Mercedes ?in a different category? but expect an intriguing race behind them | 2015 Australian Grand Prix pre-race analysis

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Albert Park, 2015The yawning 1.391-second gap between Lewis Hamilton?s Mercedes and the next driver in a different car spelled bad news for their rivals.

It means the W06 was 1.61% quicker than anything else around a lap of Melbourne?s Albert Park circuit ? a larger performance advantage than they enjoyed at any circuit last year. Their margin peaked at 1.24% at the Circuit de Catalunya last year.

?They?re in different categories,? said Felipe Massa, who qualified third. ?They?re in the same category between them [Lewis and Nico] but in different categories between the others. For sure it is not great to see this difference but we keep working, we keep fighting and I hope we can get as close as we can.?

?If we have the same engine the difference should be in the car,? he added. ?I hope we have the same engine. I believe we have the same engine, so it?s the car. Maybe.?

From looking at the speed trap it?s unlikely Massa has anything to worry about in terms of engine parity ? the Williams were at the top of the table, as they often were last year. But it?s clear to see the huge progress Ferrari has made in this area over the winter. This was something many people expected to see happen this year once Ferrari addressed some of the basic shortcomings in their 2014 design compared to Mercedes? power unit.

It?s also striking that the W06s are the slowest Mercedes-powered cars in terms of top speed, a clear indication of how much downforce the car produces.

However it?s clear how far Renault have been left behind in terms of performance. And as Daniel Ricciardo?s travails in practice demonstrated, reliability remains a weakness too.

Finally there?s McLaren. Not only are they last at the speed trap, they also clocked the lowest speeds at all three intermediate points around the lap. Honda explained they decided to use ?conservative? engine settings to alleviate reliability concerns, but the warm temperatures on Saturday aggravated their problems. How they will fare in the punishing heat of Malaysia in two weeks? time will obviously be a concern.

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Felipe Massa, Williams, Albert Park, 2015Mercedes? rivals can console themselves with the thought that Melbourne often produces results which aren?t replicated later in the season, so this performance by Mercedes could turn out to be their peak for the year. There were certainly other drivers on the track who could have got closer to their time: both Ferrari drivers and Valtteri Bottas before he hurt his back.

Hamilton will be well aware that starting from pole position is no guarantee of victory at Melbourne. He went from pole to flag in 2008 but lost out to Jenson Button at the start in 2012 and a power unit problem last year spoiled his race right for the off. The run through the first corner at the Albert Park circuit is often the scene of incidents.

Nico Rosberg was quickest in both practice sessions on Friday and he?s sure the half-second gap between him and Hamilton in qualifying does not give an accurate picture. ?On Friday, in the long runs, my pace was very strong,? he said, ?so hopefully it can be the other way tomorrow?.

Behind them Massa will be trying to fend off the attentions of the two Ferraris, whose long-run pace on Friday looked good but may prove to have a greater appetite for fuel than the Mercedes.

What home favourite Daniel Ricciardo can do from seventh on the grid is another point of interest, partly because he?d done so little running prior to qualifying. If the Red Bull is reliable he could prove a surprise threat.

From 11th on the grid Felipe Nasr has a chance to give Sauber their first points since 2013 in a weekend which began in extremely difficult circumstances as they missed first practice due to Giedo van der Garde?s legal action.

The pace of the Toro Rossos is also not to be underestimated. Both Carlos Sainz Jnr, who qualified an excellent eighth, and Max Verstappen, who?s been close to his team mate on pace all weekend, have an opportunity to score points on their debut.

Qualifying times in full

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