Ferrari off to a flyer Down Under

The new Formula 1 season is almost upon us and after months of speculation, it is nearly time for the talking to stop and the racing to take centre stage.

The traditional curtain-raiser of the Australian Grand Prix has occasionally thrown up the odd shock result and with teams still not 100 per cent on their cars, it can be a tricky race to call. However, having won the last two editions of the Melbourne spectacle and after impressing in testing, Ferrari look like the team to side with this weekend.

Scuderia can set early pace

Some quick thinking by Ferrari last season saw them edge out Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton in Oz, with Sebastian Vettel overtaking his rival during a safety car period. It was to be one of only a handful of times the Italians would out manoeuvre their title rivals as several poor tactical decisions, coupled with reliability issues, cost Vettel the chance of a fifth Drivers’ title.

The German also appeared to crack under the pressure in 2018 and has added scrutiny this year after Ferrari brought in the highly-rated Charles Leclerc. The Frenchman isn’t here to make up the numbers and is 3.40 to mark his arrival with a win.

The 21-year-old is 1.36 to finish on the podium at Albert Park and that seems a little more of a realistic aim in his first competitive outing for his new team.

Having won the last two races in Australia, taking him to three career victories Down Under overall, Vettel at 2.70 seems a safer option to get the season off to the best possible start for Ferrari.

Hamilton needing time to warm-up

While there are several changes to Formula 1 for the new season, including the award of a point for recording the fastest lap during a race, you can be assured that chasing Ferrari around the Melbourne tarmac will be Mercedes.

Testing reaffirmed that Ferrari and the Silver Arrows are still a cut above the rest, and Hamilton starts the season as the 2.10 favourite to retain his Drivers’ title. The British driver says this could be his toughest season for the Brackley-based outfit, with Leclerc seen as more of a threat than predecessor Kimi Raikkonen.

For a man with so much success to his name, Hamilton’s record in Australia isn’t great – registering just two wins, the last of which came in 2015. He has tended to come on stronger in the second half of the season in recent years and should be approached with caution this weekend.

His team-mate Valtteri Bottas is a man under pressure after finishing 2018 winless and doesn’t have a great record in Australia either – a third place in 2017 his best finish. He needs to make a fast start with Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings and ready to step up should Mercedes decide Bottas is not getting the best out of the M09.

Red Bull step into the unknown

Red Bull are hopeful they can make it a three-way fight for honours this year, but start the season as an unknown quantity after swapping Renault for Honda power units.

All the talk coming out of Milton Keynes has been positive, but testing was hardly a ringing endorsement of joining up with the Japanese manufacturer.

Honda have yet to provide a competitive engine since returning to the sport and while Red Bull say they haven’t demonstrated its full capabilities, it might be best to steer clear of Max Verstappen and co until they show more.

Haas and Renault offer top six value

Renault pulled off a major coup when signing Daniel Ricciardo but don’t expect to be challenging for honours this year with even a podium a stretch, according to the Australian.

However, they showed in testing that they could be ‘best of the rest’ in midfield and Ricciardo is 2.35 to finish in the top six in his home race.

Haas had the fifth fastest car on the grid last year and will put up a good fight for that spot, closing the gap on the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes, according to the winter testing results.

Reliability was an issue for the US outfit last season, both cars retiring from the Australian Grand Prix 12 months ago, but they should at least finish this time around with Kevin Magnussen 2.75 for the top six.