Finally... it's race week!
After weeks of discussion, sandbagging, testing and hearsay, the 2017 Formula One season finally gets underway in Melbourne this weekend. To add a further injection of excitement, it's anyone's guess as to who will come to Australia in the best shape.
The natural assumption is that Mercedes must surely be favourites to dominate yet another Formula One season, right? Well, it's not that simple. Mercedes certainly looked strong during testing, clocking up more laps than they cared to count, but this isn't a cut and dry case.
Mercedes are heading into the season without last year's World Champion, Nico Rosberg. The German has been with the team since their reintroduction in 2010 and has been a calming, classy influence as the Mercedes gave risen from midfielders to World Champions during the past six years. In his place comes Finn Valteri Bottas from Williams. Bottas is a strong driver and certainly more than capable of driving for a title chaser. However, racing in Lewis Hamilton's shadow isn't an easy job, nor is joining a team at the dawn of new regulations. Bottas will need a few races to get up to speed in his Silver Arrow, and in the meantime there will be four rivals in the shape of two Red Bulls and a pair of Ferraris that will be looking to take advantage.
This brings us nicely on to the Scuderia. The hype around Ferrari was minimal at the beginning of testing, the assumption being that the Italians, famed for being all bark and little bite in recent years, would bring another lame car to the grid. Instead, quite the opposite has appeared to have happened. Whisper it, but Ferrari look a contender this season. They seemed to have nailed the new regulations, and in Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikonnen, they have two drivers with huge points to prove; the former that he is still capable of racing with the big boys, and the former that his four-wins in a Red Bull did not come because of the car as opposed to his ability.
If anyone is going to challenge Mercedes this season, its Ferrari. I fully expect them to arrive in Melbourne with the bit between their teeth and snatch a pole and a win in the opening race. You've heard it here first. Quite how long the hype train will last is anyone's guest. Most likely by the time we reach Europe in May, people will be asking: "Remember when we thought Ferrari were going to challenge this year?"
Lastly, let's spare a thought for lowly McLaren. What a torrid few years its been for the racing giants. At this point, we're beginning to wonder whether they should be put out of their misery. The collaboration with Honda was supposed to signal in a new era, back to the heady heights of the nineties when McLaren were the dominant force that Mercedes are today. Three years into the ten year deal, McLaren look in as bad a state as ever.
They limped through pre-season testing after it was discovered on day one that their Honda engine was crocked. Quite how badly conceived it is is anybody's guess; it could be a problem fixed in time for qualifying this Saturday, or, as seems much more likely, this is an issue that'll take half a year to fix. We can't help but think that, even before the red lights go out on the 2017 season, McLaren have wasted yet another year.