Red Bull again?

The time sheets recorded at the pre-season testing, where nine drivers finished within one second of the third-placed Hamilton (Rosberg and Alonso had finished one and two), point to a tight order of competition as the cars line up in Melbourne for the opening race of the 2013 season. By G. Raghunath.

As is the case every season, the data generated at the winter testing in Barcelona recently do not reveal the truth in its entirety. Even after covering nearly 50,000 kilometres and burning close to 920 sets of rapidly graining Pirelli tyres over three staggered sessions of pre-season testing, the teams are still hedging their bets. So are the drivers, weighed down by a gnawing suspicion that their adversaries probably haven’t run to their potential in the 12 days of testing.

Barring Ferrari, the other teams have stamped their Jerez and Circuit de Catalunya exercises as ‘inconclusive’.

The persuasive point of the winter testing, however, was the seism created by the two Silver Arrows — steered by Nico Rosberg and the 2008 world champion Lewis Hamilton — in the final session. “... shows how dangerous Nico (Rosberg) and Lewis (Hamilton) will be,” warned Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who will be bidding for a fourth straight World Championship crown this year.

For the record, Rosberg belted out the fastest time of winter testing — 1:20.130s. His Mercedes team-mate Hamilton set the third best time — only 0.094s behind Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and 0.458s adrift of Rosberg.

One salient feature of the time sheets recorded at the pre-season testing — despite the cars carrying different fuel loads — is that nine drivers from six different teams finished within one second of the third-placed Hamilton (Rosberg and Alonso had finished one and two). However much the teams look askance at these time sheets, they, without doubt, point to a tight order of competition as the cars line up for the Australian Grand Prix (March 17), the first of the 19 races scheduled for the 2013 season.

By a long way, Mercedes GP should be among the frontrunners going by the upgrades and enhanced systems it has fastened on to its cars. The Brackley-based team seems to have come a long, long way from those annoying times when its sluggish, and sometimes even stalling machines were an embarrassment on the track. Incidentally, Hamilton (formerly of McLaren) joining forces with Rosberg many years after they had raced together in the junior formulae lends the German team the much-needed driving muscle.

Red Bull, regardless of its claims of having had a not-too-productive winter testing, would be the team to beat this season too. The FIA ruling banning the use of ‘active’ Double Drag Reduction System, a device Red Bull (read Vettel) put to excellent use to turn the World Championship on its head in the second half of last season, could rob the team of some power. But it can always count on its technical wizard Adrian Newey to come up with yet another masterstroke to counter the problem.

Last year, Red Bull was in a similar position after the world governing body of motorsport had outlawed the use of the exhaust blown diffuser. The performance of both Vettel’s and Webber’s cars dropped astoundingly — almost to a point of no return, one thought. But Newey released an improvised version of the Double DRS, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Most teams, including strong contenders Ferrari, McLaren and Mercedes have explicitly expressed doubts if Red Bull had truly played its hand in Barcelona. Experts claim that the RB9s have a strong downforce and are strikingly quick in fast corners. To borrow former F1 driver and now TV commentator Martin Brundle’s words, “the Red Bull looks mighty out on track.”

Like Brazil in World Cup football, Ferrari is a perennial favourite in Formula One. Unlike last year, the Maranello outfit is a lot more confident this time, and it has the right to feel so, for its cars had sprinted remarkably well in winter testing. The Ferrari team principal, Stefano Domenicalli, went on record that he was very happy with the pace of his cars. “We are on the right path at last compared to the past... I am convinced that Ferrari will be in the battle to the end,” he told the website Planet F1.

Fernando Alonso has claimed that the F138 is 200 times better than the version he drove last year. Despite driving a dud last season, the Spaniard very nearly pulled off a miracle (he chased Vettel relentlessly until the final Grand Prix in Brazil before losing the world title by just three points). Imagine what he can do with a far better car that Ferrari promises to provide him this year.

The other strong contender, McLaren, had reported problems of under-steer during the pre-season testing, but the pace that the MP4-28s have generated has boosted the confidence of Jenson Button and his new team-mate Sergio Perez.

“I’ve never worked harder over a winter to be ready for the new season, and I’m confident I’ve done everything within my reach to be ready,” said Perez, who crossed over from Sauber as a replacement for Hamilton.

In this heady mix are also teams such as Lotus, Williams, Force India and Sauber, who all have the speed and personnel to match the frontrunners. But they would need much more — reliability, astute tyre management, snappy and precise pit stops and so on — to beat the usual suspects at their own game.

As for Caterham and Marussia, who drew a blank last year, scoring points would be a victory in itself.

Crisis-ridden Hispania Racing was struck off the entry list after it failed to find a buyer before the November 30, 2012 deadline. In the event, India’s Narain Karthikeyan has been left without a drive this season.

KEEPING TRACK YOUNG GUNS

The 2013 season will see five drivers making their Formula One debut — Esteban Gutierrez (Mexico; Sauber), Valtteri Bottas (Finland; Williams), Giedo van der Garde (The Netherlands; Caterham), Jules Bianchi (France; Marussia) and Max Chilton (United Kingdom; Marussia).

QUALIFYING

Following the omission of Hispania Racing Team, which failed to find a buyer before the deadline of November 30, 2012, there are only 11 teams (22 cars) in the fray this season. Consequently, the qualification has been tweaked a bit, with six cars each — instead of seven — dropping off from Q1 and Q2.

FAREWELL TO 2.4-LITRE V8

This will be the final season for cars powered by 2.4-litre V8 engines. Beginning 2014, the Formula One cars will be driven by 1.6-litre V6 power plants with turbochargers. The cars will also have a more powerful and sophisticated KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System).