Australian Grand Prix: Five reasons to watch Formula One's season-opener

    Story highlights

    • First 2016 race in Australia on Sunday
    • New Azerbaijan race among 21 rounds
    • Three rookie drivers and a new U.S. team
    • Mercedes rivals ready for title battle

    (CNN)Engines may be revving ahead of Formula One's season-opening Australian Grand Prix, but the big question is whether the wheels have, in fact, fallen off the elite motorsport.

    Bernie Ecclestone prompted the navel gazing, claiming F1 was "the worst it has even been" -- and the sport's billionaire chief executive said he wouldn't bother buying a ticket.
      Four-time titleholder Sebastian Vettel, meanwhile, lamented a lack of on-track excitement.
      When Lewis Hamilton was asked by reporters during testing in Barcelona if F1 was "broken, lacking direction, or in rude health," the world champion answered: "I would probably say the first two you suggested."
      But nothing stands still for long in F1 -- and Sunday's race in Melbourne will surely herald a new season of intrigue.
      CNN's The Circuit selects five reasons why F1 is looking as feisty as ever.

      NEW RACES

      F1 is packing its bags for its longest-ever season with a record-breaking 21 grands prix in 2016.
      The season begins in the laid-back, lush surrounds of Albert Park and ends 252 days later in the deluxe desert of Abu Dhabi.
      F1's already global calendar includes a new destination for its peripatetic protagonists, with a street circuit set to hum through Azerbaijan's capital.
      The Baku City Circuit, which is set to stage the Grand Prix of Europe on June 19, will run alongside 12th-century city walls and ancient Maiden Tower, which are UNESCO heritage sites.
      McLaren driver Fernando Alonso visited Azerbaijan capital Baku in March to check on progress of the city's new street circuit.
      "The biggest-ever season is a big ask for the teams," former F1 race winner David Coulthard tells CNN. "When I started in 1994, we had 15 GPs and they were mainly in Europe -- now we have a lot of long-haul races.
      "The bigger teams, who can circulate mechanics and not take the same guys to every race, will definitely have an advantage over the smaller teams."
      Coulthard's former team principal at Red Bull Racing agrees. "Logistically it's tough," Christian Horner tells CNN. "It's a lot of time away from home for all the team members. But it's amazing how you get withdrawal symptoms from racing, so everybody's itching to get going again."

      NEW FACES

      Climbing aboard F1's famous merry-go-round in 2016 are rookie racers Pascal Wehrlein, Rio Haryanto and Jolyon Palmer -- and there are reasons to watch all of them.
      F1 insiders reckon Austrian Wehrlein is the real deal.
      The 21-year-old may be making his debut with the minor Manor team but he is a Mercedes man at heart -- although he is not so keen on being touted as "The Next Lewis Hamilton."
      The German car manufacturer has guided his explosive career in the Deutsche Touring Car Championship (DTM), where he became the youngest race winner and champion, winning the title in 2015.
      Wehrlein was promoted to reserve driver for the F1 team in 2014 and makes his bow for Mercedes-powered Manor.
      Alongside Wehrlein at Manor is Haryanto, who has already secured his place in history by becoming Indonesia's first F1 driver. "Melbourne will be a huge moment for me and my country," says the 23-year-old from Surakarta.
      Briton Palmer makes his F1 entrance with the returning Renault team after learning the ropes in 2015 as the team's reserve in its former guise, Lotus.
      "Now I've got my own race car, I can push hard, be aggressive and hopefully get some results," Palmer, who won the title in F1's feeder series GP2 in 2014, told CNN.

      NEW TEAM

      Watch out for more fluttering "Stars and Stripes" in 2016 as U.S. fans welcome the return of an American F1 team after a 30-year absence.
      Starting a Formula One team from scratch
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      The Haas F1 team follows Lola-Hart, which ran in limited races in 1985 and 1986; Eagle, which debuted in 1966; and Shadow and Penske, both of which raced in the 1970s.
      American industrialist Gene Haas is the man behind the team, and hopes to replicate the successes of his Haas-Stewart NASCAR team which won the 2011 Sprint Cup Series championship.
      There is another reason to keep a close eye on how Haas fares this season.
      The team is blazing a trail for a unique concept by outsourcing its chassis to Italian manufacturer Dallara, and its engine and associated parts to Ferrari.
      "This is a team that is taking a very different approach to F1," says Haas driver Roman Grosjean. "F1 is incredibly competitive and the only way to succeed is by finding new ways of doing things."
      As the latest new team to join F1, Haas may have also hit upon a way to survive in the dollar-draining sport.

      NEW RULES

      Watch out for a new style of qualifying in 2016.
      F1's governing body, the FIA, has rubber-stamped a new format for the fight for pole position.
      The qualifying session will still be split into three phases but the slowest driver will now be eliminated every 90 seconds.
      Seven of the 22 drivers will be eliminated in the first two sessions, while in the final phase of qualifying the remaining racers will be ousted until just two are left to duke it out for first place on the Sunday starting grid.
      The idea is to stop top teams such as Mercedes and Ferrari coasting through qualifying, and to increase the risk of a star name like world champion Hamilton being knocked out.
      Mark Webber: 'Ricciardo's quicker than I ever was'
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      "There's still plenty to discover," Red Bull Racing driver Daniil Kvyat said of the new system to decide the starting order for each grand prix.
      "The concept of setting the fastest lap at the right time will not change that much, but the elimination process and how many drivers will be knocked out during a certain amount of time will be changing.
      "When something has been working fine like qualifying I didn't see any big reason to change it."
      Other new rules changes for 2016 include a "Driver of the Day" award, voted for by the public online during the race. It will be handed out at the end live on TV, along with the podium prizes.

      OLD RIVALRY

      All the signs point to Mercedes teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg renewing their rollercoaster rivalry in the drivers' championship, even if Rosberg suffered a mishap when he crashed in practice Friday in Melbourne.
      Hamilton may have won the title in 2015 but the Mercedes' duel was left deliciously poised for a sequel as Rosberg finished the season with six pole positions and three race wins in a row.
      "The battle for the drivers' world championship is still the focus for race fans," Coulthard says.
      "Mercedes are the team to beat. They've dominated the last two world championships and have to be the favorites going forward.
      "Ferrari's hopes lie with Sebastian Vettel, who had three wins in 2015. His teammate Kimi Raikkonen is the fans' favorite but does seem to be a shadow of his former self.
      "There are not big changes in the regulations going into 2016, but there has been a slight relaxing of the technical regulations on the engine, so there is some hope that Ferrari will make the next big step to challenge Mercedes."
      Now who says F1 is boring?