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Why Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari Will Be the Only Real Threat to Mercedes in 2016

Neil James@NeilosJamesFeatured ColumnistDecember 17, 2015

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 25:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP is congratulated by Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari after winning the United States Formula One Grand Prix and the championship at Circuit of The Americas on October 25, 2015 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Sebastian Vettel's victory at the 2015 Malaysian Grand Prix was one of the most significant moments in recent Formula One history. That it was the German on top of the podium meant very little, and a 222nd win for the Ferrari team would usually have passed by with little ceremony.

They might have baked a cake had it been their 200th, but 222 doesn't mean much to anyone.

But this win mattered a great deal because it marked the first time Mercedes had been beaten in a straight, clean fight since the start of the V6 turbo era. They didn't break down, they didn't crash and wet weather did not intervene.

The high track temperature played a big part, but Mercedes were simply not good enough to winand it was the first time in 21 races that had happened.

Any hopes Ferrari fansor neutralsmight have had of a two-team battle for the title were blown away as the season progressed. But Vettel won another two races and finished the year just 44 points behind Nico Rosberg in the drivers' championship.

Lewis Hamilton was a further 59 points distant, so in reality, it wasn't much of a challenge. But it was a starting point. With a strong engine and room to improve on the chassis side, Ferrari should again be close to Mercedes when the 2016 season kicks off.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely any of the other teams will be joining them.

John Locher/Associated Press

In recent years, a challenge from Red Bull could be considered a given. But since the arrival of the V6 turbo hybrid engines at the start of 2014, the Austrian team have struggled.

Their two cars in this periodthe RB10 and RB11were, for the most part, very good. Aerodynamics-wise, they were closer to Mercedes than any other chassis in the field, and their wet-weather performance suggests they may occasionally have been better.

When they got some clear air during 2014's Japanese Grand Prix, the two Red Bulls were quicker than the Mercedes; only the time they spent working their way through traffic stopped them challenging for the win.

And just a few months ago, Daniel Ricciardo was the class of the field when the Circuit of the Americas was wet at the start of the United States Grand Prix. Daniil Kvyat was also very quickwithout the early virtual safety car, he probably would have taken the lead.

As the 2015 season wore on, the team lost faith in Renault and tried everything they could to switch to another supplier for 2016, but they were knocked back by Mercedes and Ferrari.

Such was Red Bull's desperation to avoid having to use the 2016 Renault, they even looked in Honda's directionbut any possible link-up was vetoed by McLaren.

Autosport @autosport

McLaren's Ron Dennis blocks a Red Bull-Honda deal in #F1, according to Bernie Ecclestone https://t.co/oIL1xHUi53 https://t.co/PrW1adimZX

So they're stuck with the French manufacturer for at least one more year. The 2016 unit will be rebadged as a Tag Heuer, but it doesn't matter what is written on the sideit's still a Renault. And Renault have repeatedly failed to get on top of their problems.

The one ray of hope is that Ilmorheaded by Mario Illien, who played a key role in developing the Mercedes V10 engines that powered McLaren in the 1990s and early 2000swill be lending its considerable expertise to finding improvements.

The primary issue with the Renault is the internal combustion engine itselfthe core of the overall power unit. In October, BBC Sport's Andrew Benson wrote that it was around 50-70 horsepower down on the Mercedes. Ilmor are specialists in this area.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 13:  Daniel Ricciardo of Infiniti Red Bull Racing prepares for a run during the Perth Speed Fest at Perth Motorplex on December 13, 2015 in Perth, Australia.  (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Paul Kane/Getty Images

But Renault have become specialists at getting upgrades wrongand even if they are able to bridge the power gap, they won't be able to do it immediately. Even the usually optimistic Ricciardo thinks 2016 could be too early.

Speaking to press at the Perth Speed Fest event (h/t Daily Mail's Dan Ripley) earlier in December, he was asked how far ahead Mercedes currently were.

His response was honest and somewhat pessimistic: "Too far. I honestly think they increased the gap this year. Ferrari caught up a little bit, but I think in general when they [Mercedes] wanted to turn it on they could. They're definitely still going to be the team to beat next year, and they will be hard to beat."

On his own targets and expectations, he was modest: "'The target for 2016 is to get more podiums, and to get a win at least. I missed that win this year, so to at least get one next year would be a good start."

Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko agrees. In early December he told Speedweek (h/t ESPN) that Renault's theories for future development looked good if they could be turned into reality, but he added: "The question is how quickly it will be possible."

Unless something truly remarkable happens at Viry-Chatillion, 2016 will be another year of recovery for Red Bull. They might win a grand prix or become competitive later on, but they won't be a match for Mercedes over the full 21-race season.

At best, they will be where Ferrari were in 2015close, but not close enough.

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 06:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives ahead of Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda during the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 6, 2015 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

With Red Bull on shaky ground, we might turn to a certain well-funded, Woking-based team to produce a challenge. But McLaren's difficulties run even deeper than Red Bull'sand again, the problems lie mostly on the power unit side.

The gutless, fragile Honda power unit left Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button trundling around at the rear of the field for almost the entire season. Early in the year they could only really compete with the midfield at circuits with a low power requirement, such as Monacoon average tracks, they were slower than everyone bar the two Manors.

Green shoots of recovery began to emerge throughout the season, especially at the final few races, but analysis by the official F1 website suggests they ended the year where they started itas the ninth-fastest team.

