Kimi knows what he's doing
Our tipster Tom Millard reckons Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen looks a good each-way bet to win the 2013 F1 world championship.
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All the signs suggest we could be in for one of the closest seasons ever in 2013.
"There are nine teams within one second," McLaren's sporting director Sam Michael admitted at the conclusion of the intense winter testing period last weekend.
This is the fifth year in which the rules governing the architecture of the cars have remained stable, meaning the teams' designs are converging towards an ideal concept.
The result of this is the bunching up of the five best-funded teams, with each showing the potential to head the grid in Melbourne next weekend, but with no single team making a clear claim for supremacy. The headline times from Barcelona pace-setters Mercedes have raised eyebrows in the paddock while Ferrari and Lotus have also shown speed and consistency in long runs.
The new McLaren, meanwhile, has looked sporadically quick but appears to be suffering from significant tyre degradation as a simulated race stint progresses, seeing its lap times tail off as a result.
For their part, world champions Red Bull have characteristically refused to reveal their cards, maintaining tradition by running with a hefty fuel load at all times in order to conceal their true pace.
Trackside observers have gushed over the RB9's poise and balance but both its drivers have been equivocal when asked to rate the car's chances in the opening race.
Most pundits claim that the fuel-corrected fastest times from the Cicuit de Catalunya last weekend show that quintet of teams separated by just a couple of tenths on raw pace, with Red Bull the nominal favourites by virtue of their recent pedigree and race-winning form at the end of 2012.
But it's worth bearing in mind that the three pre-season tests took place on a very different track and in very different weather to that which will greet the competitors in Albert Park next weekend.
The new-construction Pirelli tyres require track temperatures higher than those experienced in Jerez and Barcelona, where the rubber quickly grained and where the super-soft compound, set to be used in qualifying next weekend, was all but unusable.
So for all the analysis of the lap times, second-guessing of fuel loads and evaluation of performance upgrades, the pecking order in Melbourne may well be different to that which we saw in Barcelona last weekend.
We'll take a look at what changes punters can expect for the coming season and then rate each team in turn before drawing our conclusions.
WHAT'S NEW FOR 2013
1) The folding of the HRT team means that six drivers will exit both Q1 and Q2, with the remaining 10 proceeding to the qualifying shoot-out. Any midfield teams struggling for pace could therefore find both their drivers out at the first hurdle alongside the Caterhams and Marussias.
2) The use of DRS (drag reduction system), will be restricted to the official zones at all times of the weekend (it had previously been premitted to be used at any point in practice and qualifying). A team with a particularly efficient system, such as Red Bull's take on the 'double-DRS' concept towards the end of last season (which has now been outlawed), will have less opportunity to take advantage on a hot qualifying lap.
3) Pirelli's new construction tyres are said to have a wider operating window than last year's equivalents, reaching their working temperature more quickly while being more stable and consistent. Each compound in the range is also slightly softer than last year's, with a predicted half-second performance gap between each compound. The theory is that drivers who struggled to warm up their tyres in certain circumstances (such as Jenson Button) will find the new rubber more consistent, although evidence from testing suggests degradation could be more of a concern than originally anticipated.
After three consecutive drivers' and constructors' championship wins, how could Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull be anything other than clear favourites for their respective 2013 crowns? Vettel starts the defence of his title as the favourite and the stability, both within his team and on the regulations front, bodes well for the German, who is aiming to become only the fourth-ever quadruple F1 champion. The banning of the double-DRS and more stringent "flex tests" on a car's bodywork should be shrugged off by a team as well-resourced as Red Bull but every hurdle has the potential to trip the team up after last season's fierce development war ran deep into the autumn.
As mentioned above, Red Bull were widely acknowledged to be running with more fuel than their rivals at the recent test sessions but we can only guess at their handicap. Vettel sounded bullish when he suggested that "the lap times didn't matter at all through the winter tests" but he also insisted that they "have never had a winter more inconclusive than this one", citing that "it was extremely difficult to read some set-up changes and find a good direction with the car because the tyres were simply not good enough." Team-mate Mark Webber was characteristically blunt when asked by the BBC if his team were hiding their true pace: "We'll find out on the 16th, buddy."
