Can anyone stop Lewis Hamilton? That’s the question every Formula One fan is asking after an imperious display by the reigning world champion’s team Mercedes in pre-season testing.
The Brackley, Northants-based outfit racked up 1,294 laps over eight days at the Circuit de Catalunya, demonstrating bulletproof reliability and the kind of pace needed to keep Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg comfortably in front around Albert Park in Melbourne this weekend.
But there was a glimmer of light for those hoping for a fight at the front, with Sebastian Vettel recording some quick laps for Ferrari and Williams, too, looking like it’s in line for a strong campaign.
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Elsewhere, the midfield seems as tight as ever, plus there’s added interest in the form of the brand-new Haas team, which will be hoping a close relationship with Ferrari helps it move up the grid quickly. Plus, Brits have a new name to cheer, as 2014 GP2 champ Jolyon Palmer has secured a seat with reborn Renault.
We also sat down with the Channel 4 team to find out what viewers can expect from the new terrestrial F1 broadcaster.
After challenging Mercedes strongly with four wins in 2014, four-time champion outfit Red Bull came crashing back down to earth last year. An increasingly fraught relationship with engine supplier Renault and threats to quit the sport overshadowed its efforts, but the squad says it’s turned a page, with a new sponsor in watch maker TAG Heuer, which will brand its Renault engines.
Speaking to Auto Express ahead of the season, team boss Christian Horner was cautiously optimistic about the future, contending that Renault’s decision to run its own works team would benefit Red Bull as a customer.
“By doing this, they’re committing the wherewithal and budgets necessary to make themselves competitive, and to be competitive in F1 you need a good engine,” he said.
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“There seem to be changes afoot and hopefully we’ll see the power unit progress over the course of the year. I get the feeling they now have a much better idea of where the performance deficiency has been and what they need to do to address it. There seems to be a lot more confidence and focus and I think they’re addressing the right areas.”
Two weeks of pre-season testing suggest Mercedes has lost none of its dominance over the winter, and Horner isn’t expecting an immediate turnaround in form. “We’re going into the year hopeful that we can make progress from where we were in Abu Dhabi,” he said. “I think it’ll be a year of two halves. I think the second half will be more competitive for us than the first. Teams like Toro Rosso are going to make a big performance jump just by switching to Ferrari power, but we’re expecting steps to be made throughout the year.”
“Last year was tough, we emerged from that and it feels like we’re gaining momentum. There’s confidence from the factory and determination to get back to being competitive. Mercedes will set the benchmark and we’ll clearly have to get as close to that as we can. We want to reduce the gap.”
In the driving seats for Red Bull once again are Australian Daniel Ricciardo and Russian Daniil Kvyat. Both are under big pressure to perform this season: impressive rookie runs by ‘junior’ team Toro Rosso’s duo Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr suggested they’re ready to move to a top team.
Both Ricciardo and Kvyat acknowledge the TAG Heuer-badged Renault engine is the big question mark for Red Bull’s performance in 2016. “I’m hoping for a victory this season,” Ricciardo told us. “I’d love to say more than one, but one would be a good start. Last year we just got the two podiums, so a victory should mean podiums along the way.
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“I say that knowing the season’s long – if it comes it’s not going to be straight away. The engine has to get better – it’s just a case of how much better. The first few races will be more or less like last year, but once we get to the European season, we should start to really develop more. There’s a lot of room for improvement with our power unit – more than I believe Mercedes and Ferrari have. So if we can get the right ingredients in place, we should see a bigger step, getting a lot closer to Ferrari and maybe ahead of Williams.”
Despite a fallow 2015, Ricciardo still loves F1. “I changed my perspective last year and I was able to enjoy it again,” he said. “I still love the sport and would love to be here for another 10 years. To make sure of that I have to be rocking up at every race ready to go, prepared and motivated.”
Ricciardo says he’s also focused on more than just his team-mate, explaining: “My targets are beyond Daniil. If I’m just looking at him, I’m not looking enough ahead.
