After thoroughly dominating proceedings in Formula One over the last two years, Mercedes have firmly established themselves as the team to beat, with now triple-championship winner Lewis Hamilton firmly atop the drivers standings two years running, and looking unlikely to relinquish his domination.
But now, Mercedes engine chief Andy Cowell has said the team are ‘assuming (we) will lose to Ferrari in the 2016 season.’
The hugely successful F1 W016 had a staggering 67% win rate in the 2015 season and statistically speaking, is the most successful car in the history of Formula One. Meanwhile, McLaren-Honda, the team that saw Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and several of the best in the sport line up wins and championships, last year saw its worst year in the sport in 35 years.
With both drivers World Champions, the team put in disappointing performance after disappointing performance, largely down to the unreliable engine. 2009 Champion Jenson Button and double world champion Fernando Alonso amassed a staggering 11 retirements between them, with the Briton unable to start the grand prix at Bahrain with engine failure.
Part of the abysmal performance could perhaps have been ascribed to teething problems, with Honda only returning to supply McLaren in 2015. Both drivers expressed their disappointment, but also showed faith in the team’s ability to turn things around in 2016.
Honda motorsport chief Yasuhisa Arai acknowledged serious problems with the power unit, but did not respond to calls later in the year from fans asking him to resign. 2015 saw a return to the V6 engines from the V8, which Honda perhaps was unable to master from the get-go.
But the team have in fact worked on those issues ahead of the new year, say both drivers, and other teams are also wary of their progress.
"Honda have come in quickly and they are learning in front of the public but they're hugely determined and partnered with McLaren who are hugely determined. We know exactly how McLaren work in terms of a data-driven approach, so they are going to make some big, big gains,” Mercedes engine boss Andy Cowell said.
Perhaps the most stark confession could give spectators a revelation into the 2016 season.
Scuderia Ferrari spent most of the 2015 season playing second fiddle to Mercedes, with even boss Maurizio Arrivabene acknowledging that Ferrari “...does not have the power of Mercedes” midway through that season at the Italian Grand Prix.
The team and Arrivabene promised to come back in 2016 to once again, become the team to beat – a dominance they have not enjoyed since the glory days of Michael Schumacher, despite the Iceman, Kimi Raikkonen, having won the championship with the team in 2007.
Four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari said going into the new year that the team had significantly better vehicles in 2016, and Ferrari appear to have bounced back, with the German fastest in tyre testing at France’s Paul Ricard circuit, with the season’s first test to be held on the 22nd of February.
"If we look at what Ferrari has done over the last 12 months, it's remarkable," Cowell said. "Their improvements have been a huge credit to their reshuffle and their enthusiasm.
"Everybody here [in Brixworth] is going 'I wonder how we're going to do [in 2016]?' Nobody here is assuming we are going to win, everybody here is assuming that we're going to get beaten by Ferrari.”
It’s news that will please Arrivabene and tifosi, as fans of the Scuderia are known.
Ferrari have five world championships among them between Vettel and Raikkonen, while Honda have three; the raw talent is certainly not missing, but the instruments, which last year appeared to be lacking, look to be back