F1 2016 season preview: Does Ferrari really have a chance?
On the eve of the new Formula 1 season, Motorsport.com's international panel of grand prix racing experts have their say on the big questions and predict who will be crowned champion in 2016.
Charles Bradley, Editor in Chief
Jonathan Noble, F1 Editor
Pablo Elizalde, News Editor
Franco Nugnes, Director of Motorsport.com Italy
Erwin Jaeggi, F1 Editor, Netherlands
Oleg Karpov, F1 Editor, Russia
Mario Fritzsche, Senior Editor, Germany
Felipe Motta, Director of Motorsport.com Brazil
Can Ferrari close the gap to Mercedes and make it a two-horse race for the title?
CB: With the resources and expertise at hand, the potential is certainly there. Changing the power unit/ERS architecture should help, but performance gains could be hamstrung by reliability. Might we get a fast but fragile Ferrari taking on rock-solid Mercedes? I could live with that as a storyline for the season – as long as it's fast in the first place.
JN: Yes it can. Being able to deliver a chassis and engine that is a Mercedes-beater straight away is probably too much of an ask, but there is definitely potential to be closer than it was last year. And getting close may be good enough to put Mercedes under pressure, cause trouble and open up opportunities for wins.
PE: No. Mercedes is going to dominate the V6 era until there is a big change in regulations next year. The gap was too big last year and there is not enough room in the rules to allow Ferrari to make the leap it needs to beat Mercedes consistently - although I hope I'm wrong.
FN: It will be a fight between the two, with the others further behind. I believe Ferrari has reduced the gap to Mercedes and the season will be decided on which team can evolve their chassis faster than their rivals. I get the feeling Mercedes starts ahead, but Vettel is able to disrupt the balance of power.
EJ: Ferrari definitely made a good step this winter, but I think Mercedes still has the upper hand. We might see Ferrari getting one or two more victories this year, but it won't be enough to challenge for the title.
OK: It looks like Ferrari is closer to Mercedes this year, but not yet fighting with the Silver Arrows every single weekend. I'd say we will come to summer break with Ferrari in distant second, and then, bearing in mind the regulations change in 2017, the guys at Maranello may decide to switch focus to the new project.
MF: Pre-season testing suggested that Ferrari has come closer at least. Maybe they could even be a bit ahead once the season starts, but Mercedes should be able to bounce back. The championship will be a much closer contest than it has been in 2014 and 2015. Which one of the big players comes out on top will depend on how many mistakes can be minimised.
FM: I believe Ferrari will be closer and will beat Mercedes in some races, although I don't believe they will win the championship. The Silver Arrows are still ahead.
Will Rosberg continue his late 2015 momentum or will Hamilton bounce back?
CB: Isn't it odd in this day and age of telemetry and top-line performance indicators that this question is almost 'will Nico remain in his happy place/can Lewis retain his mojo?' It's a great reminder that this is a human-driven sport: they're not robots, they don't always get things right, they do mess up. Hopefully the answer is 'yes' and 'yes' and every race will be like Bahrain 2014.
JN: What happened last year will not count for much heading in to 2016. Hamilton admitted to taking his eye off the ball at a time when car set-up moved away from him. Everything is reset for the start of this season, and it will be about who gets down to exploring the limits of the W07 the fastest.
PE: Hamilton dropped his guard after winning the title, so I see no reason to think Rosberg will mount a proper championship challenge on the form that he showed for most of 2015, regardless of his late wins. I expect Hamilton to be back to his best when the season kicks off, and at his best, the Briton is simply better than his teammate.
FN: Nico is out of contract at the end of the year, and will be looking to continue his late 2015 form, but Lewis is not willing to step aside lightly: if the social life of a top driver has no effect on the Englishman's performance, Rosberg will find it difficult to beat him. Otherwise, the championship could be open, and don't discount Vettel either.
EJ: Rosberg only started his string of pole-positions and victories after the title fight was decided. As soon as we have everything to play for again, I expect Hamilton to be back on form.
OK: It is the last year of Rosberg's contract with Mercedes, so from a certain viewpoint it's all or nothing for him this year - so he may be a less conservative when it comes to fighting Lewis. I'd even say we may well see a Spa 2014 repeat before the summer, and I just hope that if that happens their bosses will let them keep fighting. Because that is exactly what F1 needs.
MF: I don't see Rosberg continuing his momentum from late 2015. Hamilton stated that he was "subconsciously more relaxed" once he had his second title in as many years sealed. For me, Hamilton winning a third title in a row is much more likely than Rosberg winning a first.
FM: No. Hamilton will beat him again. The only way to have a battle for the championship is if Lewis loses his head over something outside the track - girlfriend or glamour, for example.