“I think I can beat him, but if we just look at each other, we’ll go around in circles – we’ve got to look at the teams in front. Williams is a good target: I don’t think they’ve made a massive step, so we should have a chance. Toro Rosso should be strong and Force India has made strides, too.”
His expectations for the season are straightforward: “Behind Mercedes and Ferrari, it should be pretty spicy!”
While there are no major changes to Formula One’s technical regulations for this season and no big driver moves, there will be a significant difference for viewers at home now that Channel 4 has taken over F1’s free-to-air broadcasting rights from the BBC in the UK, showing 10 of the 21 races live and the rest as highlights packages.
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The channel has promised a fresh approach and last week unveiled a 12-strong presenting team for the job. The core BBC line-up remains, with Ben Edwards and David Coulthard in the commentary box and Lee McKenzie in the pitlane, but there’s also a rotating roster of high-profile expert analysts.
These include recent former F1 drivers Mark Webber, Bruno Senna and Karun Chandhok, four-time champion Alain Prost, British Touring Car racer and brother of the reigning champion Nicholas Hamilton, former F1 racer Alex Zanardi, ex-Williams tester Susie Wolff and former team owner Eddie Jordan.
Commentating legend Murray Walker will also be taking part, conducting a series of in-depth interviews with some of the sport’s big names, beginning with Jenson Button.
It’s all happened very quickly for Channel 4, as McKenzie explained to Auto Express last week. “When the BBC took over from ITV, they had 10 months to prepare, but we were still talking about this in February,” she said. “Anyone who’s watched Channel 4 progammes knows they’re credible – they can be fun, crazy, fresh and young, but they’re always credible, whether it’s their news or the Paralympics.”
Like the BBC, the station will be broadcasting all practice sessions, presented by McKenzie, for the races it’s covering live. It has also committed to showing its 10 live events uninterrupted by ad breaks – something that seriously blighted fellow commercial broadcaster ITV’s tenure with the sport from 1997 until the end of 2008.
Webber will be dovetailing his F1 analysis with racing for Porsche in the World Endurance Championship. The Australian says he’s determined to shine the light on the human side of the sport he loves. “We’re excited to go to another layer in terms of the personal side,” he said.
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“I’m certainly not going to be shy about getting in there, rolling away the PR people and trying to get a bit more access to the human side. Sometimes the mechanics have 15 hours’ sleep in five days, so let’s have a talk with them. There’s been phenomenal F1 broadcasting done over the years, but we have the confidence to go the extra mile and get the ‘gladiators’ out a bit more.”
Former Red Bull F1 man Coulthard believes the rotating line-up of pundits will help inject something new to Channel 4’s coverage.
“There was an element when Eddie [Jordan] and I were there all the time that I came to know his perspective,” he told us. “I have a feeling the bigger line-up will keep everyone fresher, reacting to what the others say.
“Hopefully it’ll be a nice conversation that people at home feel a part of. The range of opinions and experiences of the pundits is going to strengthen what we’re doing. We need the racing to be good, but beyond that there are enough features that we’ve been working on [including one with cult bike racer Guy Martin] that’ll broaden the appeal.”
Fronting all the coverage is a face familiar to viewers of shows like T4 and the X Factor USA: Welshman Steve Jones. He admits he’s a fan not an expert, but has a clear vision.
“We’re hoping to make it more fun where appropriate – it speaks volumes that they’ve hired an entertainment presenter like myself to do the job,” he told us.
“I stress ‘where appropriate’, though – I’m not going to be banging out zingers left, right and centre. I’m hoping that I can get a bit more from drivers, from an entertainment point of view. My mission is to get a laugh out of Kimi!”
When the new F1 season starts on Sunday, you’ll need a Sky subscription to watch everything live. As usual, it’s covering all 21 races with Channel 4 screening 10 rounds live, plus highlights of every other race.
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