Australian Grand Prix: can anyone catch Mercedes?

The setting is idyllic: an inner-suburban lake in a grassy public park encircled by palm trees and set against the Melbourne skyline.

But for one weekend each year the scream of high-performance engines and the screech of rubber on tarmac disrupt the peace as Albert Park hosts the opening round of the Formula One season.

The shadow-boxing of the preseason whets the appetite, but the vagaries of testing — of who used what fuel load with which power setting on which tyres — serve to dilute the competitive picture.

Not so at the Australian Grand Prix, for when the flag drops, the talk stops — or so goes the child-friendly version of the old F1 adage.

And of all the questions posed by Formula One in the northern winter months, one requires an answer above the rest: can anyone catch Mercedes?

The 2018 season beckons to Mercedes as more than a chance to merely extend its reign atop the pinnacle of motorsport; the opportunity to begin rewriting Formula One history is on offer for the Silver Arrows.

A fifth constructors world championship would elevate Mercedes above Red Bull Racing in terms of both consecutive and accumulative titles.

Such a feat would place the team outright second for most consecutive Formula One constructors titles and make it the most successful team since Ferrari’s era of domination ended with a sixth straight championship in 2004 — a record that would come into striking range in 2019.

A fifth drivers world championship for Lewis Hamilton would similarly elevate the Briton above his German rival Sebastian Vettel, marking him out as the dominant driver of the generation.

Except for Michael Schumacher and his seven titles, no driver has equalled Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio’s five world championships, won in 1951 and 1954–57.

It was therefore fitting that the closing rounds of the 2017 season teased the most fitting of scenarios for 2018: a title fight between Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing as each seeks to make or defend a stake in the record books, and a second championship showdown between Hamilton and Vettel for ownership of the sport’s current era.

But again that central question: can anyone catch Mercedes?

Unlike last season, when the team was forced to revise its suspension system after an FIA rules clarification, the German marque has enjoyed a smooth development phase to build on last year’s car’s strengths and iron out its weaknesses.

Ferrari, on the other hand, in adapting its largely successful 2017 package to build on its second-place momentum, appears to have slipped behind Red Bull Racing.

When once Red Bull Racing would have developed its car right up to the start of the season in a bid to find extra performance at the risk of unreliability, this season it pulled out all stops to be ready for day one of testing, the dividends being a more productive preseason.

However, its weakness — the underpowered Renault engine — remains, potentially leaving it hamstrung in the season at least.

These flaws are only small percentages for Ferrari and Red Bull Racing, but Mercedes has consistently defined its era in Formula One by leaving nothing to chance and dominating performance in the margins.

Only flawless concept and perfect execution will do when facing down the mighty Mercedes. The Australian Grand Prix will adjudicate whether F1’s title hopefuls are capable of either.