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Midfield Monitor
Christine

Christine became an avid follower of Formula One after getting a taste of the action way back in 2003. Today, you'll find Christine putting her experience to good use as writer and producer of the news show F1Minute, and editor of community F1 site Sidepodcast.

Are Haas heading straight for the midfield? // Predicting the order of things as 2016 gets underway

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When a team is as dominant and unflinching as Mercedes have been these last few years, it is to the midfield that we look for our entertainment. For the real battles, the inter-team squabbles, the strategy calls that don't work out, the pit stops that could be done better, we zero in on those teams that are almost there but not quite. I'd planned to resurrect Midfield Monitor, the feature that focuses on the central portion of the grid, even before we had a new team to talk about. As it happens, Haas are confident they can debut right in the midst of the pack, and thus become a star of Midfield Monitor in their own right.

Experienced hand Romain Grosjean

If testing is anything to go by, Haas had their fair share of the niggles you'd expect for a new team, but when the car was working, it went pretty well. Experienced hand Romain Grosjean and returning driver Esteban Gutiérrez will have their work cut out for them, but by all accounts Haas should be able to race above last place when they make their debut in Australia. It'll be refreshing to see a new team able to compete in such a way, but the real question is: who will they be up against?

Top and tail

Clearly, Mercedes are going to be out at the front, defending their championship from the strongest position. Ferrari appear to have found some pace, but also developed some worrying turbo issues across all of their supplied teams, so reliability will be a factor as they try and stop the Silver Arrows in their campaign. Williams are close behind, and hopefully can continue their forward progression rather than dipping back into midfield territory.

The rear of the field is slightly more difficult to predict, although it's perhaps not too crazy to suggest Manor will still be struggling having suffered through turbulent season after turbulent season. Sauber have recently had cash flow issues that were solved relatively quickly but aren't a promising sign for a team that are still recovering from their pointless season in 2014. They did sneak into the top ten on occasion last year, but I'm placing them outside the midfield due to their bank balance, their Ferrari engine, and a lack of any evidence that things are about to change.

There is still one spot in the bottom pack to fill, and although it pains me to do it, I'm putting Renault there

With Haas confident they'll be in the centre of the pack fighting for points, I'm reluctant to put them at the rear of the field despite their new status. If they have faith, so do I. Unfortunately, there is still one spot in the bottom pack to fill, and although it pains me to do it, I'm putting Renault there. The team have undergone so many changes ahead of the 2016 season, they can't have had time to prepare properly for the year ahead. Those problems include changing both their drivers, the entire branding around the team, personnel in the factory and pit wall, as well as the ongoing issues with the Renault engine.

Bob Bell is back at the helm, and was keeping an eye on the squad during pre-season testing in Spain a couple of weeks ago.

"The car has run reliably as we hoped it would. The process of re-engineering a car when the decision is made as late as the one we had is not straightforward. It does have reliability consequences. The performance is good from the point of view it's a consistent handling car, with a solid baseline on which we can build on for the future," concluded Bell.

It's fair to say testing wasn't as disastrous as this time twelve months ago, but it didn't put them top of the pile either.

Midfield madness

That leaves five spots in the midfield, with the new US team taking up one of them. Force India's deputy team principal Bob Fernley has admitted the VJM09 is an evolution on a development cycle that is coming to an end, and thus the team's focus isn't going to be on making this model the best it can possibly be, and perhaps instead making it last until 2017 when the overhaul will shake up the order of things again.

McLaren may have suffered their worst season to date last year, with a particularly embarrassing element being the much-touted re-engagement with engine partners Honda, but 2016 has to be better. McLaren have long been credited as a team that can turn things around quickly, that can start a year badly and develop themselves out of any performance hole they find themselves in. Last year we saw a little of those skills, but the problems were so great it wasn't until the end of the year that Alonso and Button were anything but red-faced about their performances.

With a solid winter to work on their issues, plus pre-season testing that saw them with improved reliability if not pace, I'm hopeful we can see the Woking squad back in the midfield and working towards the top with relish.

Feeling bullish

If I was Red Bull, I'd be thinking about keeping my head down this year. After kicking up such a fuss about the Renault engine in 2015, splitting with them as power unit partners and then failing to find anyone else to supply them for the coming season, it's got to be galling to come back to the season with your tail between your legs and a rebadged Renault under the hood. That being the case, I'd place Red Bull firmly at the front of the midfield, but definitely not up amongst the front runners - not yet, anyway.

Toro Rosso are going to be one to watch. True, they also have the Ferrari engine on board, and it has had some glitches to overcome in pre-season testing, but the team themselves are incredibly optimistic despite undergoing their own tight turnaround ahead of the 2016 season.

We've had the best preparation as long as Toro Rosso has existed
Credit: Peter Fox / Getty

"We've had the best preparation as long as Toro Rosso has existed," said team principal Franz Tost. "We've done so many laps and collected so much data, and from the driver point of view, the engineering side, the team itself, we have reached quite a good level. The target is fifth place in the constructors' championship, and if we want to achieve this then we have to perform well and score points in all the races."

At one point, I'm sure they were predicting podium finishes during the year ahead but I think perhaps Toro Rosso's expectations have been scaled back just slightly. Even so, fifth in the championship is a weighty goal to attempt to achieve, particularly as that would put them directly in competition with sister team Red Bull. Despite being a solid B team, STR have never shied away from taking the fight to the bigger outfit on the track, and that's something I'm really looking forward to watching unfold in 2016.

Even though there are complaints both in and outside of Formula One regarding the state of the sport, we've got so much to look forward to this season. Mercedes might have everything going their way with an impossibly reliable car underneath two exceptional drivers defending back to back world championships, but look just a few metres behind them and that's where the real action is going to be. New teams, rival outfits, driver changes and engine riots, 2016 is going to be a lot of fun.