The Australian Grand Prix kicks off the 2017 Formula 1 World Championship season this weekend and it's all we can talk about... join our roundtable discussion as we debate this year's big flashpoints.

Is this Lewis Hamilton's title to lose?

Ollie Barstow:
Essentially yes, this is Hamilton's title to lose - but this could be both his strength and his weakness. Hamilton's biggest enemy can occasionally be himself and with an entirely new team-mate to understand, it could be a distraction enough for Ferrari and Red Bull to capitalise on. Then again, Hamilton will take confidence from his superior end to the 2016 season, which demonstrated a level of focus and calm that produced some of his most convincing performances. More of this and it won't be a question of whether Valtteri can match him, it's that no driver can.

Haydn Cobb:
I think if this was a poker game, Hamilton holds all the aces. With the exception of the unknown quantity that is Bottas and with maybe what Ferrari can produce, everything else is in his favour. He literally just has to be in his own mind clear, win races like he did in the back-end of last year, assuming there are no reliability issues. Plain sailing.

Luke Smith:
I disagree, this isn't Lewis Hamilton's title to lose because I think Ferrari is going to pose its biggest threat and most serious title challenge in a decade this year. Pre-season from Ferrari revealed some eye-catching pace and strong reliability, so we could look at Sebastian Vettel and perhaps even Kimi Raikkonen as being real championship contenders this year. As for Bottas, I don't believe at the start of the season anyway is going to be able to be up there with him playing rear gunner. So no, I don't think it's Hamilton's title to lose. I think we're going to have a far more open title race this year.

Is Valtteri Bottas really up to taking the challenge to Hamilton?

OB:
Absolutely... Not consistently over an entire season maybe, but I think we're going to see Bottas occasionally having the upper hand. Remember when Nico Rosberg called upon the Finnish trait of 'sisu'? Well to me Valtteri is sisu. You don't see many mistakes from Valtteri at all and I think it's going to be very difficult for Hamilton to force them out of him or get into his head. Bottas will win races this season, but whether he can maintain it over an entire season, I don't know. Regardless, I think he'll do enough to prove he deserves that Mercedes drive and extend that contract.

HC:
I agree with that. With Valtteri, it's Rosberg MkII. Obviously the negative that Bottas has is that he's never been in this situation before. First year in, has he got the mettle? It's a big ask. I know he's had time with Williams but a couple of podiums here and there where he's just been there because of the pace and consistency of the Williams. It's not like he's scrapped it on too many occasions. So I think he'll win races if Mercedes is as strong as ever, and if Hamilton is not on form.

LS:
I agree that Bottas' biggest strength against Hamilton is his unflappable nature. He seems very immune to any outside threats. He's always been nonplussed through struggles but I personally think he's going to struggle to take it to Hamilton across the course of the season. I think he will be ahead on occasion. I think he may maybe win on a level playing field but not frequently enough. Again he's got the Ferraris to contend with as well. So we'll see. But I think it's going to be a work in progress.


Is this now or never for Ferrari after a decade without F1 world titles?
HC:
This is their chance. They need to win this year, otherwise it will look like another failed era which will keep on going on and on until we have another big regulation change. Pre-season testing this year was impressive, in terms of pace, reliability and consistency and the Vettel-Raikkonen relationship can't get any better for the most all-round and experienced package. Going on the back end of last year, it would not surprise me if because their pace was trailing off they thought 'scrap this' and turned attention to 2017. That's what Ferrari is about: titles. If they can put it together in Melbourne, it would not surprise me if you saw Ferrari at the top of the podium come Sunday.

LS:
This is a huge year for Ferrari. Through the V6 turbo era 'part one' since 2014 it's been Mercedes on top. This does represent a big opportunity. This year's car looks good, the regulations are good for Ferrari and they have two very talented drivers. This is the big test for the Marchionne-Arrivabene regime as they were brought in to fix the issues that blighted them in the past but they're yet to achieve a huge amount. If they don't this year, will Kimi want to keep racing in F1? Probably the bigger problem will be if Vettel still wants to race for Ferrari? Fernando Alonso said his biggest regret was not leaving Ferrari earlier after all...

OB:
They may deny it but drivers know when they have a quick car. Talking to Sebastian, he had a wry smile throughout all of testing. They had their moments last year but didn't maximise them, whether it's through strategic errors or just bad decision making. They look like the most focused team on the grid right. There is obviously a lot riding on this season but Ferrari genuinely looks as though it is pulling together, even if - personally - I still think Mercedes still has the edge.
Is Red Bull a factor?
LS:
Red Bull was a bit of an enigma after testing. We didn't really see a great deal but we were always told that it wouldn't be until Australia that we see the Melbourne-spec RB13. Adrian Newey has his mojo back, which is a pretty dangerous thing for the rest of the grid. There's a big focus back on aerodynamics this year which can only be a good thing for Red Bull, traditionally strong in that area.

HC: The worry I have with Red Bull is the Renault engine will hold it back. McLaren-Honda aside, the majority of issues have come from the engine and that sets a bad tone for the year. If they're constantly having these gremlins it will hold them back over the course of a season. Also, I fear will Renault be more focused on its own efforts so as to give Red Bull the best tools possible. I expect they will win races like they did last year through good fortune and the right situation but outright performance, do I think they're going to be title contenders? No. They'll be part of the 'big three' but will be third out of those three.

OB: Red Bull has a habit of not showing its best until it really matters. I remember Ricciardo saying last year that it would be difficult to get on the podium, and they were doing so from the third race. The car just got better and better as the year went on and I think this will be apparent in 2017. The bit I am most interested in is the dynamic between Ricciardo and Verstappen... fun and banter they may be having now, but I can see fireworks when the stakes get higher between them

McLaren-Honda's last chance to retain Alonso?

OB:
It is clear Fernando genuinely wants to win with McLaren. Moreover, I think he wants to prove he can do it. If he wasn't with McLaren, where would he go? Mercedes is the obvious choice but does he want to be somewhere where the team needs him more than he needs them? It isn't in Alonso's nature to simply wait around for an opportunity that may not come. For Fernando, being able to turn it around would be a massive satisfaction to him - probably more so now -, and it's obvious he's still capable of being amongst the best. If he leaves it is because Honda haven't shown enough of an indication it is going to get better... but you have to say, this should have happened by now.

HC:
This is a conversation we shouldn't really be having again in 2017. They got it wrong first time, everyone makes mistakes. They went again, and now it looks like they've made not only the same mistakes, but more mistakes. As a world champion who has aspirations to win more, Alonso must feel like he's walking around with amateurs and you have to wonder if there is a point where he feels his legacy is being harmed by his loyalty. Will he last the season? Probably, but beyond that, whether he still has the faith in Honda to pull it around, things needs to change very soon.

LS:
I actually thought 2016 was a very good year for McLaren Honda. It made a significant amount of progress within strict parameters. But now it feels like one step forward, two steps back. Clearly Alonso is committed to the project, but that commitment can only go so far. How many more times will Honda say 'next season'? McLaren have got to hope they at least do what they did last year and make some kind of progress but it will have to be significant enough to convince Alonso to remain. McLaren - Alonso - Honda, that triumvirate has reached breaking point. It's not working and Honda is the part letting that down. I can't see Alonso staying in 2018.

Do you agree with our prediction - join the debate and have your say below

Part II to follow on Thursday

 

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