F1 charts into the unknown as Melbourne set for season debut
Sebastian Vettel's rivals, perhaps more in hope than expectation, are looking to this weekend's Australian Grand Prix to usher in a season where the German and his Red Bull team have their three-year monopoly of Formula One titles broken.
There was similar talk of the gap to the dominant team narrowing last year but after the chaos of the early season with its seven different winners in the first seven races, Vettel and Red Bull emerged to claim their title hat-tricks.
On Sunday in Melbourne therefore, Vettel begins his quest to match Juan-Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as the only drivers to have won four successive drivers' titles in the first of the season's 19 races.Pre-season testing is not always a nailed-on guide to early season form but there was enough in Red Bull's under-par display in Spain to offer more than a glimmer of hope to the other teams.
Image: Chelsea Scanlan, Ambassador of Formula 1 poses for photos during the 2013 Australian F1 Grand Prix Launch in Melbourne, Australia
Photographs: Robert Prezioso/Getty Images
It will be very close from our point of view: Alonso
Vettel and teammate Mark Webber have admitted that testing was not as good as they would have liked, although there remains the possibility that the Red Bull team did not show their car's full potential -- or "sandbagged" in the paddock vernacular.
None of the other leading teams -- Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus -- put in the sort of performances in Jerez and Barcelona that would mark them out as potentially dominant, however.
Twice former champion Fernando Alonso, though, declared Ferrari to be in a "200 percent" better position than at the same stage last year when it took one of his best battling drives just to get his car into fifth place.
"I don't think we will see one team dominate, but also I don't expect seven winners in the first races, like last year," said Alonso, who finished second in the championship last year.
"It will be very close and from our point of view, a good result this weekend would remove some of the stress."
Image: Fernando Alonso
Photographs: Paul Gilham/Getty Images
'Hard to accurately predict who'll arrive in Australia with the best-sorted car'
Last year, Jenson Button won his third race in Melbourne to kick off the chaotic start to the season and the 2009 world champion and his new teammate Sergio Perez will both again be looking to add to McLaren's 11 wins in Australia.
"I don't think any team really knows or understands the competitive order," said the 33-year-old Briton.
"It's hard to accurately predict who'll arrive in Australia with the best-sorted car. But that's part of the game."
Mexican Perez got his chance at McLaren after Lewis Hamilton's departure for Mercedes, where the 2008 world champion has teamed up with Nico Rosberg.The fifth former world champion on the grid is Kimi Raikkonen, who eased seamlessly back into Formula One to finish third in the championship race with Lotus last year after two years out of the sport.
Image: Jenson Button
Photographs: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
'With better results at the beginning of the year we should have a better chance'
The often taciturn Finn has been upbeat in pre-season about the Lotus car, which he will again share this year with Frenchman Romain Grosjean.
"We had good speed last year, but not enough to win the championship," Raikkonen said.
"If we can get just a little more from the car and keep our consistency, with some better results at the beginning of the year, then we should have a much better chance."
Only 11 teams and 22 cars will line up this year after the demise of Spanish outfit HRT but there will be plenty of new blood on the grid with five drivers making their debuts on Sunday.
In the last year of the V8 engines, the technical changes which often make the early part of the season more interesting have been kept to a minimum.
There have been changes to the tyres, which will require some getting used to, and the Albert Park street circuit will be as good an early test of their durability as any track.
If the teams at the front end of the grid are indeed as close as testing suggested, then driver performance could be the difference.
"I love the circuit," said Hamilton."It's a street track with a really bumpy surface so you try and put as much downforce on the car as possible and it really puts the drivers to the test."
Image: Kimi Raikkonen
Photographs: Mark Thompson/Getty Images