2015 saw domination by the Mercedes team and Lewis Hamilton win his third Drivers Championship. Mercedes won 16 of the 19 races, Hamilton 10 alone and only Vettel/Ferrari were remotely competitive for wins, taking the chequered flag in three races

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Sebastian Vettel to win the F1 World Drivers Championship (1/3 the odds each way two places) 11/2 Paddy Power

In one respect F1 has sought to liven up the sport this off-season with the introduction of new qualifying rules aimed at randomising some elements of grid position and introducing more variables, and hopefully more exciting racing. That though is less important than 2016 being a year of stable regulations with no step changes in rules and engine type to really alter the balance of power on the grid. Those regulation changes come next year.

Therefore it is unsurprising to see Mercedes 1/5 for another constructor’s championship and Hamilton 4/6 to win a fourth title.

There are two key battles to watch at the Head of the field. Firstly Rosberg won the last three races of last season and should be expected to be very close to Hamilton all year in an identical car. At 100/30 for the title he is better value than Hamilton for an ante-post bet. Secondly Ferrari have made more changes to their car than Mercedes in the off-season as they attempt to step-change performance to catch Mercedes and fight for the championship. rivals believe Ferrari have benefited in the design of their 2016 car by exploiting a loophole in the limits on wind-tunnel time and computer-aided design research that existed as a result of their new partnership with Haas. At the same time, as the Mercedes was by definition more optimised last year, in theory there is less room for improvement.

At the end of last season Ferrari were matching Mercedes for race pace but lacked the ability to challenge Mercedes in qualifying with no engine mode to match the Mercedes. Typically they were 0.6 seconds off Mercedes in qualifying In testing in Barcelona in recent weeks (subject to the usual caveats about fuel loads and other variables that differ from car to car in testing) the Ferrari appears to be only 0.2 seconds slower per lap than the Mercedes. It will only be in qualifying at Melbourne later this month when we find out if Ferrari have the capability of qualifying on the front row.

If they do, the 11/2 on Vettel for the title will look very big indeed.

As Rosberg said after testing

“We know it is close, but we are not sure if we are ahead or behind.”

Taking each driver’s fastest time on each type of tyre throughout the second test and correcting for fuel loads you end up with a list of the fastest lap for each team that looks like this:

Mercedes (Rosberg) 1:22.6

Ferrari (Raikkonen) 1:22.9

Williams (Massa) 1:23.4

Red Bull (Ricciardo) 1:23.7

Toro Rosso (Verstappen) 1:23.7

Force India (Hulkenberg) 1:24.0

In race-simulation runs average lap times for the top contenders are:

Hamilton 1:29.1

Rosberg 1:29.3

Raikkonen 1:29.4

Vettel 1:29.5

On this sort of data, Ferrari are far closer than at the equivalent stage last year.

Away from Mercedes and Ferrari last year Williams were the third quickest team but will be under threat this year from Force India, who have looked quick in testing and Toro Rosso who have Ferrari engines now and improving by up to a second per lap. Expect another leap forward in results from the prodigious teenager Max Verstappen.

Elsewhere Red Bull are pointing to a transitional year with a horsepower deficit likely until development for later in the season. McLaren too have horsepower problems but could be in the points on the slower tracks as the new chassis package looks very competitive indeed. The new Renault team may take a step back towards the back of the grid in company with Sauber, Manor and the new Haas team.

Recommendation

Sebastian Vettel to win the F1 World Drivers Championship (1/3 the odds each way two places) 11/2 Paddy Power