After Austin’s 2012 baptism by fire amidst a World Championship struggle, Formula One will return to action this weekend on the other side of the globe; Melbourne, Australia, is the host city for round one of what promises to be an absorbing 2013 title chase.
Absorbing is putting it mildly. Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel took their year-long battle to the final race in Brazil in November, and the two men are planning to pick up where they left off in 2013. For Vettel, this season is an important one if he is to continue his bid to become the greatest of all time, while Alonso knows a serious challenge is to be overcome if he is to claim that elusive third title of his own.
Ferrari has made a significantly more positive start to 2013 than their abysmal 2012 effort; winter testing at Jerez and Barcelona in Spain has shown the new F138 to be capable of mixing it with the Scuderia’s rivals, Alonso setting the second fastest time of anyone on the last day at the Circuit De Catalunya.
Red Bull and their legendary designer Adrian Newey have evolved last year’s title winning RB8 into the suave and stealthy looking RB9; a new purple tinted paint job has certainly turned heads in the paddock! Despite only topping one of the twelve days of winter testing, the Austrian team is believed to have been holding something in reserve and running with heavier fuel loads than their opponents to mask what promises to be some serious pace when the racing starts.
Over the winter, little has changed in terms of rules and regulations; what has changed is the number of cars on the grid. In January, Spanish minnows HRT folded after three long years of financial hardship and their departure significantly changes the complexion of the midfield battle in 2013. Drivers and teams will have to work harder to make it through the first "knockout" qualifying session, a challenge that often claimed many big scalps even with HRT to fill the last two grid slots.
DRS, the Drag Reduction System that allows drivers to increase straight line speed by opening a flap in the rear wing and "stalling" it, has always had designated parts of the track for use during a Grand Prix; in qualifying, drivers have previously been allowed to use the device wherever and whenever they please in a bid to harvest precious tenths of a second. For 2013, they will only be allowed to use DRS in the official "DRS zones."
While Alonso and Vettel look set to lock horns yet again, we cannot ignore what is a menacing lineup of drivers and teams also bidding to claim the world of motor sports' biggest prize of the year; Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton are just some of the names with their sole target as the usurping of the young German World Champion.
2009 World Champion Jenson Button heads up a McLaren team that starts a season without Lewis Hamilton for the first time since 2006. While the new car, the MP4/28 has been erratic during testing, this is more a product of the machine being completely new (in order to allow the British team more scope for development over the season), rather than any design flaw on the part of new chief technical officer Tim Goss. McLaren has admitted "just points" in Australia is their goal, with a long-term view to win races from the Spanish Grand Prix onwards.
Mercedes enters 2013 in a cautious but buoyant mood after topping the last two days of testing in Barcelona courtesy of Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg. The F1 W04 endured a difficult start to its winter schedule with an electrical fire quickly followed by a brake system failure, but the two drivers have welded it into what looks to be the second fastest car on the grid behind the dominant Red Bull.
Lotus, home of enigmatic but universally-loved Kimi Raikkonen, has experienced a troubled winter fraught with data glitches, mechanical difficulties and food-poisoning (apparently!), giving the squad cause for concern. But Raikkonen’s teammate Romain Grosjean has given the new E21 the thumbs up, eager to shake off his "crash kid" label earned last season. The 2007 champion added his voice in typical "Kimi-style," claiming “I'm not really concerned about reliability or anything like that as it was the same problem which caused us the biggest problems in testing and we're on top of that now.”
Despite plans for an eighth race "somewhere in Europe" during July, the idea has been shelved after no venue could be found; the FIA has now finalized the calendar at 19 races, of which the U.S. Grand Prix in November will be the 18th and penultimate round.
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