Six world champions, five winning teams, let the games begin!

Air guns. Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Preparations, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday 14 March 2012.

Six air guns for six champions!

Mar.15 (PVM-Reuters) Collectively they have contested 999 Grands Prix, won 186 of them, been on pole 160 times and set 156 fastest laps, they have won the last 12 F1 world titles. “They” are the six world champions about to take part in the 2012 Formula 1 Qantas Australian Grand Prix. And every one of them is already a Melbourne race-winner!

Six world champions on the 2012 grid

Six world champions on the 2012 grid

Understandably world champion Vettel is favourite to open the F1 season with a victory this weekend but there are strong indications that he will face a much tougher challenge than he did last year.

The German’s pole-to-flag victory by a formidable 22.2 seconds at Albert Park last year started a second season of dominance for Vettel and his Red Bull team that

The return to the grid of Kimi Raikkonen after a two-year sabbatical, however, has resulted in the tantalising prospect of five former world champions, not to mention a string of young pretenders, fighting to deny Vettel a title hat-trick.

Race winner Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium. Formula One World Championship, Rd 1, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday 27 March 2011.  BEST IMAGE

Sebastian Vettel 2011 Australian GP winner

“This season looks like a stellar year for F1 with six world champions. It’s unprecedented,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner said. “The quality of the field is phenomenal. I think it’s going to be a really exciting season.

“We’re obviously determined to try and carry the momentum we’ve gathered over the last couple of years into this season, but we certainly don’t take anything for granted.”

Despite the millions of dollars invested in building the cars and the thousands of kilometres run in testing, no one really knows how the contenders will match up until the covers come off the tyres for Saturday’s qualifying session.

Indications are, however, that McLaren, who boast two of the former world champions in Britons Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, will be more competitive from the get go than they were after a difficult Winter last year.

Race winner Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren on the podium with Robert Kubica (POL) Renault and Felipe Massa (BRA) Ferrari.  Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday 28 March 2010.

Jenson Button 2010 Australian GP winner

They have pedigree on the Melbourne street circuit too. Button, runner-up in the title race last year, won back-to-back in Melbourne in 2009 and 2010 with Hamilton winning in 2008.

“I actually feel more relaxed and ready for the new season than I think I’ve ever done,” said Hamilton, who was fifth in the championship last year.

“Everything has gone smoothly with the car – which is more than we can say for last year – and it just seems to be a responsive and reliable package.”

Raikkonen won in Melbourne in 2007 on his way to winning the title for Ferrari and looks to have eased seamlessly back into F1, with Lotus, who ran as Renault up until last season.

The 32-year-old Finn left the sport after battling with his motivation and, from what he showed in testing, would seem to have a car which could offer him the chance to fight for podiums at least.

Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen 2007 Australian GP winner

“He looks like he is driving very well, like he has never really been away,” said Horner. “So much will depend on the car for him, and that will probably affect his motivation.”

Ferrari’s former world champion Fernando Alonso, the 2006 winner in Australia, never needs any motivating but he and his team mate Felipe Massa look like facing an uphill battle to get on the podium in their radically overhauled 2012 car.

Seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher won the last of his four Australian Grands Prix in 2004 and his Mercedes team is another which has great hopes after positive Winter tests.

One contender who has never won a world title, nor a grand prix at Albert Park, is Vettel’s Red Bull team mate Mark Webber and the Australian will be at least hoping to improve on his best finish of fifth in his home race.

“This will be my eleventh Australian GP and I can’t wait to get started,” said the 35-year-old, who finished third in the championship last year.

“It’s been an extremely intense few months for the whole team and it’s incredible when you count up how many sleep-deprived hours have gone in to preparing the car as best we can.”

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