The 2013 Formula 1 World Championship is almost upon us. There are only a few hours to go before Friday practice sessions at Melbourne's Albert Park are green-lighted and the tension is palpable. Pre-season testing has thrown up some interesting times and possibilities but has also confirmed the usual suspects are likely to be battling for top honours... with perhaps one or two new challengers.
As ever, a Formula 1 race weekend consists of three days - two practice sessions on a Friday, a third practice session on Saturday followed by the qualifying hour and then the race on Sunday.
The Australian Grand Prix, scheduled for 15 - 17 March, starts a 19-race calendar that finishes with the Brazilian Grand Prix, in Sao Paulo, in late-November. Between now and then, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing will defend their drivers and constructors world championship across the Far East (Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan, Korea and India), the Middle East (Bahrain and Abu Dhabi), Europe (Spain, Monte Carlo, Germany, Italy and the UK, among other venues) and the Americas (the United States, Canada and Brazil).
For the full calendar of events for the 2013 Formula 1 World Championship, click here.
Where to Watch Friday Practice Live
Coverage of the practice sessions for the 2013 Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix is available on Sky F1. The first session starts at 1am GMT on the morning of 15 March and the second starts at 5.15am GMT. Live coverage is also available online, through the official Formula 1 Web site.
The final testing session was at the Circuit de Cataluña in Barcelona, Spain. And on the final day of the four-day test it was the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, the winner of the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix, that was fastest. Rosberg's 1:20.130 was, in fact, the fastest time of the four-day test and the fastest from the total of eight days testing at the track.
Of course, as the German himself was quick to add after the session, this was only a test and not a qualifying/race situation. Nevertheless, he admitted: "I'm pleased with our pre-season testing programme. We have achieved a lot of mileage and I can feel the balance of the car is good."
The German was followed, in the second Barcelona test, by the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard was less than .300s behind his rival and if we are to believe comments from Maranello, Ferrari are confident ahead of the new season. The Italians will hope for a significantly better start to the season than they had last year, when both Alonso and his team mate, Felipe Massa, qualified outside the top ten and Massa failed to finish the race.
However, Alonso, like Rosberg is wary of making too many predictions ahead of the actual race. The Spaniard, now in his fourth season with Ferrari, included last season's surprise package - Lotus-Renault - among his picks for the season.
"Mercedes, McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus and Red Bull showed potential in testing. Difficult to choose. No-one knows who can win this race at the moment," Alonso said in a BBC Sport report, adding, "We need to wait and see and answer some questions that winter testing didn't answer. It will maybe not be the same as last year with mixed results."
The McLarens and the Red Bulls have also been in fairly impressive form in pre-season runs, with Sergio Perez settling in satisfactorily with his new team. The young Mexican's experienced team mate, Jenson Button was third fastest in the final test session of pre-season and his time of 1:21.444 was comfortably faster than Perez's 1:22.694. In fact, the latter's fastest time, over eight days (two sessions) of testing in Barcelona was 0.400s off the pace.
Perez clearly needs to work on getting faster times. But some superb drives in 2012 - none more so than Malaysia and Canada - suggests he has tremendous potential and if he can unlock the McLaren MP4-28's secrets, Button will have a fight on his hands.
Defending champions Red Bull have been cagey about their pre-season form. The Milton Keynes-based outfit have been undisputed champions in recent seasons and the fact their best time from the two Barcelona tests - Vettel's 1:22.197 - was ultimately 2.067s off the best time will not fool their rivals. The Red Bulls were similarly slow in testing last season, only to turn up with bags of pace in hand for the races. And ominously for his rivals, Vettel says he is as motivated as ever.
Lewis Hamilton, meanwhile, has been in good form as well, finishing on top of the timesheets after a rain-affected end to the first Barcelona test. The 2008 world champion left the Woking-based McLaren to join the Mercedes works team for this season, after quite a bit of controversy in 2012. And all eyes will be on the British driver to see if he can coax race-winning form out of a team that has only one pole and one win since its conception in 2010.
Albert Park Circuit Stats
- First Race: 1996
- Lap Length: 5.303km
- Race Distance: 58 laps
- Lap Record: 1:24.125 - Michael Schumacher (Ferrari, 2004)
The first practice session starts at 12.30pm (local time) and the second at 4.30pm (local time). Both will run for 90 minutes.
Weather forecasts indicate clear skies in the build-up to the first session, with some cloud cover as the afternoon progresses. Air temperature is likely to remain between 20C and 25C for most of the day, with the mercury dipping below 20C by 7pm (local time).
Wind could be an issue, with a 13km/h southerly breeze expected. This means cars will receive a little boost heading into the start-finish straight but given the open layout of the track (the Melbourne Park is a street circuit built around a small lake) expect cars to run into a bit of wind through the sequence of corners from 11 to 13.
The best news, though, is there is absolutely no rain forecast. Humidity will remain at a comfortable average of 50 percent, with less than the same amount of cloud cover.