The Australian Grand Prix hoves into view like a sailor's home port after a lengthy sea voyage. We're home at last. With 12 less-than-satisfying test days under the teams' belts, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren and the rest set out on the 2013 F1 campaign all feeling a bit under-prepared.
The four days of Jerez were a bit cold and the circuit a bit untypical, Barcelona was equally cold first time round and then rainy second time round. The Pirelli tyres that had seemed fine on Friday in Brazil started to have the shelf life of croissants in a sunny baker's window, and grip like them too. So every time a team tried to change some parameter on the car, the teams' engineers had to interpret the improvement (or lack) through the distorting prism of quickly degrading tyres.
Thus we reached the end of the 2013 testing period with no true indication of who was likely to be quickest in Melbourne, but a general feeling that it was going to be very close - apart from the usual suspects of Caterham and Marussia who are still hanging off the back. The two 'new' teams have now lost their fig leaf in the shape of HRT whose exit from the sport means that they will now be competing to find out who is seriously last, a role easily assumed by HRT in the past.
HRT's loss will bring about the big change in Q1 in Melbourne - we are now bound to lose more mid-grid or top cars from the equation in Q1 and so whereas the very fast cars could put in a decent lap on the harder tyre and sit comfortably, there's going to be more panic in 2013.
Red Bull emerged from winter testing with an evolution of their 2013 car and still look like the team to beat. Ferrari made their radical step to a pull-rod suspension in 2012 and have continued with it on the new F138. Out on track it didn't look like it had quite the downforce of its competitors but that's never normally a barrier to Fernando Alonso. The view from the drivers is that this year's car is "200 times better than the last one". Team boss Stefano Domenicali says that they are aiming for a podium in Melbourne, which is a theme adopted up and down the pitlane. The idea is to under-promise then over-deliver. Mercedes are the best (or worst) at this having started off saying that they were two or three seconds behind McLaren and then gradually creeping into the spotlight, finishing the Barcelona test with fastest times on the last two days, with Hamilton and Rosberg sharing the honours.
Nobody would be surprised to see them in the front two rows in Australia as the W04 looks to have great single lap pace, but the Mercedes problem of old was that it was quick and then ate up its tyres like some 'hooning' glory boy leaving the circuit in a hire car and a trail of rubber smoke*. Albert Park is a relatively green track, so it may not be the best showcase for the team with five technical directors.
Mclaren, who have just lost their technical director to Mercedes have also joined in the under-promising contest by saying that they would like to finish with some points. Just some points? That's the kind of thing Toro Rosso will be saying in their pre-Melbourne press release. It's not exactly gung-ho. The reason that Martin Whitmarsh is being careful is that they have a new car, the MP4-28, that they don't fully understand. Fast at times, but the changes they have made to it in testing haven't produced consistent results.
This has undoubtedly been the result of 'masking' from quickly degrading tyres and so the team will need practice and race miles to understand which changes to make on what is a radical departure from the 2012 car. Its predecessor, the MP4-27, ended the season as quickest car, by which time the radical MP4-28 was already in its final stages. 'Radical' because McLaren have adopted the pull-rod suspension system re-introduced by Ferrari last year which means the car can be developed throughout the 19-race season, but may not be so reliable at first.
Had they known they were going to end the season with the fastest car, you wonder if McLaren would have chosen an evolutionary approach, like Red Bull, Mercedes and Lotus.
Lotus looked fast in testing but were beset with a few technical issues, particularly on their gearbox - Ferrari also were guilty of bringing out more red flags than usual because of car failures. Last year the two teams produced almost bullet-proof reliability from their cars, but as technical directors always rush to say, that is what testing is for.
Williams, Sauber, Force India and Toro Rosso all had reasonable tests with every prospect of mixing it with the top teams. Force India have renewed their acquaintance with Adrian Sutil and thus have the strongest driver pairing of the mid-grid. Williams have the most competent rookie in Valtteri Bottas who has more Friday drives (from 2012) than possibly anyone starting a new season, so he has the benefit of knowing the tracks he will encounter this year. Sauber have the experience of Hulkenberg with the dollars of Gutierrez.
Caterham and Marussia are rookie central with Charles Pic the gnarly old professional compared to van der Garde, Bianchi and Chilton. Australia is a tough start for a rookie as there aren't large expanses of tarmac run-off and the barriers are very close. Plus there's the lack of grip - with no racing around Albert Park the circuit is very slippy to start off with. So no-one will want to be responsible for wasting the vital running that comes on Friday by parking the car after five minutes of P1.
With many slowish corners it's not a true reflection of the circuits to come, so when people say that we'll get a much better idea of the F1 pecking order after Melbourne, it's only partway true. Sebastian Vettel will set off to win his fourth drivers' title in a row and he is quite capable of doing it. There has never been an Australian winner of the Australian GP and Mark Webber (Minardi heroics aside) often struggles at his home race.
Kimi Raikkonen Pre-GP Quote: "Australia is a nice place even though it's a long way from Europe."
Things To Watch Out For:
1. Team-mate rivalries are always going to be intense, but the Hamilton vs Rosberg one will be the most interesting.
2. Where will Sergio Perez be in comparison to Jenson Button?
3. How many tyre changes will we get in the race?
4. Grosjean's opening lap of the race.
5. Who will be the first rookie to make a rookie mistake?
6. Explanations as to why Bernie hasn't made the trip - it's rare for him to miss the opening race
7. Who has made the most obvious changes since Barcelona?
8. Who has emerged from winter testing with the fastest car?
*Yes, you do get a point for recognising this Lewis reference
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