It's almost time for the 2016 Formula One season to kick off in Australia, which means we are about to see the results of what the 11 teams have been frantically working on. So, what should you expect come March 20? Can the rest of the pack close the gap to Mercedes and three-time world champion Lewis Hamilton? Let's take a walk along the starting grid to find out.
What's new for 2016?
NEW ATLAS NEEDS YOUR SUPPORT
Upgrade to a Plus subscription today, and read the site without ads.
It's just US$19 a year.UPGRADE NOW
You'll notice this year's cars look very similar to last years – that's because there have only been small tweaks for the 2016 season. Purists should be pleased, because the new cars are all fitted with a new exhaust system with a "separate exhaust wastegate tailpipe through which all and only wastegate exhaust gases must pass." Although it doesn't have any impact on the fuel economy or performance of the cars, the change means spectators will be exposed to more noise.
There's also a greater focus on driver safety, with larger padded areas around the driver's head.
On the tire front, Pirelli will now offer three dry compounds, including a new super soft compound that has proven fast in testing.
We're going to start at the front of the grid because, if the last two years are anything to go by, that's where we'll find the Silver Arrows in 2016. Thanks to relatively stable regulations, the W07 chassis and its 106C power unit are more of a subtle evolution of last year's car than a revolution. That doesn't mean it's the same car, though, with Mercedes having worked to iron out the small reliability glitches that held it back throughout the season. So far it seems to be working, with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg combining for 187 laps during day four of testing in Barcelona – 24 more than its nearest competitor.
Gizmag is expecting big things from the Prancing Horse in 2016. Having succeeded Luca di Montzemolo last year, new Ferrari Chairman Sergio Marchionne has made it clear that success in Formula One is a top priority, and early signs in testing would suggest the Italians have the pace to challenge Mercedes. As well as its shortened nose, Ferrari's engineers have fitted the car with pushrod suspension for the first time in four years.[image:392197]
Red Bull Racing
For a young team, Red Bull Racing has seen a lot of success. Since its inception in 2005, Christian Horner's team has secured four constructors championships, and powered Sebastian Vettel to his four driver's titles. Last year, however, the team was held back by power issues from its Renault engine. Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat will be hoping this year's motor, branded a Tag Heuer, runs like clockwork, because Adrian Newey's chassis was widely regarded as the best on the grid last year.
After some tough times, the past two years have seen something of a resurgence from the Martini-liveried Williams outfit. Having finished third in the 2014 and 2015 Constructors' Championship, Frank Williams will be looking to make a leap and start challenging Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes for the top step on the podium. Engineers are hoping a new sidepod design and an evolutionary aerodynamics package will make the car more manageable in slow corners and wet conditions.
For a team with such rich history, 2015 was an absolute nightmare. Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso scored just 27 points between them, and the team didn't see the podium all season due to an overall lack of pace and reliability. Things already look more promising this year, with a report published in Road and Track suggesting the Japanese brand's engineers have unlocked an extra 223 hp from its power units.
A factory-backed Renault F1 team hasn't featured on the grid since 2010, but the French manufacturer hasn't been out of the game completely. As well as supplying engines to world-champion Red Bull Racing, Renault was involved with the Lotus team in 2010 and 2011 before scaling back its involvement. The team is yet to reveal exact power figures for its engine, but is expecting to produce about 652 kW (874 hp) from its V6 engine, which is redlined at 15,000 rpm.
After failing to score a point in 2014, Sauber managed to snatch eighth in the Constructors' Championship last year thanks to a much more manageable chassis setup. The team will be hoping to continue the form it showed at this year's first test, where Felipe Nasr finished fifth on the timesheets on day two.
After finishing fifth in last year's Constructors' Championship, Force India's 2016 campaign hinges on an evolution of last year's b-spec chassis. With regulations likely to change dramatically in 2017, Technical Director Andrew Green said it "didn't really seem like an efficient use of our resources to start from scratch on a project that would have such a limited lifetime."
Or, as Team Principal Vijay Malaya put it – "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Scuderia Toro Rosso
Toro Rosso managed to put a car on the track in Barcelona, but we're yet to see it in its full-liveried glory. Despite facing up on the grid with F1's youngest driver lineup, the team regularly upstaged its Red Bull big brother early last season before it was hamstrung by reliability issues from its Renault power unit. Early signs are good in 2016, with Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz clocking 447 laps at the first test in Barcelona.
Haas is yet to turn a wheel in anger, but it's already won plenty of fans by being the first American-led F1 team since 1986. As you'd expect of a first year entry, sponsors are few and far between, but there's plenty to like about the team's early form. Lurking under the car's red, white and grey paintjob is a Ferrari power unit which proved reliable over the first four days of official testing in Barcelona, allowing it to complete 281 laps.
2016 sees Manor drop Marussia from its name and swap from Ferrari to Mercedes power in the hope of moving up the grid. Having endured the death of driver Jules Bianchi, the team has also fought through countless moments where it looked like money would finally run out, only to be saved by an eleventh-hour investor. Drivers Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto will be hoping for reliability over race distance from the 2016 entry.
Head through to our 2016 F1 preview gallery for a closer look at all the team's cars.