Fat takkies and more downforce will make the cars more exciting to watch - but McLaren may be asking Mercedes for engines to replace its uncompetitive Honda units. File photo: Alan Baldwin / Reuters.

Melbourne, Australia - The new Formula One season will begin with the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park on Sunday.

With a multitude of changes to the cars and new commercial rights owners set to shake up the sport, it promises to be one of the most unpredictable seasons of recent times.  

Here are five talking points ahead of the new campaign:

An 'aspirin' for ailing racing

Wider cars, more downforce and fatter and faster tyres should mean lap times in 2017 are around five seconds quicker than last year.

"From a driver's point of view it's better everywhere," said four-times champion Sebastian Vettel. "Braking is better, cornering is better, you've got more grip. It works pretty much like an aspirin, it fixes pretty much everything."

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff is also excited about the new cars.

"Having spoken to the drivers, these machines are violent – just like Formula One cars should be," he said.

Bernie's spectre hangs over Liberty

New owner Liberty Media will want to stamp its presence on a sport ruled for so long by Bernie Ecclestone, but may find his legacy hard to shake. Live streaming and greater social media interaction will be high on Liberty's agenda, but could run into opposition from broadcasters signed up to exclusive rights deals by Ecclestone.

Addressing the huge disparity in prize money which led to the demise of the Manor team may also have to wait also until current contracts expire in 2020. The wisest move may be to take stock and formulate a long-term strategy, avoiding the knee-jerk changes seen during Ecclestone's stewardship such as the one-off double points finale in Abu Dhabi, and last year's "elimination" qualifying farce, scrapped after just two Grands Prix.

Competition for Mercedes at last?

The era of Mercedes domination may be coming to an end if pre-season testing in Barcelona is any indication. Lewis Hamilton went on record to say that Ferrari was the favourite after Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel set the two fastest lap times. But Vettel said the Italian team still had plenty of work to do, with Mercedes remaining ahead of the rest.

There was a suspicion that Ferrari were even holding something back, but Red Bull principal Christian Horner told Formula1.com: "Mercedes is the clear, clear favourite. They have won 50 races in the last three years, we've won five and Ferrari three. Do I have to say more?"

Bottas has big boots to fill

Valtteri Bottas has put in the hard yards as he prepares for his Mercedes debut on Sunday. Gruelling, six-days-a-week winter training sessions have included sub-zero, cross-country skiing treks followed by icy lake dips in his native Finland to improve endurance.

Bottas has never finished below a team-mate in the Formula One standings, but if he is to keep up that record it will not only mean beating his often tetchy new team-mate Lewis Hamilton, but also probably winning a maiden drivers' championship – as did the man he has replaced, Nico Rosberg, last year.

McLaren to ditch Honda, keep Alonso?

The risk of losing two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, whose contract expires this year, has reportedly prompted McLaren to make an exploratory approach to Mercedes to supply engines after pre-season testing dogged by an unreliable and uncompetitive Honda power unit.

"We need to be competitive to keep him happy," warned McLaren racing director Eric Boullier. "If we're competitive he'll be happy and if not he'll make his own decisions."

Asked by Spain's AS newspaper if he believed McLaren would be a winner with Mercedes power, Boullier said: "I think we would."

Was he talking about as early as 2017? Boullier was categorical. "Yes, we'd be winning again," he declared.

Agence France-Presse

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