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Mercedes expected to dominate as new F1 season begins

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — On the eve of perhaps the most telling two days in the Formula One season, several drivers bravely talked up their chances of challenging Mercedes, while fearing that Friday’s practice session at the Australian Grand Prix and Saturday’s qualifying were likely to show the silver cars remain in a class of their own.

Analysis of preseason lap times suggested Mercedes was around a second a lap faster than its nearest rivals — a giant margin by F1 standards — and driver Nico Rosberg did not bother trying to play down his team’s advantage when asked Thursday about the preparations for the new season.

“I am confident of the job we have done, we believe in ourselves, we are the best in Formula One as a team and we are the ones to beat,” Rosberg said. “Some have been making some huge steps and we look forward to seeing where we are on Saturday, but certainly we are optimistic.”

Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo was the only driver to take race victories off Mercedes last year — winning three times — and he feels the team is better placed this season to challenge.

“The team definitely wants to get back on top,” Ricciardo said. “It was an off year from their standards last year and I don’t think we’re too keen to let Mercedes get any further away.

“It does look like the Mercs have a bit of pace again this year but for that last spot on the podium it looks pretty close between us, Ferrari and Williams and I’m sure there’ll be a few other players coming into the mix.”

Australian-born Ricciardo, who was stripped of his podium finish in his home race last year due to a technical infringement, is now the lead driver at Red Bull after four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel switched to Ferrari.

Vettel has a new team and a lucrative new contract, but– at least in the short term — it shapes as another season of fighting for second best.

“We’ve made a step. We’re yet to find out how big the step is,” Vettel said. “We’ve seen last year that there are chances to win races, not just for Mercedes. So if you put yourself in a very strong position, probably at the beginning of the season right behind, then if something happens, you’re there.”

Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams seem to be the best of the rest heading into the season ahead, with McLaren struggling in preseason testing as engine supplier Honda — returning to F1 after six years away — suffered predictable teething problems.

Fernando Alonso, back at McLaren where he had one unhappy year in 2007, will sit out the season-opening race due to the lingering effects of a concussion suffered in preseason testing. His place will temporarily be taken by Kevin Magnussen, who finished on the podium on debut in Melbourne last year, but had since been relegated back to being the team’s reserve driver due to Alonso’s arrival.

At least McLaren can be confident of being on the starting grid on Sunday, which is more than can be said for two other teams: Sauber and Manor.

Sauber on Thursday failed in its appeal against a court judgment which ruled that the team was contractually obliged to use driver Giedo van der Garde for this race weekend, despite having pulled out of an earlier agreement with the Dutchman and having appointed drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr instead.

There was no immediate comment from the team on how they would proceed in the wake of the court ruling, with some speculation the team may pull out of the race due to the contractual chaos. With Sauber struggling financially and coming off a dire 2014 season, Thursday’s appeal verdict was a major setback.

Manor arrived in Melbourne due to an 11th hour takeover by a new ownership group for the former Marussia team which failed to complete the 2014 season and went into financial receivership in the offseason. The team intends to use an iteration of its very uncompetitive 2014 car, and faces an uphill task to get within seven percent of the pole position time in Saturday’s qualifying; the threshold for being eligible to race on Sunday.

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