It can't get any better!

The romance of the season lies in the fact that for the first time in its 62-year history Formula One will witness six world champions with 14 titles between them on the starting grid. And one can wager even without a moment's hesitation that each of these champion drivers would give anything to have another world title in their grasp. Over to G. Raghunath.

Last year, by the time the Formula One caravan had arrived at the Buddh International Circuit in Greater Noida for the inaugural Grand Prix of India — the 17th race of the 19-card World Championship — Sebastian Vettel had already wrapped up his second successive world title and his team Red Bull its second consecutive world constructors' title. Martin Whitmarsh, the head of McLaren, the main challenger of Red Bull, looked completely befuddled and lost. He was already looking at the 2012 season. “It isn't enough if we keep pace with Red Bull, we need to beat them. That's what we should do next year,” he said, barely managing to hide his disappointment over McLaren's infuriatingly inconsistent performance through the season.

Teams plotting and strategising in an attempt to upstage Red Bull could well be the motif of the 2012 season. Red Bull's uncharacteristically tepid performances in the two pre-season winter testing in Jerez and Barcelona have shown up a few chinks in the champion outfit's armour which teams such as McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, and yes, even Lotus (Renault in its earlier avatar) would be more than eager to take a shot at.

The romance of the season, though, lies in the fact that for the first time in its 62-year history Formula One will witness six world champions with 14 titles between them on the starting grid. And one can wager even without a moment's hesitation that each of these champion drivers would give anything to have another world title in their grasp.

Now picture this: defending champion Vettel going flat out in quest of his third successive world title which would put him in the company of such illustrious men as Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher; Ferrari's Fernando Alonso trying to prove to the world and Vettel in particular that it wasn't an empty challenge, after all, when he had said last year that he would get to his third world title ahead of the German; Jenson Button of McLaren going for his second world title to debunk his critics who have — quite uncharitably — labelled him a one-championship wonder; his team-mate Lewis Hamilton making amends for his ghastly performance last year and announcing to the world that he is still the driver with potential to win more than the one world title he claimed in 2008; the 2007 world champion, Kimi Raikkonen, confirming what his team Lotus believes him to be — a serious contender for the world crown despite being out of the sport since 2009. And finally, the seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher out to show that at 43 he is still capable of beating the ‘boys' at their game. Formula One couldn't get any better!

However, as the cliche goes, driving is very critical in racing, but it's only one half of the job. The fortunes of the teams depend quite as much on how well the teams have done their homework and how competitive their cars are. All of which will be evident only after at least three races are run.

So, with the season set to kick off on March 18 at the Albert Park in Melbourne, the teams are still not sure of the kind of performance they would be able to dish out in the Australian Grand Prix. And more than performance, they are wary of bugs waiting to erupt at some inopportune time.

Vettel is of the view that the Red Bull cars this year, without the blown diffusers that have been banned by the FIA, have less grip. Strangely, even Fernando Alonso, despite clocking the second fastest time in the final pre-season testing in Barcelona, is not very happy with his car, especially its speed and aerodynamics. “We still have many things to improve. We have to grit our teeth and keep improving little by little,” the BBC quoted the Spaniard as saying.

The Ferrari Technical Director, Pat Fry, was not only in consonance with Alonso but also expressed his doubts over the ‘Prancing Horses' finishing on the podium in the first few races of the season. A case of Ferrari hedging its bets? Maybe.

Following their successful winter testing, both Button and Hamilton believe the McLarens are a lot more competitive this year when compared with 2011. But Whitmarsh has warned not to read too much into the pre-season testing. “You can complete thousands of kilometres of testing, analyse hundreds of thousands of lines of performance data and read pages of web and magazine editorial and still not have a clear idea of overall form going into the first race. I think that's an intrinsic and fascinating aspect of Formula One: the resetting of the bar at the end of each season and the relentless, and often invisible, quest to emerge on top at the start of a new year,” he told the website Formula1.com.

Perhaps the most astonishing result in the final pre-season testing came from the Lotus stable with Raikkonen belting out the fastest time of 1:22.030, which was nearly 0.220 seconds ahead of Alonso. Lotus is positive that it has the car and the driver to mount a strong challenge against the Big Four (Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes).

Another salient feature of the winter testing was that a few mid-rung teams such as Williams (Bruno Senna), Force India (Nico Hulkenberg) and Sauber (Kamui Kobayashi) reeled out performances that were least expected of them. Indications are that they could land a few podium finishes. So, this brings us to the question: are we going to see a more level playing field this year?

The experts are of the view that the teams have all closed up. Ross Brawn, the Mercedes team principal, summed it up adequately.

“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. It could be one of the best for a number of years,” he said while speaking to the media during the final pre-season testing.