Williams will face much tougher fight for third place

MELBOURNE • The battle for third place is likely to be pretty intense among Williams, who have occupied that position for the past two years, and Red Bull and Force India, while former champions McLaren try to haul themselves back up the pecking order after slumping to ninth last season.

Williams have punched above their budget weight thanks to Mercedes engines and helped by Red Bull and McLaren's woes with the Renault and Honda power units.

However, hanging on to third will be hard this time. But the car has looked quick and nimble in testing, ironing out the slow-speed cornering problems of last year.

Williams driver Valtteri Bottas is confident that the team can hold on to third place and close the gap on Mercedes and Ferrari during the 2016 campaign.

"I think we have made progress in the weaknesses that we have had with the old car. We are going forward all the time, and I hope the season will be more combative than last year," he said.

Red Bull's challenge is likely to be a lot more competitive than last year, even if the first half of the season could see them playing catch-up.

The engine is their weakest link. They are still using a Renault engine this year - although it is labelled as a Tag Heuer after a sponsor.

That power unit has improved significantly over the winter, but it is still down on performance compared to Mercedes and Ferrari.

Red Bull's motor sports consultant Helmut Marko believes in-season development of the power unit should allow them to rise above their other rivals by the end of the year.

"To bridge the gap to the leading engines, that will take some time," he told Formula1.com.

"For the first half of the season I see Mercedes doing one-two finishes as long as they do not screw up, then I see Ferrari and a tight fight between Williams, Force India, Toro Rosso and Red Bull Racing behind them.

"From mid-season onwards our power unit situation should improve - and that makes me believe that P3 should be feasible."

Last year was Force India's best-ever finish - fifth. They have looked quick in testing, but lap times can flatter to deceive with soft tyres and low fuel.

They certainly have the right engine (Mercedes) and are feeling quite good about the balance and consistency of their car.

But they are unlikely to have the consistency to challenge Red Bull and Williams all the time, owing to the pace of development the bigger teams will be able to achieve through the season.

"It's going to be a big challenge as always, competition is pretty strong but I tend to see different faces in the team who believe we can do well and believe we can improve what we have done last year," said their Mexican driver Sergio Perez.

"The team tends to believe we are competitive; we are strong and can have a great season ahead of us."

Last year, the Force India team started dismally after a series of car specification problems.

However, Perez feels that they will have a better start to the season after finishing the second half of last season in promising fashion.

Things can only get better for the struggling former champions McLaren after a dire 2015, their worst-ever season.

Honda has improved the engine reliability, the chassis is good and the performance gap has closed.

The biggest weakness of that engine - hybrid energy deployment - has been vastly improved. But it remains a long way down on overall performance and McLaren are still in the region of two seconds off the pace and still have one of the slowest top speeds.

McLaren F1 chief Ron Dennis believes his team can still compete. "We will not be in the hunt for outright world championship glory in 2016... (but) at some point we will begin to spring a few surprises," he said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Williams will face much tougher fight for third place'. Print Edition | Subscribe