Hoping for a non-Mercedes team to rule the roost in 2015? Prepare yourself for disappointment. Hope instead that Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg can deliver as many fireworks in Round 2 as they did in F1's 2014 campaign.
Consensus is never easy to come by in the F1 paddock - more on what's suffocating the sport later - but the grid does agree that Mercedes, last season's dominant force, improved during the winter break. Both over single-lap blasts and longer simulated race runs in pre-season testing, the Silver Arrows put down times beyond their competitors' reach.
As if to rub salt in this wound, the new W06 also pounded out more laps than any other cars - suggesting reliability's no major cause for concern either for Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg's chariot.
"I am sure we will nail it completely in Melbourne," Rosberg said at the end of testing, after weeks with the Brackley-based team keeping coy on its label as favorites. "It has been a great winter for us."
So the 2015 season, at least in its early stages, is liable to be rather reminiscent of 2014's - two top drivers in one identical car slugging it out at the front. For Rosberg, revenge and a maiden F1 title - following in father Keke's 1982 footsteps - is the prize on offer; Hamilton is seeking a third F1 crown, a feat managed by just one British racer before him, Scotsman Jackie Stewart.
"I feel fresh, I feel fit, I feel relaxed, I feel positive," Hamilton said in Melbourne. "I think as a driver you get stronger with every season, so I plan to be better than last year."
Dry those eyes, Nico, the slate is clean
Rosberg's 2014 season ended, quite literally, in tears. An engine component failure robbed him of any chance in the season showdown against Hamilton in Abu Dhabi, and in the closing laps, the outcome no longer even in theoretical doubt, his team radioed in to suggest Rosberg retire the car.
"No, I'd like to finish," was Rosberg's reply from the cockpit, and the Monaco-raised racer brought his stricken W05 home with tears under his visor. This small, arguably even meaningless, show of defiance and resilience still spoke volumes for the 29-year-old's attitude and commitment. It was doubly important after Hamilton had dominated the back-end of the 2014 campaign - winning six of the last seven races - prompting some to ask whether the Brit had "broken" his title challenger. Rosberg, renowned for being industrious and intelligent in equal measure among his peers, will require his acerbic work ethic to have any chance in 2015.
"I want to become an even better driver again this year. That's my aim, my personal challenge, and it's a great challenge to push and try to get better and better all of the time," Rosberg said pre-season. "It started from the first moment after the race in Abu Dhabi last year. That's why I did the test right after that race - to try to learn some things, and I did."
The Tifosi's new charge
Behind Mercedes, the running order is less clear. With engine development permitted mid-season, within limits, teams could make major steps in the course of the season.
Red Bull Renault, 2014's only other winner, can never be discounted, if only because of the team's resources and the young talent of Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat behind the wheel. Williams, third-best team last season and the best of the customer cars running a Mercedes motor, again looked solid and highly reliable in pre-season.
Yet Ferrari seems resurgent too after its calamitous, winless 2014 season, in which the team ditched its top driver, engine boss, team boss, company president, and more key personnel besides.
Vettel's number 5 Ferrari turned some heads in pre-season, he and Räikkönen will hope for at least one win in 2015
Ricciardo was among the first to comment on his old teammate Sebastian Vettel's surprising new car.
"We are keeping an eye on the opposition, especially Ferrari has been an eye-opener," the Australian said when asked who he expected to battle for podium places with him behind the Silver Arrows.
Ferrari's team principal Maurizio Arrivabene even joked that Vettel's new teammate, notoriously understated Finn Kimi Räikkönen, must be "sick" considering how much he was smiling. Perhaps the two new teammates, Swiss neighbors who play badminton and sometimes socialize away from the track, are gelling, too.
The Scuderia's stated goal is to return to winning ways in two races in 2015 - a target that Arrivabene says is still realistic.
Room for improvement at McLaren Honda
Remember the 2014 pre-season? Cars spent entire testing days stricken in the garages, barely able to complete a lap or two before overheating or otherwise giving up the ghost. Analysts forecast disaster. These teething troubles - to put it mildly - with F1's new, heavily hybridized engines at one point looked set to ruin the season, before the teams started getting a handle on the new technology in the course of the campaign.
This square-one position is where McLaren Honda again finds itself 12 months on. Honda's return to the sport gives the team stability and a historically successful partner for the future, also breaking McLaren's longstanding ties to Mercedes (once involving Stuttgart holding a stake in the Woking team). But for now, it puts former world champions Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso firmly on the back foot. Two-time champ Alonsois not even competing in Melbourne
, he's sitting out as a precaution after suffering a concussion in a crash in testing.
Yet despite the Honda engines in McLaren covering less than one-tenth of the distance completed by the fleet of Mercedes motors during testing, the handful of laps completed reportedly showed potential. How high McLaren Honda can rise during the season is a completely open question, but betting on them improving with time seems one of the surest wagers on offer.
Bankrupt at the back, bickering off-track
Whatever goes on when the lights go out on 20 (perhaps 19) Sundays in 2015, F1's most important task for the season ahead is arguably efforts to ensure the sport's fiscal sustainability. Three of the 10 teams only made it to the grid thanks to receiving their 2014 prize money from F1 in advance - that's right, the race in Melbourne is being brought to you by the sport's equivalent of payday loans.
Caterham have not made it back to Melbourne - four other teams begged, borrowed and all-but stole their tickets
Backmarkers Caterham did not make the grid following its 2014 insolvency. Marussia - now again known as Manor GP after its 2014 bust - just scraped into the competition thanks to special dispensation from its competitors, basically using a 2014 car and engine plus a couple of mandatory modifications. In theory, this is not permitted.
Force India only produced its 2015 car at the last moment in testing, but remarkably, it seemed to work rather well "out of the box," meaning the team appears in decent shape for the coming season. Swiss privateers Saubergot embroiled in arguments with multiple drivers
over who was "promised" a 2015 seat, showing how hard the team was working to find "pay-drivers" able to bring sponsorship dollars to its Hinwil factory.
Small teams are arguing that the spread of prize money makes it impossible for them to survive in the sport, calling for the division to be changed. This requires unanimous consent from all the teams, and the "no" votes from major players are as predictable as they are problematic for an already shrinking 20-car grid.
To the same token, not all trackscan afford to pay their bills to Bernie Ecclestone's empire
. The scheduled 20 races may yet become 19. The German Grand Prix will not take place at the Nürburgring this July,as it was supposed to
. This means it's up to Hockenheim to either step in and take another loss on the event, or to leave German fans looking for F1 tickets in Austria or Belgium, or indeed seeking cheaper admission for a rival race series.