Is Vettel primed to catch Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in 2016?

Formula Spy motorsport journalist Thomas Maher gets you set for the new F1 season in detail

Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel

Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

Eight full days, one engine, over 6,000 kilometres, and only minor technical problems.

That's the current CV of the new Mercedes W07 F1 car after the two weeks of pre-season testing in Spain, and it's already a very impressive one. The car that Lewis Hamilton heads into his 2016 title defence with proved extremely resilient and reliable during testing. So great was their mileage, the team opted to split their driving up between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg every day to ensure the men didn't get too worn down.

Reliability and pace have been words synonymous with Mercedes over the last two seasons. Testing shows that reliability remains a strong point, but is the pace? Merc never showed their hand over testing, opting against running the two softest tyre compounds, the Pirelli UltraSoft and Supersoft. While Hamilton and Rosberg never put in the fastest times during the two weeks, the pace that they showed on the Soft tyre suggests that pace will not be a weakness either.

The main question raised over winter has to be: "How close have Ferrari gotten"? Unlike Mercedes, the Scuderia were far more gung-ho in their approach to testing. Both Vettel and Raikkonen set fastest times on the UltraSoft tyre and the new SF16-H appears to be a car that has even made the taciturn Raikkonen smile. Reliability wasn't quite in the same league as Mercedes, with the Finnish driver kept in the garage on several occasions while problems were rectified. Bolshy talk from Ferrari, as well as doom-mongering from Mercedes suggests the Italian team have closed the gap. Merc's Niki Lauda believes the time deficit is now around 0.2 seconds a lap, down from the 0.5-0.6 of 2015. That's a gap small enough for driving abilities and form to come into play...

Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen of Finland talks to reporters in the F1 paddock ahead of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, March 17, 2016.(AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Assuming the main top dogs remain Mercedes and Ferrari, you'd have to presume it'll be Hamilton and Vettel leading the way again. Nico Rosberg, despite his great end to 2015, has yet to show that he can beat or overtake his champion teammate when racing for a bigger prize than pride. If he can maintain the form he found towards the end of last year, he could be a potent threat. Kimi Raikkonen, a man with a more than illustrious past career, hasn't shown much spark since 2013 and has been comprehensively beaten by teammates Fernando Alonso and Vettel over the last two seasons. With his career firmly in the twinkling twilight stages, it's possible the Finn could dig deep and find his former fire. If he can, then a four way battle could yet occur.

Raikkonen, along with fellow F1 stalwarts Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, has to adjust to yet another qualifying format change this year. Initially mooted just last month, the last minute changes have been ratified and will be introduced from the first round, but have not proven particularly popular with the drivers or the fans just yet. Qualifying retains its three stage elimination format, with an added twist. Each session, at the halfway point, will introduce continuous knock-outs where the slowest driver at each 90 second interval will be eliminated.

McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso of Spain, left, and Jenson Button of Britain, right, shake hands as team members celebrate Alonso's 250th Grand Prix, at the 'Sochi Autodrom' Formula One circuit in Sochi, Russia, on Friday, Oct. 9, 2015. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

In Q3, this will result in the two fastest drivers going head to head in the final minute and a half. This format will place greater emphasis on getting the timing of your lap perfectly, as well as punishing even small mistakes.
Further complicating the rulebook this year are changes to the way tyres are chosen. Pirelli will designate three compounds for each Grand Prix. Each driver gets thirteen sets, with Pirelli choosing three sets from their designated compound. The remaining ten sets can be chosen by the driver or team.

There are some new names and faces to get used to at the start of this year too. Renault are back, having taken over the former Lotus team. A bright yellow livery will please those reminiscing about the days of Jordan, while the full factory backed effort have ditched the error-prone Pastor Maldonado and have signed Jolyon Palmer and former McLaren man Kevin Magnussen. America also enters the fray this year, with the new Haas squad making their debut. The US team is run by Guenther Steiner, under the ownership of NASCAR team boss Gene Haas. Lotus refugee Romain Grosjean leads the team, while former Sauber driver Esteban Gutierrez completes their line-up. Both teams showed pretty well in testing, although did cause session stoppages on several occasions due to technical breakdowns.

Renault driver Kevin Magnussen of Denmark poses for a picture during the driver's annual portrait photo shoot ahead of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park in Melbourne, Australia, Thursday, March 17, 2016. The season's opening race will be held here on Sunday March 20. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

The midfield battle looks set to be very intense this year. Williams and Force India both put in solid tests, as did Red Bull. The RBR team's chassis is likely as strong as ever, but the TAG-Heuer badged Renault engine in the back is expected to be their continued Achilles' heel in 2016. Renault's rather sizeable performance deficit to Mercedes and Ferrari, disappointingly, could deprive us of the sight of an exuberant Daniel Ricciardo victory yet again this year. McLaren look to have overcome a lot of their issues from last year, particularly with energy deployment, but continued reliability issues, mixed with Fernando Alonso's body language after testing, suggests that the MP4/31 would do well to score points and podiums this year, as opposed to victories.

So, who would I put bets on for the year? My money's on Sebastian Vettel. Barring an unlikely turnaround in form from Raikkonen, he will lead a stronger Scuderia in 2016. Lewis Hamilton, while clearly superior to Nico Rosberg over the last two years, has rarely put enough clear air between them for there not to be some on track incidents. Like in 2015, Vettel will be there to pounce when the Merc drivers stumble, and will also beat them on merit on more than one occasion. With a more competitive car than last year under him, don't look past Vettel to end Mercedes' domination this season.

Thomas Maher is the co-founder of Irish motorsport website Formula Spy.com.