Had the cards fallen slightly differently over the last six years we could now be acclaiming Fernando Alonso as a five-time world champion. Missing out on the title by just two points in 2007 was tough for the Spaniard but the agony was repeated in 2010 and 2012 (by five and then four points). His fight to finish runner-up last season was nothing short of heroic but being acknowledged as the most complete driver on the grid will mean little until he captures a third crown for Ferrari.
The F138 of second-favourite Alonso and his wingman Felipe Massa has been quick and consistent in pre-season but neither the team nor seasoned observers expect the pair to be setting the pace come Melbourne. There was talk of the rear-end of the car stepping out as the tyres lost grip towards the end of a stint, but the times appeared to hold up reasonably well, at least on the unrepresentatively cool track in Barcelona. The philosophical Alonso almost sounds prepared for another season-long slog against the odds but the long-run pace of the new challenger looks competitive and in a rare moment of optimism its lead driver even hinted he expected to be on the podium in Melbourne.
McLaren's aggressive approach to a redesign of the car which finished the 2012 season as the fastest is somewhat surprising but team leader Jenson Button insists the new design will provide greater scope for development during the season. The MP4-28 impressed at the opening test in Jerez but the drivers have since struggled to come to terms with its idiosyncracies over the last two weeks at Barcelona. Tyre graining appears to be more of an issue for Button and Sergio Perez than for their rivals, while the resulting understeer gets more pronounced deeper into a stint.
Button is out to 8/1 on the exchanges to repeat his unlikely triumph of 2009, having been matched at 5/1 after the promising Jerez test, so the market is clearly not convinced all is well at McLaren's gleaming Woking HQ. Nevertheless, the team may well be able to close any gap throughout the season as a result of its traditionally fearsome development rate, so punters would be advised not to write off the perennial contenders at this stage. McLaren will miss the peerless pace of Lewis Hamilton and the technical leadership of Mercedes-bound engineer Paddy Lowe but their resource base remains formidable. Perez, brilliant and anonymous in equal measures in the Sauber last season, will be expected to smooth out his peaks and troughs and learn from the grid's most experienced driver while scoring heavily, Webber-style.
Of the teams at the sharp end Lotus have arguably been the most consistent in their race simulations at the Circuit de Catalunya. A 20-lap stint on medium tyres from Romain Grosjean in the second winter test was hailed as a benchmark effort, with the E21 proving as quick and kind to its rubber as the car which took Kimi Raikkonen to a victory and six other podium finishes last year. Reliability niggles have proved a slight concern for the Enstone team, which completed less miles than all their rivals except Williams but the team claim confidence that this has not affected their race preparation.
Lotus arguably lost direction in the latter half of last season perfecting the yet-to-be-raced "passive DRS" system - a contraption independent of the primary DRS which is designed to stall the rear wing on high-speed straights - but look well-placed to build on a solid campaign in 2012. The new car appears to stave off degradation of the rear tyres in the same manner as its predecessor and a relentless Raikkonen, with 37 career fastest laps to his name, can once again make the most of the Enstone team's expertise. The Finn looks a good each-way bet (see below) to win the title. His team-mate Grosjean frequently proved himself even quicker than the former champion over a single qualifying lap and will look to put last year's disastrous year-end behind him and recreate his early-season form from 2012.
Mercedes' timesheet-topping runs in the final Barcelona test served to set tongues wagging, with some pundits even tipping big-money signing Lewis Hamilton for the championship. It's far from inconceivable that the Brackley-based team have created a gem with the new W04 but its predecessor was around a second-and-a-half off the pace in the final race in Brazil four months ago and a turnaround of such proportion in an era of stable technical rules would surely be without precedent.
Both Hamilton and Nico Rosberg seem at ease with the car, which appears quick both in sprint and marathon formats and crucially does not seem to have the tyre-shredding characteristics of its unloved ancestors. Only in Melbourne will its true pace be revealed but the initial signs for the team are positive. The season begins amidst a potentially unsettling managerial upheaval but any dissent in the hierarchy will be forgotten if Hamilton, filling the boots of the retired Michael Schumacher, brings some podium champagne back to the Brackley-based team in the early flyaway races.
