But this year there are signs that both teams could have what it takes make it a five-way battle at the front of the grid.
Lotus had a quiet pre-season, methodically plugging away at the numbers and not setting headline-grabbing times. The most consistent performers through 2012, they need only the smallest step to become regular contenders for victory and feel they have achieved that for this season.
Mercedes, meanwhile, might have been expected to be midfielders rather than challengers, given that they scored just half the points picked up by Lotus in last year’s championship.
But things have changed dramatically, and it’s hard to see them sitting in the Sauber, Force India and Williams bracket this year.
They secured the biggest driver move in years in taking Lewis Hamilton from McLaren and the plight of the ‘Silver Arrows’ will be one of F1’s biggest stories this year. After fading early last term they were able to focus on this one sooner than their rivals – and strong performances in pre-season testing suggests they may genuinely now be in the mix.
The limited rule changes have left the front-running teams with limited scope for improvement and as a result we can expect the grid to close up even further than last year – with these two set to benefit most...
Mercedes scored their maiden modern-era victory last year, but after failing to build on that early success it was time for heads to roll – and Mercedes boss Norbert Haug paid the ultimate price.
Ross Brawn held on to his post as team principal but with Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda now around him there will be some delicate politics in play at the top. Only time will tell whether that works.
On track, meanwhile, one superstar is replaced with another as Hamilton arrives in place of Michael Schumacher, re-uniting a partnership with Nico Rosberg that dates back a decade. No matter which side of the fence you sit on with Hamilton, there is no denying he is a top driver. If he’s on form, he alone could give the team a half-second boost.
The move was a big gamble for both sides – a hefty wage bill for Mercedes and a risky performance gamble for Hamilton – and when it was announced it focused on the long-term benefits and the new regulations coming in for 2014.
But that was then. This is now.
By the end of testing in Barcelona, Mercedes had turned a troubled start into a triumphant finish, topping the times on the final days and showing good pace in the long runs too.
Even Hamilton was suggesting it’s not far-fetched to consider him a contender for race victories – and given that drivers usually downplay pre-season potential, that is quite a comment from the new arrival.
The team ran more laps than anyone in the final test and while it is notoriously hard to compare times between teams, their performances were enough to raise the eyebrows of their rivals.
Their deficit last year means they need to find quite some time to get right in the mix but at the very least they have shown they should be closer to the front than they were at the end of last year.
That said, they were at the front at the start of last year and lost their way in development – and they must make sure that is not their Achilles heel again this time around.
They are one of the most advanced in development of the passive DRS system, which could offer as much as three or four tenths of a second per lap this year, but it’s hard to get right and if they need to spend too much more time on it they risk neglecting other developments that could give them equal benefit or more.
If they can avoid losing their way again, with a hyped-up Hamilton then perhaps those glory days could finally be just around the corner.
Lotus’ performances last season make them one of the most potentially exciting teams on the grid this year – with an innovative design team creating a quick, reliable and consistent car, and an eager (and on-form) Kimi Raikkonen giving a driver boost similar to that of Hamilton at Mercedes.
The Finn was a podium regular last season but it was not until late in the year that together he and Lotus proved they could win. In contrast, team-mate Romain Grosjean was in the headlines for the wrong reasons as he regularly crashed out of races and was banned from one.
The team kept faith in Grosjean for this year and are convinced that he has matured to give them one of the strongest line-ups at the front of the field.
The car looked good in testing but they have also suffered setbacks – reliability problems costing them valuable track time and illness sidelining Raikkonen for a day.
They covered just 252 laps in the crucial final test – more than 200 fewer than Mercedes – but an eye-opening long run on medium tyres from Grosjean suggests the car could be kind on its tyres and give the team plenty of options on strategy.
Like Mercedes, Red Bull and Sauber, Lotus has run with passive DRS in pre-season testing and they were in fact one of the first to develop the concept – which could help jump them into contention for regular victories.
The real story will only shake out once we get to Melbourne, and even then we can expect a changing order for at least the first half dozen races.
But if either of these teams can get themselves established at the front, we could be in for an even more exciting season than last year.
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