With the 2016 Formula 1 season just a few days away, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg both enter the first Grand Prix of the year on the verge of equalling long-standing records in the sport.
Rosberg, who won the final three races of 2015, is aiming to join Hamilton, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher as the only drivers to take seven consecutive pole positions.
The German’s current qualifying streak stretches back to the Japanese Grand Prix in October last year.
Speaking ahead of the race in Melbourne, Rosberg explained that he was raring to get racing again and hopes to extend his victory streak into 2016
He said: “I’ve had a great winter and done a few things differently for this year. I’ve never felt more ready to go. It’s going to be a great battle.
“I’m really hoping to bring back a couple of wins from the first flyaways to reward everyone at the factories for their hard work.
Hamilton won the Australian event in 2015 and if he leads the Grand Prix for one lap this year the Briton will equal Senna’s tally of 86 races led, which is second only to Schumacher’s 142.
The world champion is also still one pole position short of becoming the third driver to reach 50 pole positions after Senna and Schumacher, a mark he has been stuck on ever since last year’s Italian Grand Prix due to Sebastian Vettel’s pole in Singapore and Rosberg’s subsequent domination in the final six qualifying sessions of 2015.
But Hamilton believes he still has more to give in Formula 1 as he seeks a third successive world title and the 31-year-old explained that he would need to make another step up to overcome Rosberg’s positive end to last season and the potential threat from Ferrari in 2016.
He said: “I know there’s still more to come from me – I think I’ve shown that in the past two years. There certainly needs to be some extra in my tank, as the competition will be stronger than ever this year.”
Mercedes impressive mileage in testing – 3743 miles in total – stood out above the rest of the grid, and the team’s executive director (technical), Paddy Lowe, described how the W07 had completed more pre-season laps than its predecessor despite the lower number of test days in 2016.
He said: “We saw an unprecedented level of reliability during pre-season testing, almost the same mileage in eight days as we achieved across twelve days last year, demonstrating clear progress in our ability to prepare for a new season.
“However, it’s still early days, and there are no Championship points for testing.”
If Rosberg and Hamilton qualify first and second again, it will be the first time in F1 history that the front row has been exactly the same for seven races in succession.
McLaren brings updates to Melbourne – but is still playing catch up
At the other end of the grid, McLaren, which finished ninth in the constructors’ championship last year to record its worst finish since 1980, enters 2016 seeking to make progress with its engine supplier Honda.
The squad’s racing director, Eric Boullier, believes that McLaren arrives in Melbourne better prepared than in 2015, but he explained that it did not manage to complete its full programme of pre-season testing.
He said: “We are certainly a step ahead of where we were this time last year in terms of preparation – we have much more mileage under our belts and we’ve performed most of the necessary system checks that we were still working on during race weekends in 2015.
“That said, we didn’t manage to complete our final configuration and set-up work for the first race, so we go to Melbourne with a number of unknowns.
“It won’t be an easy start to the weekend in that sense, since we’ll need to concentrate on setting the car up for each session and readying the final specification of our package as soon as we get to Albert Park.
“Since the final pre-season test, there’s been a huge effort back in Woking to bring new parts to Australia and it’ll be good to finally get to the track on Friday and see how we fare.
“Our priority is to focus on extracting the most out of our own performance, while still maintaining reliability.”
Fernando Alonso returns to the Australian Grand Prix for the first time since 2014 – where he finished fourth – as the Spaniard missed the 2015 event as a result of concussion sustained in pre-season testing. Kevin Magnussen, who replaced him, did not take the start after his car broke down before the race began.
But Alonso does have an impressive history at Albert Park. As well as his win in 2006, the 34-year-old has never retired in his 13 starts in Australia and has not finished lower than fifth since 2003.
Alonso explained that while McLaren is still not hitting its desired performance levels, podium finishes are a realistic target for the British team in 2016 and he still believes the McLaren-Honda partnership can win the world championship together.
He said: “I think at the beginning of the year it will be difficult [because] after winter testing, we still miss a little bit of performance. But the championship is very long – 21 races [in] 10 months.
“I am sure our developing will be quite high and I think a podium possibility will be possible, but we want more than that.
“We go step by step but to be world champion is the final target with the team and myself. This year it seems that that will be extremely difficult but, next year or whenever it comes, we need to work with that target in mind.”
What do you think the Mercedes drivers will achieve in Australia? And what do you make of McLaren’s start to 2016? Do you expect the British team to improve this season? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.