Sauber's traditional under-the-radar approach was blown away last year by a series of epic drives through the field by Sergio Perez. Three podiums from him and one from Kamui Kobayashi represented the Swiss team's best return in years, but neither have retained their berth for 2013: the mercurial Perez has been poached by McLaren while his Japanese team-mate has found himself on the sidelines despite putting in another solid shift across the season. Upon the Mexican's departure the team moved swiftly to sign Nico Hulkenberg, last year's star in a reasonably-priced car and the man who so nearly won the final race of the season in Brazil for Force India. Rookie Esteban Gutierrez has been promoted from reserve driver to partner the German.
Early reports indicate that the C32 has the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor, namely good fast-corner speed and durable tyre use but a lack of slow-corner traction. If this car's peaks are as impressive as last year's contender, Hulkenberg could challenge for wins on some circuits, especially in the wet, but will be content with regular points-scoring positions at the majority of tracks.
As might be expected from an evolutionary development of a mid-grid car, Force India's new VJM06 looks set to be jostling amongst the midfield runners in the early rounds of this season. Their aim will be to beat Sauber, Williams and Toro Rosso to sixth in the constructors' championship and a reprise of their 2011 line-up of Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil gives them a reasonable chance of accomplishing that task.
Towards the end of the season di Resta fell away from team-mate Hulkenberg, and while he claimed extenuating circumstances the Scot needs to beat comeback kid Sutil convincingly if he is to remain on the radar of F1's big-hitters. Both men can do a solid job in a midfield car but while Sutil is unlikely to spring any surprises at the front, di Resta must prove he has the hunger and force of personality to make a breakthrough.
Williams opted to skip the opening test of the season but are quietly confident of the pace of their FW35, which was amongst the most consistent performers in winter testing. The winner of last year's Spanish Grand Prix,Pastor Maldonado, leads the team in his third season at Grove, with highly-rated Finnish upstart Valtteri Bottas partnering the erratic Venezuelan.
Maldonado is the man who will be charged with leapfrogging the team ahead of Sauber and Force India to become the best of the "independent" teams but an aggregate 33 grid places lost to penalties last season highlights his shortcomings. Bottas is in an ideal position to thrive with expectations subdued but in charge of a car which was quick enough to qualify on the third row in Brazil in last year's finale.
The Red Bull satellite squad will be aiming to overhaul at least one of the above quartet of midfield rivals while ensuring perennial backmarkers Caterham and Marussia remain exactly that. The squad retain last year's pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, each of whom had their moments in the spotlight but neither of whom caught the attention of paddock sages on a consistent basis.
With a spot at the senior team likely up for grabs at the end of the season both men know what's at stake - one of them may be promoted but the loser will be aware that Red Bull sporting director Helmut Marko will be diligently sharpening his axe. The STR8 appears to be a tidy package set to be wedged in the lower part of midfield in the opening part of the season.
Caterham nicked 10th place in the constructors' championship by the skin of their teeth but look in danger of starting the season with the slowest car following the withdrawal of HRT and the resurgence of fellow tail-enders Marussia. That last-gasp save in Brazil courtesy of an 11th-place finish from Vitaly Petrov masked another season of underachievement from the squad.
In a strange twist of fate the team have turned to Charles Pic, the man whom Petrov overtook at Interlagos, to lead their chase of the midfielders. Frenchman Pic did well to hang on to the coat-tails of the rapid Timo Glock at Marussia last year and will be an asset to their rivals in his sophomore season, while amiable Dutch rookie Giedo van der Garde has enjoyed an unremarkable career in the junior formulae but brings a sponsorship package which covers considerably more than the team's sandwich budget.
A productive off-season for the minnows seems to have vaulted them ahead of Caterham in battle of the have-nots. Another team with an all-new driver line-up, Marussia picked up Jules Bianchi from the debris of his Force India shoot-out with Sutil and will be fielding the French driver alongside the young Englishman Max Chilton.