Honda's internal combustion engine isn't terribleper Andrew Benson, it's only around 30 horsepower down on the Mercedes. For a first-year effort, that's not bad. The primary problem lies in the power unit's hybrid systems.

Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and their least-favourite engine.
Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and their least-favourite engine.YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/Getty Images

Motorsport magazine's Mark Hughes reveals the turbo compressor in the Honda engine is smaller than those of the other manufacturers. Were it run at the same speed as a larger compressor, a smaller one would produce less energyand would therefore give the drivers less hybrid power to deploy.

Hughes says the Japanese company planned to make its compressor and turbo spin quicker than the others to make up for the size deficit. Unfortunately, they were unable to make this happen in 2015 and the power unit could not harvest sufficient energy to meet the drivers' needs.

MONZA, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 05:  Felipe Massa of Brazil and Williams drives ahead of Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Italy at Autodromo di Monza on September 5, 2015 in Monza, Italy.  (Photo by B
Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Whenever they encountered a long straight, the McLaren drivers ran out of juice long before the end. In qualifying for the final race of the year in Abu Dhabi, the MP4-30s were the slowest cars through the speed trap by some margingiving up around 10 kilometres per hour to the Manors and almost 30 kilometres per hour to the Mercedes-powered Williams.

It's not beyond the realms of possibility that Honda could fix this issue over the winter. Red Bull must have thought it was possible, or they wouldn't have tried to acquire a supply of Honda enginessomething Alan Henry's blog on the McLaren website points out.

But Jenson Button is not convinced. Speaking to Sky Sports' James Galloway in late October, he indicated that 2017 was the earliest we might see a true McLaren revival:

Podiums have to be the aim next year, I think we will be disappointed if we are not fighting for podiums now and again through the season.

Hopefully next year will be a year when people can challenge Mercedes and that is what Lewis [Hamilton] wants as well. It is nice winning an intra-team battle and winning the World Championship, but having another team to fight against is what everyone wants to see and I think Lewis does as well.

I'm not sure that team will be us, we will do our best and we will see what we have at the first race, but in 2017 hopefully that will be us fighting at the front with two or three different teams.

The bookies seem to agree that McLaren are unlikely to be contenders. Oddschecker shows Alonso at a massive 66-1 for the 2016 world title; similar odds are being offered on an independent candidate becoming the next president of the United States. Button is available at 150-1.

McLaren might turn up toward the end of the year, and we can't rule them out for a handful of podiums. But as well as bridging the power-unit gap, they have significant work to do on their chassis as well. Assuming Mercedes will also improve, they need to find around two-and-a-half seconds over an average lap to even think about competing at the front.

Realistically, they're not going to do that in a single winter.

Rob Griffith/Associated Press

Williams would love to be a part of the title hunt in 2016, but under stable regulations, it's very, very hard to see an independent team with a limited budget making a massive step forward.

They'll have the same engine as Mercedes but nowhere near the same resources to develop and perfect their car. Williams were third in the 2015 championship, but the FW37 was an average chassis (though good for their budget) flattered by a brilliant power unithanging onto third is the best they can hope for.

Renault last won as a full works team in 2008.
Renault last won as a full works team in 2008.Rob Griffith/Associated Press

Renault will also be hoping to make strides over the winter having acquired the Lotus team. But in 2016 they'll have the same power-unit troubles as Red Bulland a whole host of other problems to solve.

Their Enstone base will require investment, while new staff will need to be hired to bring the operation up to full works-team status.

And in Pastor Maldonado and Jolyon Palmer, Renault will have one of the weakest driver lineups on the grid. They can't be relied upon to drag the car forward in the way an established winner like Hamilton, Vettel or Ricciardo could.

Force India are in the same boat as Williamsgreat engine, insufficient budgetwhile Haas, Sauber, Toro Rosso and Manor will be midfield at best.

Realistically, Ferrari will be the only team with the power unit and budget to really take the fight to Mercedes. And only one of their drivers looks truly capable of pushing Hamilton and Rosberg all the way.

The sun sets behind Kimi Raikkonen.
The sun sets behind Kimi Raikkonen.Frank Augstein/Associated Press

Kimi Raikkonen's arrival in F1, all the way back in 2001, was comparable to the emergence of Michael Schumacher, Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel. As was the case with those three, it took only a few races to mark out the Finn as a future world champion.

To an extent, he delivered on his potential when he won the 2007 world championship. But despite being one of the most naturally gifted drivers of his generation, Raikkonen is no longer the force he once was.

On his return to Ferrari in 2014, he was utterly demolished by team-mate Alonso, scoring just 34 percent of the Spaniard's season total of 161 points. Vettel arrived for 2015 and took over where Alonso left off, pushing Raikkonen firmly into the role of a No. 2 driver.

Speaking at a recent press conference, Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne said he expects Raikkonen "will rise up to the challenge and have a phenomenal season in 2016."

But bosses tend to talk up their own products. On the evidence of the past two seasons, there's absolutely no reason to even begin to suspect Raikkonen will suddenly be on Vettel's level.

Unless Mercedes drop the ball and the W07 is a horrible car, the best we can hope for is a three-horse race for the 2016 drivers' championship.

Or maybe a two-horse race, as we've had the past two yearsbut with one of the nags wearing red.

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