Season preview: Mercedes the favourites once again as new-look F1 prepares for blast off

Lewis Hamilton (left) and Valtteri Bottas (right) will race for Brackley's Mercedes AMG Petronas team

Lewis Hamilton (left) and Valtteri Bottas (right) will race for Brackley's Mercedes AMG Petronas team

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After all the testing and all the talking, the 2017 F1 season will blast into life this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix staged in Melbourne.

The Albert Park track is the traditional starting point for the F1 season, and this weekend’s first of 21 races scheduled for the season will herald the start of a new era in the history of the sport.

New regulations will see cars lapping faster than in recent years, and the sport is also under fresh stewardship following the removal of Bernie Ecclestone by F1’s new owners, Liberty Media.

During the off season, much attention within F1 has been focussed on off-track activities, but now racing is about to start all eyes are on the new cars in the hope that the sport will provide its global audience with a thrilling year of action.

Having dominated F1 in recent times, the Brackley-based Mercedes team, although not the fastest team in pre-season testing, once again emerge from winter as title favourites.

Lewis Hamilton leads the local Silver Arrows into battle, and this year he is joined by Finland’s Valtteri Bottas, who replaced outgoing world champion Nico Rosberg.

Eyeing a fourth world title, Hamilton said: “I have had a good off-season, but I am now ready to get started.

“The guys at the factory have been working really hard to give us a car that can win straight out of the box. From what I have seen, and experienced so far, this car can. It is mega.”

Ferrari could well provide the biggest threat to Mercedes in 2017 after they set the pace during testing in Barcelona.

Silverstone-based Sahara Force India, meanwhile, go into battle with a new-look team. Sergio Perez remains but he has a new partner in the shape of Esteban Ocon.

Perez has been a podium finisher in recent seasons for the Vijay Mallya-owned team, while Ocon arrives at the team with Mercedes support and a driver who is rated by many insiders.

The Frenchman eclipsed Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in the lower F3 category, and could prove to be a real star during the forthcoming season.

He said: “I am really looking forward to getting the season underway. I had some experience last year and I have enjoyed pre-season tests. I am very happy to be part of this team and I think we are all going to have a good year.”

The Force India cars will sport a new pink livery this season, as announced last week, bringing new brand awareness to the local team.

Vijay Mallya, the team’s owner, said: “We are arriving for the start of the 2017 season with a new identity, one that everyone will see and that will be good for us as we challenge for podium finishes at every race.”

The Bicester-based Scuderia Toro Rosso team are to use Renault-power in their new STR12 cars and the Red Bull-owned team, which has a development base in the region, are confident of success.

Spaniard Carlos Sainz and Russian Daniil Kvyat are charged with delivering strong results.

Kvyat, who endured a difficult 2016, said this wheel: “It is fair to say we are all really excited.

“Everyone is ready to start the season and I can’t wait.”

Qualifying takes place on Saturday, with the race Sunday morning.