Australian Grand Prix Preview

Date published: March 14 2012

2012 is the most eagerly anticipated season of F1 ever. Six World Champs, new tyres, new rules, a new circuit and three top seats up for grabs…

The Planet-F1 ticking clock hasn’t got many digits left to turn over. Melbourne here we come. Rarely has an F1 season been anticipated as much as 2012 with a record six World Champions on the grid (and three of them double World Champions), the teams closer than they’ve ever been in winter testing and a whole new world of Pirellis – can you believe the new ‘hard’ tyre is actually softer than last year’s medium…

Such has been the parity displayed during winter testing with Sauber, Red Bull, Williams, Ferrari, Lotus, McLaren and Mercedes all topping the timesheets on various morning or afternoon sessions from the Barcelona and Jerez tests that nobody can predict what will happen at the opening grand prix.

The general belief is that Red Bull are still the strongest, pursued closely by McLaren, with Mercedes and Lotus in close attendance. Ferrari have had much publicised trauma over the unpredictability of the handling of their new F2012 – on various short runs starting off as under-steery, becoming perfect, then rapidly becoming over-steery.

They may be up with Lotus and Mercedes, or they might be trying to fight off the attentions of Toro Rosso and Force India. It’s certainly going to keep Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa’s attention through free practice on Friday and Saturday.

It will be a key season for Felipe Massa as well as Mark Webber as both of their contracts will be up for renewal and there have been question marks over their continued presence in their respective teams for 2013. So it’s vital that both get off to great starts.

Mark Webber signed off the 2011 season in style with a win at Interlagos in the final race, although his euphoria was dimmed by the knowledge that team-mate Sebastian Vettel’s gearbox wasn’t giving him all the gearbox selections he’d like from about Lap 13. Seb’s Red Bull reportedly spent most of the race depositing gearbox oil round the circuit. Some saw it as a suspiciously well-timed gearbox failure and also one of the longest gearbox malfunctions since David Coulthard clung on to win at Monaco.

Webbo will be looking to repeat that win in Melbourne, a race he’s never had the best of luck at, after his spectacular early debut with Minardi, coming 5th in 2002. Amazing to think that his fifth place last year for Red Bull was still the highest he’d ever come at his home grand prix.

Sebastian Vettel will still be the man to beat and Red Bull Racing RB8 the car to beat. After the team tried to get a less surveilled last testing day at Barcelona the mechanics will be out in force in the pitlane and on the grid stopping photographers getting detailed photography of their new exhaust layout. That’s providing it passes scrutineering. There are those in the pitlane who think they’ve pushed the rules too far in directing the exhaust gases towards the diffuser and in Melbourne we’ll get a ruling.

Last year it was flexy front wings this year it’s exhaust position. FIA race director Charlie Whiting is fed up with teams pushing every tolerance. “We used to measure tolerances across the flat bottom with a margin of