FIGURING out the form guide ahead of the green lights in Melbourne is a punt at the best of times, but this year the usual Formula One sandbagging and chicanery is further masked under another level of opacity thanks to some staggering incompetence on the part of its organisers. Put simply, the playing field isn’t anything like level.
The FIA's intention was for the engine manufacturers to have completed their changes for the 2015 season before the first race in Melbourne.
Ferrari and Renault were struggling to do that, and with the rules allowing less than half the engine to be changed anyway, Mercedes was feeling pretty confident that its engine advantage in 2014 was in no danger of being chased down.
But then Ferrari spotted that the FIA hadn't actually written down when the final engine designs had to be submitted.
"We just kind of thought that everyone knew," a dopey spokesman said. (I'm paraphrasing.) The result is that the relative performance we see in the first few races is unlikely to stay the same through the season.
It is far more likely that Mercedes' closest rivals will extract the maximum possible benefit from the limited changes they can make, even if that means making them later and foregoing some power in the first few races. So Albert Park won’t be a wholly accurate barometer.
And they need all the help they can get. Mercedes is believed to have had a near-40kW advantage last season, and to have added the same to its output over the off-season.
It is hard to imagine the others improving by that margin, but not impossible. Many commentators are writing Ferrari off again in 2015 as it restructures. But it is rumoured to have added 60kW to its engine over the winter, with possibly more to come.
The arrival of Vettel and of Sergio Marchionne as a more hands-on boss, and the effective sacking of yet another team boss and of Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari’s once-talismanic leader, might have shocked the Gestione Sportivo into transformation.
Honda's return to F1 is hugely exciting, but most pundits' scepticism about its ability to challenge Merc in its first season back was reinforced by reliability issues in early testing.
More importantly, as a new engine maker, the FIA has decided that Honda can't develop its engines during the season, as the others now can, and will have to freeze the design of the engine it ran in Melbourne.
All of which must make it doubly galling for Honda to see the car they bequeathed to Brawn - and which was then bought by Mercedes - dominate pre-season testing.
The likelihood is that the Mercedes will drive away with it again this year, though perhaps not by such an imperious margin. Senior team members acknowledge that if the world championship is contested entirely within their garage again, they have an obligation to the fans and the sport to put on a good show, and manage Lewis and Nico better than last year.
"I think that we saw what 'bad' looks like last season," technical director Paddy Lowe told us, "and nobody wants to go there again."
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