MELBOURNE • Formula One ventures into the unknown zone of a long-awaited revamped and high-speed era under new American ownership this weekend, when the engines roar into life at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.
Liberty Media's takeover and the off-season departure of the sport's veteran commercial ring-master Bernie Ecclestone have coincided with an overhaul of the technical regulations to usher in a new breed of heavier and faster cars.
The wider new machines with broader tyres make much greater physical demands on the drivers and are expected to provide more noise and spectacle - and hopefully better racing with more passing moves - as Formula One bids to appeal to a younger, global, digital and social media savvy audience.
The retirement of 2016 world champion Nico Rosberg has also triggered change, with Finn Valtteri Bottas switching from Williams to partner pre-season favourite Lewis Hamilton in the dominant Mercedes team.
Rosberg's absence could reignite the rivalry between Hamilton, 32, and 29-year-old Sebastian Vettel - the two top drivers of their generation - particularly with Ferrari performing well in pre-season testing.
"Imagine Ferrari are great and the championship is being fought between Sebastian Vettel, with four world championships and Lewis, with three," 1996 world champion Damon Hill told reporters. "That's going to be an exciting battle."
Changes F1 fans will see on Sunday
For the first time since 1994, when Alain Prost retired after winning his fourth title the year before, Formula One will have no reigning champion on the starting grid with Nico Rosberg quitting in December.
2009 champion Jenson Button has also left but four previous titleholders remain - three-time winner Lewis Hamilton, four-time champion Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari), 2007 winner Kimi Raikkonen (Ferrari) and two-time champion Fernando Alonso (McLaren).
The grid has shrunk to 10 teams, and 20 drivers, following the demise of Manor.
The season has 20 races, one fewer than last year, due to Germany's absence for financial reasons and no additions.
Canadian Lance Stroll, 18, of Williams is the only debutant this weekend. Belgian rookie Stoffel Vandoorne has taken Jenson Button's McLaren seat.
Finland's Valtteri Bottas to Mercedes, France's Esteban Ocon to Force India, Germany's Pascal Wehrlein to Sauber, Denmark's Kevin Magnussen to Haas and Germany's Nico Hulkenberg to Renault are the other paddock moves.
Cars are expected to lap between three and five seconds faster due to revised aerodynamics and tyre changes. The fastest lap in Barcelona testing was quicker than any pole position there since 2007.
The gain is coming through the corners, with many taken flat out thanks to improved downforce and grip. That means higher G-forces on drivers. Straight line speeds will be slower but drivers can stay on the throttle for longer.
If Hamilton prevails, he will also join Vettel, Michael Schumacher (seven), Juan Manuel Fangio (five) and Alain Prost (four) as drivers with at least four titles.
Yet it would do no good for F1 if Hamilton runs away unchallenged - and the Briton knows it too.
"Of course, I'd love to have (battles with Sebastian on the track). I think the fans want to see that," Hamilton, has won more grands prix than anyone still driving around a racetrack, said yesterday.
"You want to be racing against the best. That's what the fans want to see. They want to see that close racing, that sheer competitiveness. See the ups and downs of the best doing the best. I hope there's lots of close racing."
Hamilton believes Ferrari have the quickest car heading into Melbourne. But the hype over the SF70H car has yet to infect Vettel.
"It's March," the German told reporters bluntly yesterday, when asked about the Scuderia's hopes of a first world constructors' title since 2008.
"I think if you want to talk about the fight for the title, that's a question for October, November."
It might be early days but Red Bull are the other team seen snapping at Mercedes' heels if they can avoid reliability problems of the past, and drivers Daniel Ricciardo and teenager Max Verstappen can keep their own growing rivalry from spoiling their racing.
The Red Bull pair were the only non-Mercedes drivers to win last year.
Verstappen, the youngest driver and race winner in the sport's history, goes into his last teenage year with a burgeoning reputation as a fan favourite.
An aggressive overtaker, compared to the late Ayrton Senna after lighting up last year's wet Brazilian Grand Prix, the 19-year-old is widely regarded as a champion in waiting.
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner articulated the feelings of many, when he said it was "unpalatable" to consider the prospect of three more years of Mercedes supremacy.
The Silver Arrows have won the last three drivers and constructors' titles and 51 of the last 59 grands prix.
But levelling the playing field remains a problem for the future, while F1 bids to make a resounding return with a louder and faster show this weekend.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX
Practice session 1 (8.55am) & 2 (12.55pm)
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