After what was the shortest winter break in years, when the teams head to Melbourne in a week's time they will kick-start a new era in grand prix racing. The sport has bid adieu to the the loud and fuel-guzzling engines and will be replaced by quieter and smaller hybrid engines with capacity equal to that of your regular sedans - the new engines are 1.6 litres V6 to the outgoing 2.4 litre V8 engines.
The sport has not faced such dramatic regulation change in decades with Formula-1 embracing green technologies as the focus on global warming and fuel-efficient cars increases by the day. For the first time since 1988, the sport will return to using turbo-charged engines, with an additional feature of bigger energy recovery systems that reduces fuel consumption by as much as 40 per cent compared to last year for similar power output.
Who's on top
Since the turn of the century two German drivers have dominated the sport breaking and rewriting every record in the book amassing nine out of 13 titles between. At the same time, their success also has meant the sport losing its appeal due to their sheer dominance.
So after twelve days of pre-season testing in Spain and Bahrain, the major takeaway is that German domination of Formula One might just continue for a while. No, we are not talking about Sebastian Vettel steamrolling his way to a record fifth title but Mercedes Benz, the pioneers of automobile industry from Stuttgart, who have stolen a march on their rivals.
In the three tests, one at Jerez, Spain and the two tests in the desert kingdom of Bahrain, Mercedes powered cars have come out on top by not only setting eye-catching times but also managing to record the most mileage compared to their engine rivals Ferrari and Renault. Heading into the new season, Mercedes factory team with its unchanged driver line up of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton will start as favourites.
Reigning champs in trouble
When the new rules were enshrined, there was always a fear of one team getting it right and one dropping the ball. The fickle nature of Formula-1 looks to play out once again with the biggest shocker being the Renault-powered teams struggling to run continuously for sustained period of time without trouble. The last time there was a decent overhaul of rules in 2009, Red Bull leapfrogged from being an also ran team to dominate the last four years guided by Vettel by sweeping both the drivers and constructors title. This time around, the wheel of fortune seems to have changed with Red Bull struggling partly due to the brittle Renault engine and its own chassis design that has complicated things for the reigning champions. But the team has the resources to make up for lost ground and still could be strong if it manages to get a grip on its reliability issues that has hindered them from showing their true pace. More importantly it has the most successful designer in Adrian Newey to troubleshoot its way out.
Though testing times are not an accurate reflection of the pecking order, another team that goes into the new season with confidence will be former heavyweights Williams F1, who seem to have turned a corner recording impressive times and more importantly running without hitting trouble and running reliably. The team endured one of its worst seasons last year scoring only five points. They head into the new era swapping Renault engines for Mercedes power (a masterstroke?), revamped technical structure that has seen the team recruit some top technical staff and new driver in Felipe Massa, who was let go from Ferrari last year. The team, which has struggled financially in recent times, has also managed to line-up some impressive commercial deals, (substantially from Brazilian companies thanks to Massa) that should help them keep up in the development race with heavyweights like Ferrai, Mercedes and Red Bull.
Last but not the least, Ferrari, the most successful team in the history of sport, with its explosive driver line-up of Fernando Alonso and re-hired Kimi Raikkonen, has had a low-key pre-season testing. The Italian marquee has managed to stay under the radar by concentrating on their programme and has been the hardest to judge with no headline grabbing times but at the same time managed to run fairly reliably barring a few exceptions. The team that has not won a title since 2008, will be keen to set things straight this year. Alonso, who joined the team in 2010, came close to winning the titles twice in the last four years, in spite of a car that was not as quick as the Red Bull that has powered Vettel to glory. During mid-season last year, there seem to be some fissures inside the team with Alonso expressing his displeasure in public about the team's failure to give him a competitive car. The statement did not go down well with the Ferrari President who, as the team called it, 'tweaked Alonso's ear' for giving negative comments about the team. One more year of title drought, could see Alonso turn his back on the Italian-outfit though his contract ties him down to the Scuderia till the end of 2016.
Finally, while the owners of Sahara Force India might be in some serious trouble here in India with litigations and falling business empires, the team seem to have quietly gone one to make progress over the years and in the early season could bag a handful of points and might even surprise with a podium or two. The team has a new driver line up of Nico Hulkenburg and Mexican Sergio Perez, who seems to have brought some funding from his native country to inject some much-needed cash and will continue to run Mercedes engines that should help them run consistently in the midfield.
The new season promises to shake up the established order of the past four years, though the jury is still out on whether the racing will be exciting and close or will one engine-manufacturer run away with the title. One thing that can be stated with certainty is grand prix racing has changed forever, maybe for the good too.