Mar.9 (Reuters) Double world champion Sebastian Vettel will have to be the best of the best if he is to join Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher as the only drivers to have won three successive F1 titles.
Kimi Raikkonen’s comeback with Lotus means that, for the first time, six world champions will line up together on the grid in Australia next week to start what will also be the most gruelling of seasons with a record 20 races.
Bahrain is back after last year’s cancellation due to violent civil unrest while Austin, Texas, makes its debut on the calendar in a long-awaited return for the United States after a five-year absence.
Vettel, the youngest double champion at 24, won 11 of last year’s 19 races as his Red Bull team chalked up their second constructors’ crown in a row but the German cannot expect such domination again.
Even if pre-season testing can be hard to read, with Melbourne the moment when the flag drops and the bullsh1t stops, the signs are that Red Bull’s rivals have closed what was at times a gaping chasm between them.
Ferrari may be struggling to extract the maximum performance from their car, one of the ugliest they have unveiled with its step-nosed solution to new regulations, but they can be counted on to sort it out while McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus (formerly Renault) have looked quick and reliable.
“I’m expecting the tightest start to a season we’ve seen for a number of years,” said seven times champion Schumacher’s Mercedes team boss Ross Brawn.
“It is great for F1 to have so many world champions but just the quality of the field and the fact the cars look as if they’re going to be a bit closer [means] I think we’re going to have a really exciting season,” he told the BBC.
“It could be one of the best for a number of years.”
Apart from Vettel, Schumacher and 2007 champion Raikkonen, the list includes the McLaren duo of 2008 title holder Lewis Hamilton, 2009 winner Jenson Button and Ferrari’s double champion Fernando Alonso.
Only Schumacher, winner of five titles in a row with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004, and the late great Argentine Fangio, who triumphed four times in succession between 1954 and 1957, have managed to extend their reigns into a third consecutive year.
Button, runner-up in 2011 and the first team mate to beat Hamilton over the course of a championship, could be one to watch.
“Seb had an unbelievable year and in the end dominated significantly,” said Red Bull team boss Christian Horner. “But there are some big opponents out there,” he added, identifying Button as probably the strongest rival to Vettel and Australian team mate Mark Webber.
Webber struggled to master the new Pirelli tyres early on last year but won the final race in Brazil and will be giving this season his best shot, knowing that he might not be around for much longer.
The mood at McLaren is a marked change from this time a year ago, when the team had to play catch-up after struggling to string laps together in testing, with Hamilton and Button sounding confident this time around.
“Going to Melbourne from here I’m a lot happier than I was last year,” Button said after his last day of testing in Barcelona.
“We’ve had a good Winter in terms of reliability most of the time … and I feel we are making good progress with the car.
“There’s nothing I’m afraid of with the balance of the car,” Button told reporters.
The midfield also looks tighter than ever, with Force India, Sauber and Toro Rosso all putting in the laps in testing and extracting encouraging times.
Former champions Williams, who endured their worst season in 2011 with just five points, have rung the changes and have a new Renault engine while Malaysian-owned Caterham, formerly Team Lotus, are poised to make a big step up and score their first point.
Some familiar faces have gone, with F1’s most experienced driver Rubens Barrichello heading off to IndyCar and Italian Jarno Trulli signing off reluctantly from Caterham, and some fresh ones have arrived.
Toro Rosso have an all-new lineup of Australian Daniel Ricciardo, starting his first full season, alongside rookie Jean-Eric Vergne.
Vergne is one of three French drivers – last year there were none – with Romain Grosjean at Lotus and Charles Pic at Marussia (formerly Virgin Racing).
Brazilian Bruno Senna, nephew of triple champion Ayrton, replaces compatriot Barrichello at Williams while Germany’s Nico Hulkenberg returns to the grid as a Force India driver after a year as a reserve.
Trulli’s departure means there are no Italians starting the season for the first time since 1970 but all that matters in Maranello is that Ferrari should come good.
“I hope the predictions about us are wrong,” said Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, putting into words the thoughts of millions of his compatriots.