What progress can McLaren make, enough to keep its drivers satisfied?
CB: It was sometimes (often?) painful to watch McLaren's lack of progress last year, and even if Honda has made some major gains it is still likely to lag well behind. Alonso and Button showed great resilience and humour last year, but I'd expect that to wear off and for the radio tantrums to go nuclear at some point.
JN: In the short term, delivering regular points and fighting in Q3 – as the team should be able to do from Melbourne – will be enough to keep Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso happy. But their longer term contentment will rest on how good Honda's upgrades are – so more crucial will be where it ends up around Barcelona time.
PE: McLaren will inevitably make some progress because given the situation it was in last year, taking a step forward should be quite straightforward. Will it leave its drivers satisfied? That will depend on their frame of mind approaching this season. I expect them to be fighting for points often, but for a place on the podium? Highly unlikely.
FN: McLaren will make a step forward this year, but not enough to trouble the top teams. Now the Honda engine seems to be reliable, if still underpowered, the drivers will also begin to see the defects of the MP4-31, which is only quick in the corners.
EJ: McLaren still has a lot of work to do. If I were them, I would switch focus to 2017 early to give myself a real chance to be competitive again next year, when we have new regulations coming into force. And that might also be the perfect moment to replace Jenson Button for Stoffel Vandoorne.
OK: Jenson would not stay for one more year if McLaren didn't have to show him something convincing. So there is definitely some potential; it's all about unlocking it. Will McLaren and Honda be able to do it? Honestly, I have no idea.
MF: With one year of experience under their, belt they should be more competitive. If Alonso will be staying seems to be more a question of the 2017 rules than McLaren's outright performance. As far as Button is concerned, another contract extension would be quite a surprise.
FM: The drivers will be not satisfied. For Alonso and Button, to be up front fighting for top fives would represent acceptable progress, but I don't believe they will be.
Which team will emerge 'best of the rest'?
CB: Force India should start in a good place after its strong finish to 2015, with Williams hovering around. My main tip is to look out for Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso over Red Bull, whose argument with Renault spiralled so far out of control that they are now supplying the team with a wristwatch engine.
JN: This will be an evolving situation over the course of the campaign. Judging on testing pace and engine performance, Williams should start the season with the best chance to emerge as best of the rest behind Mercedes and Ferrari. But Red Bull's chassis looks strong and if Renault can deliver decent gains when the second power unit comes in to play, then it could push on.
PE: Williams, once more, will be the third best team, if only because things are looking extremely similar to last year. Red Bull is pinning its hopes of catching up on the progress Renault can make, but up until now there has not been a real reason to believe it can produce a competitive enough V6 engine under current rules.
FN: Red Bull will be best-placed to lay a trap for Williams when it comes to third place in the constructors' if the Tag Heuer engine doesn't turn out to be a disappointment. Force India starts the year with a competitive car but without the resources to develop it, meaning they will have to watch for Toro Rosso - which has a very refined car, but an engine that will get no development.
EJ: Williams should be capable of staying the third strongest team on the grid.
OK: Red Bull. Reliability of the Renault engine shouldn't be a problem anymore, and I'm convinced there will be dozens of extra horse power coming from Viry later on during the season. Chassis-wise, RBR is still one of the strongest teams, so it will definitely improve at the end of the season and finish behind Mercedes and Ferrari.
MF: Difficult to predict, because they all have their strengths. In Williams' case, it's clearly the power unit; in Red Bull's case it should once again be the chassis; and in Force India's case it could be a combination of both. Just as the fight between Mercedes and Ferrari, the outcome will be very much decided by which team makes the least amount of mistakes.
FM: This is a tough call, but I would go for Williams.
How will Haas fare in its first season?
CB: Patchy start, reliability-wise, as shown by struggles with its brake-by-wire in testing. But it's great to see a new team with such fantastic promise, I genuinely hope we see them in the points very soon.
JN: Like pre-season testing, it will likely be a season of highs and lows. The VF-16 looks to have delivered a solid baseline, so there is no reason why on the good days it should not be battling for points. But equally, for a new team, there will likely be more reliability and operational troubles to go through as it learns its way.
PE: Based on pre-season form, Haas could end up embarrassing a few of the established teams if it can get its reliability sorted relatively quickly. Its maiden outing was probably the strongest seen by any new team in F1 in recent years, and with the Ferrari engine (and its support) in the back, the American squad could raise a few eyebrows.
FN: The American squad on its F1 debut will have a difficult start to the year with a car that has had some teething trouble, but could be one of the surprises of the second half of the year in the hands of Romain Grosjean.
