Stage set for tight battle
Tony Jardine looks ahead to the new Formula One season and believes the title race could be even closer than last year.
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It was tough and tight and the top in 2012 with the Formula One title fight going all the way to the wire in Brazil after an epic season - but this year it could be even closer with the potential of a three-way fight to the finish.
With the stability of rules continuing into 2013 we could see teams edging closer to the top three technically, with the distinct chance that Ferrari can get their aerodynamic act together and really challenge for the title
without having to rely on the brilliance of Fernando Alonso's driving alone.
Seven different winners of the first seven races last year showed how much of a challenge it was to master the new spec Pirelli tyres and perfect the 'blown exhausts' which enhanced performance.
So far we have seen in testing the latest tyres could deteriorate faster through softer compounds and certainly Pirelli have purposely made sure there is at least a half second a lap difference between the two compounds drivers have to use.
This has moved triple word champion Sebastian Vettel to say that "the tyres were simply not good enough" after struggling with them in the final test at Barcelona. However, you can be sure all will be well in time for Melbourne.
Incredibly Red Bull Racing will be challenging for it's fourth straight world constructors and drivers titles. If the you add the continuity of twice winner in 2012 Mark Webber and five-time winner and champion Vettel to the brilliance of designer Adrian Newey you have the benchmark to try and beat.
Whether there is enough potential development left their revised car from 2012 rather than a brand new design, time will tell. I certainly believe their rivals will be closer with the technical battle raging throughout the year until a team's title chances fade.
Following pre-season testing Mercedes and new recruit Lewis Hamilton have emerged as potential race winners so the top three could become four.
Despite the loss of Michael Schumacher making way for Hamilton, we still have five world champions on the grid which fans haven't enjoyed since the seventies.
But testing is inconclusive due to teams running different fuel loads and tyres at different times, but what we can say is the top teams were still at the top. The Ferrari looked better than last year, the McLaren was fast and detailed, Red Bull ran lots of race miles and ignored the time sheets whilst Mercedes have definitely learned some lessons.
With just one win for Nico Rosberg and an almost embarrassing level of talented technical staff to be joined at the end of the year by McLaren's Paddy Lowe, Mercedes chiefs expect success.
Huge pressure then for new Mercedes Motorsport boss Toto Wolff, who left Williams to take up this post alongside new none exec director Niki Lauda, who must share the task after he persuaded Hamilton to jump ship.
F1 is bound to throw up it's usual eclectic mix of drama, rivalry and great battles both in design offices and on track which I always savour leading up to the first race.
When you look at the cars from testing and the driver combinations starting in Australia next weekend you can see continuity and strength such as at Red Bull and Ferrari but then the excitement of young Mexican star Sergio Perez in a McLaren and Hamilton paired with his old karting team-mate Rosberg from 13 years ago at Mercedes.
Rosberg may decide to battle Hamilton for number one status in the team or take the number two role early, this will be fascinating.
With the cars it is evolution not revolution, with one more year before drastic rule changes with new smaller turbo engines, the stage is set for a great title fight as top teams like Ferrari are expected to catch up. If they don't heads will roll in Italy.
Lotus should win more than one race after ice man Kimi Raikkonen famously told his engineer in a radio reply to 'leave me alone, I know what I'm doing!' in his brilliant run to the chequered flag at Abu Dhabi.
Team-mate Romain Grosjean is lucky to still have a job after his multiple early race crashes last year, the most severe of which nearly decapitated Alonso after he flew over the top of him in Belgium taking out Lewis Hamilton at the same time.
This earned the Frenchman a one race ban and he drove like a scared man on his return and yet between them the drivers scored 10 podiums with a second in Canada for Grosjean.
In James Allison they have a talented technical director and designer who will drive development through the year and demand more from the drivers, so I will be watching them carefully for our predictions.
How could McLaren have not won the world championship last year? Despite the retirements, pit stop and strategy errors, Jenson Button won three and Hamilton four.
As Hamilton mounted his championship charge the gearbox failed in Singapore handing the victory to Vettel who went on to three more wins on the bounce. The biggest price they paid was the loss of Hamilton.
But this is a great team with a potential championship winning car that performed well in testing. Now Button has to lead the team with new competitive team-mate Perez, who impressed so much last year especially when he chased down Alonso in Malaysia settling for second at the end.
I think Button now has to harden up and take control although I understand he has already told the team any repeat of last year's mistakes can't happen.
I really hope Williams enjoy a good season. They have to make sure Spanish Grand Prix winner Pastor Maldonado drives with his head and not his heart as the new car from Mike Coughlan has shown good potential in testing.
There is a new talent on the Williams books to attempt to take the car into the top five as we see the emergence of another potential champion in Valtteri Bottas, who replaces Bruno Senna, and he becomes the first Finn to race for the team since Keke Rosberg in 1982.
Bottas is no quiet 'ice man' as he has already been telling the world how good he is, now he has to deliver as a full time Grand Prix race driver and not as a test driver.
There will be 10 different nationalities taking part in 19 races from March to November. There will now be four British drivers with the addition of rookie Max Chilton, who makes his debut in Australia in the Marussia.
Paul Di Resta will once again be in the Force India having missed out on the big vacancies at McLaren and Mercedes but he will be out to prove his doubters wrong as he pushes hard for points.
His old team-mate Nico Hulkenburg - now in a Sauber - is one of four talented German drivers on the grid. Di Resta must beat the 'Hulk' to re-establish his big team race creds having suffered at the German's hands in the latter part of last year.
All through the field I see the potential for great racing, the battles will be fast and furious but don't think that the winner in Australia will necessarily take the crown at the end of the year.
Apart from the fact that the flat Melbourne street circuit flatters to deceive, this could be the closest F1 season since...last year!