The pressure is on Mercedes to raise their game in 2012.
Since Mercedes took over Brawn GP at the end of 2009 the team has finished fourth both years.
Team principal Ross Brawn stated quite plainly at the launch of the W03 that a repeat performance would not be satisfactory for Mercedes this year.
Car 7: Michael Schumacher
Michael Schumacher goes into the third season of his comeback after having made significant progress in 2011.
We saw glimpses of the old Schumacher at times in 2011, notably in his wheel-to-wheel battles in Canada and Italy, and that furious scrap with his team mate on the opening lap at Abu Dhabi.
Some weaknesses are still evident in his game, particularly qualifying, and there were a few needless collisions as well.
But, backed by the support of race and performance engineers Peter Bonnington and Jock Clear, Schumacher ended the season enjoying his best form since returning to the sport.
The question now is whether he can carry that into 2012 – and if the 43-year-old wishes to extend his comeback for another year into 2013.
Car 8: Nico Rosberg
Nico Rosberg is in the uncomfortable position of being one of the top drivers in F1 without a win to his name.
But in order to score wins you need a race-winning car and Rosberg has seen little in the way of those in his 108 Grands Prix to date.
At the same time Rosberg’s race pace was found wanting on occasions in 2011, which sometimes cost him positions to his team mate. However he led in China before being forced to drop back to save fuel.
He tended to out-qualify Schumacher by a comfortable margin last year. But as the team were rarely close enough to the leading cars that time difference didn’t translate to much of an advantage on the grid.
Rosberg can expect to face stiffer competition from his team mate as they vye to score Mercedes’ tenth win in Formula 1 – the last having come with Juan Manuel Fangio at Monza in 1955.
Although Brawn called the W02 a “very bold car”, it was clear Mercedes’ 2011 competitor had some significant shortcomings. Throughout the year several new recruits joined their technical team with the aim of producing a more competitive package for 2012.
This wasn’t simply a case of throwing more engineers at the problem. The team had cut staff numbers during the transition from Honda to Brawn in 2009 and re-sized in accordance with the original Resource Restriction Agreement.
But after the RRA was revised in late 2010, Mercedes were able to bring in three big-name additions to its technical team.
If the combined efforts of Aldo Costa, Geoff Willis and Bob Bell can be harnessed effectively, the W03 could be a very competitive proposition indeed.
The desire to spend as much time as possible getting the car right may go some way towards explaining Mercedes’ decision to delay its debut.
Sacrificing four precious days of testing with its new car (although it recovered one of them) gave Mercedes more development time. This will have been particularly useful given that the off-season was shortened by the late end to the 2011 championship.
The W03 has run reliably so far but Mercedes have just nine days to get to grips with its before flying out to Melbourne.
Mercedes are the only team with a pit crew to rival Red Bull’s for speed and consistency. If the car’s up to the job, the team is ready to make the next step and start contending for victories.
Mercedes’s championship form
Mercedes in 2012: your view
Do you think Mercedes will be able to challenge for wins in 2012?
Can Rosberg score his maiden win this year? And will Schumacher sign up again for 203? Have your say in the comments.
2012 F1 season preview
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Images © Jamey Price/F1 Fanatic, Mercedes, Jamey Price/F1 Fanatic