Mark Webber wins the 2012 Monaco F1 Grand Prix with his traditional dip in the pool. (Image: Red Bull Racing)

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The Aus­tralian Grand Prix this week­end ush­ers in the final sea­son of For­mula One’s V8-era.

This will be the 18th event held at Melbourne’s Albert Park and, as ever, the major­ity of the pad­dock is greet­ing the trip Down Under with over­whelm­ing enthusiasm.

Notions of 2013 rep­re­sent­ing a tran­si­tional cam­paign ahead of the V6 turbo-era will be dis­pelled as soon as the first car exits pit­lane and turns a wheel around the 5.3km cir­cuit in anger.

Teams and dri­vers will see this sea­son as a golden oppor­tu­nity to dethrone Red Bull, still rid­ing high after achiev­ing the ‘triple-double’ dri­vers and con­struc­tors’ titles three years run­ning, cour­tesy of Sebas­t­ian Vet­tel and tech­ni­cal mas­ter­mind Adrian Newey.

The Mil­ton Keynes-based out­fit has gone to extreme lengths to keep the RB9 under wraps through­out the pre-season, notably restrict­ing pho­tog­ra­phy at the car launch.

The con­sen­sus is that the squad delib­er­ately left much to be desired dur­ing test­ing, hav­ing fig­ured a long way off pace­set­ters Mer­cedes over the final two days of the last test at Barcelona.

Bottom-line, it would be no sur­prise to see one or both Red Bull cars on the front-row of the grid come Sunday.

On the sub­ject of test­ing, never in recent mem­ory has a pre-season left onlook­ers as clue­less to the true order, with the afore­men­tioned Mer­cedes, Lotus, Fer­rari, McLaren and Red Bull, as well as the Williams and Sauber pack­ages look­ing handy.

It won’t be until Q3 on Sat­ur­day evening at the ear­li­est, and pos­si­bly as late as the first race on Euro­pean soil in May (iron­i­cally at Barcelona), such is the nature of the fly­away events, that we will know how gen­uine the pace of these out­fits is.

Jen­son But­ton has plenty of rea­son to be con­fi­dent head­ing into this week­end, hav­ing tri­umphed at Mel­bourne three times over the past four seasons.

The two men who fought out last year’s title have just one vic­tory apiece Down Under, Fer­nando Alonso in 2006 and Sebas­t­ian Vet­tel in 2011.

Lotus pair­ing Kimi Raikko­nen and Romain Gros­jean didn’t enjoy as much run­ning through­out test­ing as is ideal, but they will have no doubt been enthused by the pace of the E21 when reli­a­bil­ity wasn’t a fac­tor, the for­mer hav­ing won here in 2007 on debut for Ferrari.

Lewis Hamil­ton has changed his tone dras­ti­cally in the past weeks fol­low­ing the final test, the Mer­cedes eye-catching times a far cry from the drum the Briton was beat­ing fol­low­ing his crash on his first day in the W04 at Jerez.

Hamil­ton claimed vic­tory at Mel­bourne in 2008, hav­ing debuted so spec­tac­u­larly a sea­son ear­lier when he fin­ished third.

Mark Web­ber hasn’t stood on the podium, let alone tasted vic­tory, dur­ing his 11 out­ings on home soil, his best result a fourth place last year. If the Aus­tralian can get the job done on Sat­ur­day and avoid one of his chron­i­cally dis­as­trous starts, this could be the year he holds a tro­phy of some descrip­tion aloft in front of his compatriots.

Ser­gio Perez is a man who needs to make an early impres­sion as he is thrown under the spot­light asso­ci­ated with the big four out­fits. The Mex­i­can impressed on sev­eral occa­sions last sea­son, but in a McLaren, he will need to do so on every occasion.

A dark horse looms in the form of the man who replaced Perez at Sauber in the form of Nico Hulken­berg, who many claim was unlucky to miss out on the McLaren seat when Lewis Hamil­ton announced his depar­ture. A future drive at Fer­rari looms if the Ger­man hits the ground running.

Williams has big wraps on debu­tant Valt­teri Bot­tas, who is joined by a return­ing Pas­tor Mal­don­ado, and with an ambi­tious car in the FW35. These two could fea­ture promi­nently inside the top ten.

The extreme weather doesn’t look like being as much of a fac­tor as first feared, in con­junc­tion with Pirelli’s noto­ri­ously fickle rub­ber, caus­ing all sorts of chaos dur­ing test­ing with rapid wear, appar­ently even more extreme than last season.

It looms as a week­end where we will learn as we go, with half the field real­is­ti­cally in a posi­tion to chal­lenge for a podium.

Until then, best to let the on-track action do the talking!

Predictions

First: Jen­son Button

Second: Kimi Raikko­nen

Third: Sebas­t­ian Vettel

Fourth: Fer­nando Alonso

Fifth: Lewis Hamil­ton

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