As the Formula One circus hits the road this week and heads to Australia to open the 2013 season on Sunday, which team will be the one to beat remains a mystery.
Counting on preseason testing to figure out who will be fastest once things get serious in Melbourne is always a bit of a crap game, since the teams often play possum with their true pace.
That said, all eyes will be on the silver arrows of Mercedes after its pair of drivers, 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, looked impressive in just about every configuration and condition.
Although many felt Hamilton was nuts for leaving perennial frontrunner McLaren to join the German manufacturer's team this year, his squad's early pace may well have him happily serving several F1 experts some deliciously satisfying humble pie before long.
Rosberg topped the time sheets in the final test session at Barcelona a week ago with a sizzling time of 1 minute 20.130 seconds, which was 0.364 seconds better than the next best effort of Ferrari's two-time world champion, Fernando Alonso. Hamilton put up the third best lap of the test, 0.458 seconds off his teammate. The trio of drivers were the only ones to break the 1 minute 21 second barrier.
In addition to being fast, Mercedes seemed to have solved the reliability issues that plagued it during F1's first preseason run after completing 481 laps in the four days in Barcelona, the equivalent of almost eight full races. In Barcelona, Mercedes drivers put in a grand total of 2,239 km, Ferrari was second with 428 laps for 1,992 km, while McLaren was third in total distance, clocking 395 laps for 1,838 km. Except for the tight street circuit in Monaco, a normal F1 race distance is just more than 305 km – a grand prix ends at the completion of the lap where 305 kilometres is exceeded. Monaco is only 260 km.
But to give an indication of the gamesmanship going on, 2012 world championship runner-up Alonso indicated after the test that he thought his car was as quick as the Mercedes, but also said he thought that Red Bull and McLaren were still the teams to beat. On the other hand, McLaren team leader Jenson Button worried that he still didn't yet have a handle on his car, while defending three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel insisted his team needed to work on his car's performance before the season opener.
In reality, if McLaren improved its 2012 car only a bit, it's going to be hard to beat considering it was the fastest car for most of last year. And although Red Bull was still evaluating new parts and technical solutions during the final test last week, that team is in the same boat as McLaren, so it's a good guess that they also kept a bit of speed in reserve.
The wildcard still seems to be Sauber, with its driver Nico Hülkenberg putting up some impressive times. Considering that the Swiss team was one of the best at taking care of its tires in 2012, the preseason sped bodes well.
That's because the telling point this year again will likely be how the teams figure out the tires, especially getting them up to optimum temperature and keeping them there to control their degradation. The low temperatures during the three preseason tests in Spain didn't help the teams with that effort, with many complaining that their rubber's performance dropped off a cliff after only a few laps because they couldn't get enough heat into them.
With F1 rubber supplier Pirelli bringing its two softest compounds to Melbourne, being the first to figure out the tires will go a long way to winning the season opener. Teams that get it wrong will spend the race struggling for traction and grip.
Although the dice are still rolling, a good guess would be that the teams that were in the front in the last few races of 2012 – Ferrari, Lotus, McLaren, and Red Bull – will probably start 2013 as the frontrunners.
When it comes to the rules, a change in the use of the drag reduction system (DRS) means the device may be activated in the only designated zone in all sessions and the race. The DRS essentially flattens the rear wing to increase top speeds due to a reduction in drag. The device becomes available in the race when a pursuing driver is within one second of a rival as the two cars cross a designated line on the track.
Last season, drivers were free to deploy the device anywhere they saw fit in practice and qualifying, but its use will now be restricted to the "DRS zone" only, although the one-second rule does not apply in practice an qualifying and the system will be available whenever the car is in the designated section of the track.
While it doesn't sound like a big deal, the change will have a huge knock-on affect on qualifying and the race because drivers won't be able to run higher downforce levels and still expect to snag a top starting spot. Last year, a car could run greater downforce level in qualifying and not worry about being slow on the straights because the driver could use DRS when needed.
The change could hurt Red Bull and Vettel the most, since his team's qualifying strategy depended more on using the DRS at will than the others. They usually ran a bit higher downforce to make their better chassis markedly quicker than the rest in the corners and then used the DRS to be fast on the straights, a combination that put the car at or near the front if things went as planned.
Without having the DRS available on demand in qualifying, the team may need to be more conservative and Vettel will lose the advantage he had on Saturday's last year. It may also mean the team will have to work harder for wins in 2013 because removing downforce for qualifying will also negatively affect Red Bull's race pace and reduce its ability to care for its tires.
And that's bad news for Vettel, who will be looking to take his fourth consecutive driver's title when the 19-race season wraps up in Brazil in late November.
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