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!
First: Jenson Button
Second: Kimi Raikkonen
Third: Sebastian Vettel
Fourth: Fernando Alonso
Fifth: Lewis Hamilton