With the Formula One season starting this weekend in Australia, fans are likely hoping a few of their questions about 2013 will be answered by the time the chequered flag flies on Sunday.
With few changes in the rules compared to last year, the top teams will be closer than ever when the red lights go out in Melbourne (1:55 a.m. Sunday on TSN), making predictions becomes tougher than ever.
In addition, if 2013 is anything like last year's topsy-turvy season that saw a record seven different winners in seven races to start the season, any conclusions from the first weekend will be exceedingly premature. Things are so up in the air that Ferrari's Fernando Alonso feels that at least 10 drivers have a shot at winning on Sunday.
That said, a driver's result in Australia has been an indicator of world championship success over the past 10 seasons. The eventual world champion has won six of the past 10 grand prix on the Albert Park street circuit in Melbourne, and the driver who won the title in those seasons finished off the podium just once in Australia. The only time it didn't happen was 2010 when a brake failure saw Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel retire from the race at about half distance. Coincidentally, that season's Australian Grand Prix was the second race of the year. In 2007, the Australian stop was the third grand prix of the season.
Whether a top finish in Melbourne spells success this year is anyone's guess, but it may give fans a clearer picture of how things will play out over the 19-race season.
While the mystery of season's first winner will be solved on Sunday, fans likely hope that Australia will help answer a few other questions they have about the 2013 season.
Will Lewis Hamilton win at Mercedes?
The 2008 world champion signed with the Mercedes squad for 2013 after being with McLaren since he broke into F1 in 2007. It was a huge move for Hamilton, who had been a McLaren-supported driver for about a decade before he graduated to grand prix racing. It will be interesting to see how the Englishman reacts to leaving the confines of the image-conscious McLaren outfit, which is one of the most staid teams in the paddock. Whether more relaxed surroundings will translate into Hamilton helping the Stuttgart-based manufacturer develop a car capable of winning races and a championship remains to be seen.
Has Ferrari finally developed a competitive car for Fernando Alonso?
There's no doubt that two-time world champion Alonso manufactured the championship battle that went down to the wire in 2012. A combination of reliability, luck, perseverance and sheer willpower put the Spaniard in the thick of a title fight where he and his Ferrari had no business being. In the end, he lost the driver's crown in the final race of the year by a mere three points to Vettel, who drove a markedly quicker car. Throughout 2012, the Ferrari seemed to have a problem with creating rear downforce, something that got better in the latter part of the season but not good enough to fend off the challenge from Vettel. It was the second time in the past three years that Alonso was runner up in the final standings to Vettel. While Alonso has the ability to adapt his style and be fast no matter what car Ferrari produces, he will be blindingly quick and tough to beat if the Maranello engineers have finally delivered him a package that is a bona fide title contender.
Can Vettel make it a four-peat?
When he took the 2012 world championship, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel became the only driver to win his first three world championships consecutively. He goes for another this year and with genius technical boss Adrian Newey designing his car, don't bet against the German becoming the youngest-ever four-time F1 champion. Last season we saw some chinks in the armour develop, with Red Bull looking like it was on its back foot in the early going. Vettel won only once in the first half and finished on the podium just three times in the first 10 races. While he looked to be out of the title fight, the Red Bull and its driver came alive in the second half, reeling off four wins and seven podiums in 10 starts in the second half to snatch the crown by three points.
Is 2013 the year of the Hulk?
Young German driver Nico Hülkenberg impressed many with his fast, consistent performances last year with the middle-of-the-pack Force India tram. Hulk, as he's known in the paddock, heads into 2013 on the strength of a rousing performance in last year's season finale in São Paulo, Brazil, where he excelled in wet conditions and led the powerful McLarens of Hamilton and 2009 world champion Jenson Button for much of the first half of the race. A tangle with Hamilton ruined his day, as a drive thru penalty for unavoidable contact put him out of contention for the win. he eventually crossed the line fifth. In the end, Hülkenberg outscored highly rated teammate Paul Di Resta 63-46 before moving to Sauber over the winter. His switch may have been perfect timing as many feel the Sauber team's thin sidepod design is the technical advance of 2013.
Will Lotus just leave Kimi alone?
When Kimi Räikkönen took the lead in last November's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it capped an amazing comeback after two years away from F1 to go rallying. It also produced one of the most memorable quotes in sport last year. When his race engineer told him that frequent updates on his pursuers' status would be forthcoming, Räikkönen quipped: "Leave me alone – I know what I'm doing." The humorous retort also punctuated the fact that the massively talented Finn's stellar performance in 2012 proved most observers wrong. While almost nobody expected the 2007 world champion to be competitive instantly after two seasons away from the sport, it would be difficult to find anyone who predicted the Lotus driver would end his first year back third overall in points. Now that he's proven he knows what he's doing, Räikkönen just might win the title if Lotus lets him be quirky old Kimi.
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