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The build-up to a new Formula One season is never short of suspense and suspicion. Like a cash-strapped Chancellor on Budget Day, rival teams are reluctant to give too much away before the real racing begins while John le Carré could easily mine enough material for a couple of bestsellers from the intrigue and misinformation that dominates final testing.
That took place at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya earlier this month and after countless laps, tyre changes and replacement gear boxes, the headline news was Ferrari were faster than Mercedes. Not by much but when you’re trying to topple the three-time winners and holders of the Constructors’ Championship, the need for speed is paramount.
That, at least, is what the stop watches told us. Ferrari had narrowly outpaced their German rivals in Spain – the teams’ fastest lap 0.8 seconds quicker than Mercedes – and suggestions of an end to their agonising nine-year title drought were whispered hopefully. The Tifosi were in raptures and even Lewis Hamilton went out of his way to wax lyrical about the Ferrari improvements.
But hold your horse power for a moment. Were Mercedes really firing on all cylinders? Or were the champions rather hiding their light under a bushel, running with a heavy fuel load and the cars not set up for optimal performance, and essentially trying to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes? There were more than a few in the paddock who suspected just that.
The phoney war will of course end this weekend with the season opening Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne and what we can be certain are Mercedes and their new pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas remain the clear favourites to make it four titles on the bounce.
Hamilton is evens to make it a hat-trick of F1 victories Down Under following his chequered flags in 2008 and 2015 while Bottas is 15/4 to set the pace in Melbourne and win the very first Grand Prix of his career.
The Ferrari duo of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen are 7/2 and 6/1 respectively. Vettel’s only win in Australia came with Red Bull six years ago while Räikkönen is a double winner at Albert Park, most recently in 2013 with Lotus.
A Hamilton-Bottas one-two is 13/4 while it’s 16/1 on Vettel and Räikkönen proving Ferrari’s pace in testing wasn’t a mirage and coming home first and second.
The only two other drivers deemed credible winners are unsurprisingly the Red Bull pair of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen. The Belgian is the shorter priced of the two at 8/1 but the Melbourne crowd would dearly love to see their hero Ricciardo do the business and become the first Aussie to win the race since Alan Jones back in 1980. His best finish on home soil was fourth 12 months ago and he’s 9/1 to win this weekend.
Putting your money on a podium finish on anyone not sitting in a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull is probably the smart move and the shortest priced driver to gatecrash the party and make the top three is McLaren’s Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard has already predicted a “difficult” weekend after a catalogue of problems with the Honda engine in testing but the veteran has made the podium 97 times in his long career and is 40/1 to add to his tally. Renault’s Nicolas Hülkenberg is 60/1 to make the top three while his team-mate, Englishman Jolyon Palmer, is 250/1 to register what would be the best result of his fledging career.
The constructors’ betting springs no surprises with Mercedes favourites to have one of their two cars take the chequered flag at 4/9. Ferrari are 2/1 and Red Bull 5/1.
The best of the rest are Williams, who were the fourth fastest team in testing in Barcleona, at 50/1. McLaren’s last sip of champagne in Melbourne came in 2012 when Jenson Button was the quickest at Albert Park but they’re 150/1 to pick up what would the team’s record-extending 13th triumph Down Under. Force India are rated 250/1 to break their F1 duck while the rank outsiders are poor old Sauber, a 1000/1 shot to pull off what seems mission impossible.