A Williams-spec KERS unit has been added to the team's armoury and this, together with a partnership with McLaren Applied Technologies involving use of the simulator and wind tunnel at Woking, bodes well in their scrap to avoid the wooden spoon.
As ever, the destiny of the world championship will be ultimately determined by the rate of each team's development curve, a race which Red Bull Racing have won decisively in each of the last three seasons.
Their use of exhaust gases to increase downforce at the rear of the car; the subsequent development of "off-throttle blowing" and the tweaking of engine maps to maximise its effect; the innovative use of carbon composite technology to allow parts of the car to flex under load within the rules; the introduction of a drag-shedding double DRS system - all have been pioneered and perfected by technical director Adrian Newey and his engineers at Milton Keynes.
The above advantages have all now been restricted or outlawed but Newey retains the knack of being able to work around the rules and adapt his previous solutions to the new regulations.
This is precisely why Vettel, his fearsome driving talent aside, is such a heavy favourite in the ante-post lists once again.
We can respect his position at the top of the market while passing over the price based on the apparent closeness of the field.
McLaren also developed their car strongly last year but were let down by operational mistakes and poor reliability - the car's inherent speed was a match for the Red Bull but their drivers were let down by team failings.
To back Button or Perez in the outright markets would be to bank on the team being bang on the pace in Melbourne, which looks something of an outside bet as things stand.
The Woking team can be expected to become serious contenders as the season progresses, but the evidence suggests they are struggling to understand their heavily-revised contender - a slow start could give us the opportunity to back the former champion in double figures before the European races in the spring.
For their former driver Hamilton, redemption beckons at Mercedes. If the W04 Silver Arrow is as quick as it has threatened to be in testing, Hamilton could unexpectedly force his way into the title battle.
The market has plenty of respect for the Englishman, his odds having crashed from a pre-season high of 20/1.
Double figures is still available about the 2008 title winner but we do have concerns about this incarnation of the Brackley team to sustain a season-long challenge.
Only when the fuel comes out on Saturday morning at Albert Park will we see the car's true pace - at the prices it's safer to remain sceptical.
Hamilton's old foe Alonso is a certainty to score consistently and challenge for the title but again question marks remain over the Ferrari team's developmental capabilities.
Last season's wind tunnel correlation problems have supposedly been addressed but this will only be proved beyond doubt when the pressure gauge is cranked up once the season is under way.
The F2012 had bulletproof reliability but dropped off the pace as the season climaxed; this combined with strategic misjudgements in the heat of battle lost Alonso the title.
If the championship was awarded for relentlessness and tenacity Alonso would be odds-on but his price doesn't stand out given the above concerns.
The fact Alonso and Vettel take up a big chunk of the market opens up the book for those further down the list and we like the look of Kimi Raikkonen each-way at one-fifth the odds for three places.
The Finn's Lotus has retained the characteristics of its predecessor by being exceptionally kind to its tyres over a simulated race distance in testing.
Last season the flipside of this advantage was its inability to get the rubber up to their optimum temperature for a single flying lap - Kimi could have won in Bahrain, Spain and Hungary had he not qualified 11th, fourth and fifth respectively.
The construction of this year's tyre is claimed to eliminate that warm-up problem and there is a chance that Lotus could enjoy the benefits of this change without being subjected to its downside.
And with this season's tyres appearing to be especially prone to degradation the team might, just might, be in the best position to take advantage of the situation.
Raikkonen's experience and consistency should ensure he is able to make the most of any edge the changes give him.
Romain Grosjean, meanwhile, faces a make-or-break season after last year's comedy of errors was punctuated by occasional demonstrations of searing pace.
There is a case to be made for Grosjean to be the quickest of the two drivers on raw pace but the misjudgements which blighted his season and earned the censure of his peers must be eliminated.
We saw enough positives last year to suggest that Grosjean finishing in the top three might just be a value bet.
But the last thing the fragile Frenchman needs is the burden of expectation, so whatever you do, don't tell him we've tipped him.