2013 F1 gets under way, with an eye on 2014
The Formula One season is about to kick off in Melbourne, but the teams have one eye focused on the major changes looming on the horizon
So here we go again. There are just a few days before the Formula One season gets under way in Melbourne. With 19 races spanning the globe, the sport that puts on a show like no other is about to dazzle again.
And yet the sport seems oddly distracted heading into the 2013 season. Many in the paddock and many in the stands have half an eye on 2014, and much of the goings-on in the sport have reflected this.
Next year sees the introduction of a raft of rules, including a V6 engine. As much as the teams have been preparing for this season, they have also been looking ahead to the brave new world of F1.
Mercedes certainly have been among the teams planning ahead, poaching McLaren's technical director Paddy Lowe for 2014. Given he's still contracted to McLaren and isn't likely to be let anywhere near the team's secrets, he is going to have to spend a lot of time in the garden this summer.
The more financially straitened times the world lives in has been reflected even in the excess-strewn world of Formula One.
There is one less team on the grid after the demise of HRT over the summer. A record of 58 grands prix, a best finish of 13 and 19 back-row lock-outs came at a cost of £70 million (HK$808 million).
The easy days of sponsorship money pouring into the sport are over. It is becoming ever more difficult for teams to find traction and establish themselves or make the leap from midfield into the leading few.
The need for cash is reflected in their selection of drivers. Only the top three or four teams can afford to pay the big wages of the gun drivers. The rest require the drivers to pay the big money to the teams. The individual who can bring the most sponsors to the table gets the prize.
Brazilian Bruno Senna is now plying his trade with Aston Martin in the World Endurance Championship. His decision to walk away from F1 after losing his Williams seat is, apparently, more to do with wanting the opportunity to actually earn a living in the sport, without the paddock politics.
Whatever the financial situation, the average fan wants to know who is going to dominate. Pre-season testing is always tricky to interpret, but only a fool would discount Red Bull being in the hunt for a fourth consecutive title.
Sebastian Vettel certainly has nothing to prove, and with an unchanged line-up the team have been able to concentrate on getting the car right.
Of the other front runners, Mercedes have caught some admiring glances from those following testing. The team seem to have a competitive car. With Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg wrestling for the upper hand in the team there could be some shocks from the Silver Arrows.
The key will be if Mercedes can ensure there is no drop-off in performance as the season progresses, as was witnessed last year.
Ferrari once again seem a little undercooked. Updates are being brought to Australia, but you have to wonder why these weren't available earlier. Fernando Alonso is talking up his chances and if the car is only a little bit less worse than last season, he may have a chance.
Lotus will again be in the mix. The former Renault team didn't have the easiest of pre-season testing, but with Kimi Raikkonen coming back to the sport so strongly last season, there may be a few victories to be had along the way.
If you fancy a flutter, you could do worse than back Jenson Button for the title. It might be long odds, but if McLaren can provide the car, the Briton might provide his second title.
He's got the experience, he's got the team right behind him, but he does need the tyres to suit He also has got to hope his new teammate, Sergio Perez, doesn't show the form he did last year at Sauber. The Mexican will have all eyes on him, but he has the temperament to not only cope, but to thrive.
Unusually in recent years, no new track makes its debut after the postponement of the New Jersey grand prix.
So, it's 19 races, stretching all the way to the end of November. A lot will happen in the intervening months, but make sure whatever transpires you enjoy it. As David Coulthard remarked recently, F1 is enjoying one of its greatest eras.