Melbourne: It's that time of year again…
13 March 2013 – Just 67 days separated the final race of the 2012 season and the opening car launch of 2013. This week, following a trio of tests in Spain, the fast-paced world of Formula 1 roars back into life on the streets of Melbourne. Can Red Bull remain in the driving seat during a fourth successive double title defence, or will a clutch of ever-hungry rivals finally come up with the goods to topple the team’s reign?
Quite honestly, the answer to that question will only emerge after Saturday’s qualifying session in Australia. It's a cliché, but we are yet to witness low fuel, on-the-limit laps from the 22-strong field and, as a host of drivers have explained, testing has been extremely difficult to read. Reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel went so far as to say it has been the least conclusive pre-season phase during his time in the sport, but what can be deduced from the 12 days of running is that there are a number of fundamentally strong cars out there, all capable of challenging at the front on their day.
Before studying the pecking order in more detail, it is important to discuss a couple of regulation changes. With the sport entering the final year of its V8 engine era, ahead of a switch to turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 units in 2014, arguably the biggest modification comes on the tyre front. Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery told GPUpdate.net in the latter stages of 2012 that: "we’re trying to bring back some degradation levels, because quite frankly at the end of the season we were in negative degradation and maybe not where we were asked to be." The tyre compounds are now softer, will degrade at a faster rate and ultimately increase the number of pit-stops. This factor, in addition to a DRS restriction that is set to take the edge off Red Bull’s qualifying gains, paves the way for what should be an even closer season.
Fernando Alonso may well be the man to take advantage of the situation, having recently described his new Ferrari as ‘200 times better’ than its predecessor was 12 months ago. Just three points eluded the Spaniard during his incredible battle with Vettel in 2012 and, although he believes Red Bull and McLaren’s respective designs hold an advantage, there is an air of confidence at Maranello that he can go one better this time out. As was proven on a near-perfect level last year, the two-time Champion simply needs a car within the ballpark of the leaders and he can do the rest.
From McLaren's point of view, the 2013 season will be an extremely interesting affair. It’s a case of staying calm and taking any poor early results on the chin as the team gets a handle on a heavily-revised car, before theoretically reaping the rewards with a much wider development programme as the year wears on. The squad should be in the mix with Red Bull from the early stages, but Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus will be snapping at their heels and waiting to capitalise on any persistent issues.
This leads us on to one of the most engrossing aspects of the upcoming campaign, with Lewis Hamilton’s debut season at Mercedes looking likely to yield more than had initially been expected when he put pen to paper on his headline-grabbing three-year contract. The Briton is well known for extracting the maximum from any given package and, with the Silver Arrows appearing to be on the fringes of the top three, he will be a vital asset to the team. Whether he can win races remains to be seen, but you wouldn't bet against him if the F1 W04 is within touching distance of the front row.
The midfield battle could also throw up a few surprises. With Williams drivers Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas praising a much improved car, the outfit has everything in place to leapfrog Force India and Sauber. Of the latter two teams, Nico Hülkenberg's arrival at Hinwil – which ironically led to Adrian Sutil's comeback – produces the most intrigue, as another strong year would reinforce his chances of landing a front-running drive. Toro Rosso looks set to be closer to this pack under the technical guidance of James Key, but it is hard to see Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Éric Vergne being able to turn many heads under normal circumstances.
One less team at the back of the grid – after HRT’s demise – may be an overall negative for the sport, but it applies further pressure on Caterham and Marussia to up their game and edge closer to the midfield. Charles Pic, Giedo van der Garde, Jules Bianchi and young British hopeful Max Chilton are all race winners in GP2, although with both teams hovering around 3 seconds off the lead pace at the final Barcelona test, you would expect chances of points to be confined to a freak Grand Prix.
Having studied the regulation changes, divulged pre-season testing and made predictions, let's get the 2013 Formula 1 season underway. We're ready. Are you?