Guest contributor Rob Watts mulls over the first race of the 2016 season and what to look out for.

With the season-opening Australian Grand Prix just days away, Formula One fans still have much to discuss in the run-up to Albert Park.

Despite Mercedes winning both titles last year, the 2016 season may not be the foregone conclusion that some are expecting.

Here are five things we’re excited to see in Melbourne…

Ferrari’s pace – have they closed the gap?

Nine years have passed since Ferrari’s last championship, but a strong pre-season has some predicting that 2016 could be Ferrari’s year.

After taking just one pole from away from Mercedes last year, Ferrari must improve their one-lap pace if they are to challenge this year.

We won’t know for sure if they’ve closed the gap until Q3 on Saturday, but all eyes will be on the red cars to see if they’re up for the fight.

Could Vettel be a dark horse for the championship? - Image: Octane Photographic
Could Vettel be a dark horse for the championship? – Image: Octane Photographic

Will F1’s new qualifying rules spice up the show?

F1’s three-part qualifying format has remained in place for ten seasons, but changes have been made this year in an attempt to mix up the grids.

Unlike the previous format, the slowest drivers will now be eliminated at set time periods, part-way through each session.

It remains to be seen what impact the new rules will have, but we can probably expect to see more cars on track, and a smaller margin-for-error for any drivers battling to stay in contention.

Will we finally see Kimi Raikkonen return to form?

After a much-heralded return to Ferrari, the Finn failed to live up to expectations and was soundly beaten by teammates Alonso and Vettel.

Despite his poor form, Raikkonen partners Vettel for a second year, and the 2007 World Champion has shown promising form during testing.

A previous winner at Albert Park, Raikkonen is a good bet for a podium this weekend, and a strong showing will ease the pressure on him.

Image: Octane Photography
Image: Octane Photography

Are McLaren-Honda finally on top of their troubles?

After the unmitigated disaster of last year, McLaren’s fortunes look to be on the up, but pre-season testing suggests the team are still far from having the pace required to match or even threaten Mercedes.

In Alonso and Button, the team have two of the most experienced drivers on the grid, but their patience will eventually run out and many would expect both drivers to leave if results don’t improve.

Whatever happens, there’ll be plenty of focus on Mclaren’s results, and Melbourne will give us an idea of just how much progress they’ve made.

Image: Octane Photography
Image: Octane Photography

Are we set for the tightest midfield battle in years?

A third year of stable regulations means we’ll probably see the midfield close up, which history tells us, usually results in some pretty close on-track battles.

Williams and Red Bull should be regular podium visitors this year, but they’ll face competition from a resurgent Force India, and a Toro Rosso team, who with Ferrari power for 2016, could be ahead of their parent team in the opening races.

Add to the mix, a new-look Renault team, a restructured Manor team with Mercedes power, plus American new boys Haas, and there is much to be excited about further down the field.