EJ: Better then the teams that entered F1 in 2010. Haas gave itself plenty of time to prepare itself, signed two drivers with experience and were smart enough to partner up with Ferrari. We won't see them in the points straight away, but we might see them running in the midfield by the end of the year.
OK: Their pre season was impressive, so points are possible. It won't be easy. Maybe Haas will need a bit of luck, but they will be able to take the chance if its there.
MF: They will fare much better than recent newcomers. Preparation went well and the winter testing could have definitely turned out worse. The goal of scoring points during their debut season seems to be realistic, not least thanks to the new rules.
FM: In comparison to what Caterham, Marussia and HRT did in the past, yes - but I don't believe they will be in a position to go for points often.
Will changes to the rules help deliver better racing?
CB: Qualifying didn't need fixing, and the tyre rules don't go far enough. On the sporting side, I'd actually like to see Mercedes allow Hamilton and Rosberg to mix their race strategies, in terms of tyre choice.
JN: Qualifying won't make any difference: the old system threw up enough variability and drama already in keeping the pressure on over the hour. However, the extra tyre compound choice may well mix things up – leaving more options for teams and hopefully making the races come alive as those different strategies play out.
PE: Short answer: no. The new qualifying format may cause some upsets from time to time, but once the teams get used to it, it won't change anything. I feel both the changes and the complaints about them were probably a waste of energy. The same will apply to the tyre rules. Both appear to be insignificant changes in the hope that they will be a magic bullet, but that's not how things work.
FN: The drivers are not used to setting their qualifying lap times in traffic, so at the beginning of the season we will see a bit of confusion before the usual order asserts itself. The format itself will not be any more spectacular than last year. The three tyre compounds on the other hand could disrupt the teams' race strategies, creating a few surprises, but the real change comes from the clampdown on team radio.
EJ: The new elimination system for qualifying will definitely spice up the Saturday and deliver some surprises at times, and the new tyre usage rules have the potential to do the same on Sunday. Although these things might give us some entertaining moments, the question if they deliver better racing is a different one. Sometimes making things simpler can lead to a better end result.
OK: No. Tyre rules won't have a huge impact; after a few races we will probably see teams choosing almost the same number of compounds for their drivers. Qualifying hasn't changed that dramatically, so I don't expect any surprises here either, although occasional mistakes may lead to the odd random instance of Kimi Raikkonen starting 15th.
MF: Tyre usage could mix things up a little bit for the first part of the season, but I think once the teams have figured it out, the pecking order will be very much the same as it has been in 2015.
FM: Maybe in the first races, but normally as time goes by, and the drivers and teams get used to the new ways of working, everything will stay on more or less the same level.
Who will be the big movers in the driver market?
CB: Max Verstappen, who'll either be upgraded to RBR or poached by Ferrari – maybe even Mercedes if Nico sucks. Magnussen and Palmer will have to deliver, as I can see Alonso finding refuge at Renault when he finally kicks his bin out of his pram at McLaren. Enter Stoffel Vandoorne there.
JN: The crunch man will be Kimi Raikkonen – as he and the team will have to decide this season whether or not they continue on. The Ferrari is likely to be the best seat available, so other drivers will hold fire and wait to see what happens. Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen would be the men most likely to step up if they are not locked down elsewhere, but what chance Daniel Ricciardo upping sticks if Red Bull doesn't deliver? There are lots of fun and games to come.
PE: The main focus will be on the McLaren drivers once again, most likely. If the team fails to deliver a half-competitive car, questions about Alonso's future will pop up again. As for Button, I would say this is his final season in F1, despite probably wanting to be there in 2017 in case the team can win again. The pressure will also be on Red Bull to promote Verstappen or Sainz, and Raikkonen's seat at Ferrari is also likely to be in the spotlight.
FN: The most coveted seats are those of Rosberg and Raikkonen, providing Hamilton stays on at Mercedes - otherwise Rosberg stays at Mercedes. Alonso has lost the chance to drive for a top team, so the best he can aspire to is a return to Renault. Ricciardo and Verstappen will be the most sought after, but a new generation of drivers, led by Stoffel Vandoorne and Esteban Ocon, will arrive.
EJ: Max Verstappen holds the key to the driver market this year, with all the top teams displaying interest in him last year. He could stay loyal to Red Bull and move up to the senior team for 2017, but if their engine situation remains unclear and Dietrich Mateschitz keeps casting doubts over his company's future in the sport, we very well might see Verstappen go somewhere else, with Ferrari seemingly the main contender.
OK: Raikkonen still holds the key to the driver market. Ferrari's decision not to extend his contract may lead to a lot of moves, with the two Red Bull drivers being favourites to take over Kimi's seat.
Points awarded on a 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis
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