Formula One returns from its four-month hiatus at the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday amid a wave of talking points and excitement – and that’s without a competitive wheel being turned.
The Formula One season has traditionally started Down Under since 1996 – only 2006 and 2010 being the exceptions with Bahrain temporarily taking the honour.
The key talking point for the race and indeed the entire season is whether Ferrari have finally done enough to give Mercedes a challenge at the head of the field, after a dominant two years for the Silver Arrows.
As you would expect, the Constructor’s champions have won the last two stagings of the race. Nico Rosberg eased to victory in 2014 before Lewis Hamilton kicked 2015 off with maximum points. Can Ferrari change that?
The formbook at Albert Park says no.
While the Italian team have won in Melbourne six times, including a run of four straight victories between 1999-2002, you have to go back nine years to find their last win- Kimi Raikkonen on his Ferrari debut.
That also remains Raikkonen’s only win in Australia, with teammate and four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel able to boast the 2011 Australian Grand Prix as his sole victory in the country’s sporting capital.
However, Mercedes fear that Ferrari may have closed the gap to just two tenths of a second over a lap. If that rings true, then the tables may turn.
The Silver Arrows looked to be once again in imperious form during pre-season testing. They completed almost double the pre-season mileage of any other team, regularly having to use both drivers in one day to avoid tiring them out.
They also did not show their true pace at any point, not topping a day of testing while Ferrari topped five of the eight days during the two weeks at Barcelona.
That said, their star attraction Lewis Hamilton has been attracting headlines that bosses at Mercedes would rather he didn’t.
Hamilton courted controversy by first angering sponsors as he unwittingly promoted rival firms at an engagement.
Then, he tweeted angrily about a casino that had him thrown out in the early hours of the morning, before he was investigated by New Zealand Police for taking a selfie while riding a motorbike.
It isn’t something they’re unused to with Hamilton, who is arguably as famous for his off-track excursions as he is for his on-track actions, but nevertheless all this unwanted publicity for the man who’s won the last two titles could be an unwelcome distraction.
And let’s not forget Nico Rosberg.
While Hamilton soundly beat him throughout most of last year, it is worth noting that when tyre pressure rules were tightened at Monza last year, Rosberg took all of the remaining pole positions. He also won three races in a row at the end of the season and could well use those results as a springboard for Australia.
For McLaren, this season is about redemption and where better to start that than Round One. Honda were embarrassed by last year’s showing, which started terribly as Kevin Magnussen failed to make the grid, while Jenson Button was effectively driving with one hand behind his back.
Honda say they have radically upgraded the engine, which was believed to be over 2 seconds off the pace and early indications are that they have certainly closed the gap. Quite how much remains to be seen, but Jenson Button and particularly Fernando Alonso will not stick around for much longer if McLaren haven’t made significant improvements.
Meanwhile, drivers will have to get past the infamous first corner in order to stand a chance. Turn one has ended many a race over the years, as Pastor Maldonado, Kamui Kobayashi and Felipe Massa found out in just the last two years alone.
A final note for the Australian Grand Prix – the divisive new qualifying system gets its first runout this weekend. After a set amount of time in all three sessions, the slowest remaining driver will be knocked out every 90 seconds.
After seven minutes in Session one, the final places will be decided until the chequered flag and the end of the segment, while 15th-9th place will be decided after six minutes in the second session and the top eight being decided after 5 minutes of the final session until we’re left with a pole position shootout between the two remaining drivers.
Enjoy keeping up with that one in the early hours of the morning.