21 races across five continents.
Lewis Hamilton enters 2016 chasing a fourth world championship, and got his bid off to a perfect start on Saturday by taking pole position in Melbourne.
Hamilton’s massively impressive display proved to be the high point in an otherwise farcical qualifying session that saw the new format fall flat, prompting a possible rethink ahead of the next race in Bahrain.
Regardless of Saturday’s issues, Sunday is set to offer a memorable race with lots of stories up and down the grid.
Here are a few things to watch for in the Australian Grand Prix, live on NBCSN from 12am ET (lights out at 1am ET).
More Mercedes magic in Melbourne?
If anyone seriously believed that Mercedes would not be the team to beat once again this year, qualifying on Saturday would have made them think again.
The W07 car remains a cut above the rest of the pack, setting the scene for another fight between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg on Sunday in Melbourne. Rosberg has made a number of mistakes so far this weekend, appearing to hand Hamilton the chance to start his title defence in perfect fashion with his 44th career victory.
Ferrari in no man’s land
Sebastian Vettel may have finished as the best of the rest once again behind Hamilton and Rosberg, but Ferrari appears to be stuck in no man’s land this weekend. The only way that Vettel could conceivably win the race would be down to some fortunate safety cars, with the raw pace of the SF16-H not looking capable of matching Mercedes up front.
Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen, starting fourth, will know that much of the race depends on the start. If they can get in amongst the Silver Arrows off the line, then maybe a surprise result could be on the cards. Alas, for now, it seems unlikely.
Mayhem in the midfield
Behind Mercedes and Ferrari, the pack looks tantalizingly close. Toro Rosso had the upper hand in qualifying as Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr. finished fifth and seventh, marking the former’s best starting position to date in F1.
However, with Red Bull, Williams and Force India lurking just behind, and the likes of McLaren and Renault also doing better than expected in qualifying, the battle to fill out the points is set to be a fierce one.
Qualifying may have failed to shake up the grid, but it did at least give us two drivers out of position. Valtteri Bottas starts 11th for Williams, while Daniil Kvyat will have to fight his way forward from 18th.
The Australian Grand Prix marks the first race in which the new stricter rules on radio communications will come into force, with the idea being that it will put a greater onus on the drivers and leave them to determine their own races instead of being reliant on their engineers.
In principle, it should work well. Drivers will no longer have all of the information they need at all times, and will instead have to use the data on the steering wheel dash and from what they can see.
It is perhaps a bit like being given a school assignment but not being allowed to use the internet.
When Gene Haas set out a few years ago to set up an F1 team, many thought today would never come. But here we are. In just a couple of hours, for the first time in 30 years, an American team will be racing in F1.
It’s a momentous achievement not only for Haas and his team, but also for the sport in the USA. Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez may stand little chance of debut points judging by Haas’ dry practice pace, but in Australia, races of attrition are common.
The goal remains getting to the finish line. But frankly, getting to the starting grid is the bigger success here.
2016 Australian Grand Prix – Starting Grid
1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
4. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
5. Max Verstappen Toro Rosso
6. Felipe Massa Williams
7. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
8. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
9. Sergio Perez Force India
10. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
11. Fernando Alonso McLaren
12. Jenson Button McLaren
13. Jolyon Palmer Renault
14. Kevin Magnussen Renault
15. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
16. Valtteri Bottas Williams*
17. Felipe Nasr Sauber
18. Daniil Kvyat Red Bull
19. Romain Grosjean Haas
20. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
21. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
22. Rio Haryanto Manor**
* Bottas received a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change on Sunday morning.
** Haryanto received a three-place grid penalty for a pit lane infringement in FP3 on Saturday.
The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 12am ET on Sunday.