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Grid gearing up to test Vettel's shear class

T he PR exercise was in full swing a few days before last week's Australian Grand Prix. The bucolic setting of Warrook Cattle Farm in Victoria -- an hour's drive from Melbourne -- featured Sebastian Vettel shearing a sheep, which conspicuously didn't even feature a sponsor's name.

The world champion took a half an hour to do what the experts do in five minutes. What the sheep thought of the delicate operation only the sheep knows but it's probably still traumatised by the flashbulbs of a horde of photographers who gathered -- a bit sheepishly -- to capture the moment.

Then Vettel went from shearing a white sheep to pulverising the opposition with a Red Bull on race day. Is this fella the new farm-animal whisperer? Perhaps the most revealing thing about Vettel's imperious victory in Melbourne last Sunday was the calm, measured tone he relayed his message of thanks to his team on the radio during his celebration lap. Such serenity only comes after securing a title, which then seems to effortlessly unleash the prospect of others.

This was just the eleventh F1 success of his career and, lest we forget, Vettel is still only 23. The mercurial young warrior was on a charge as the clocks were set to zero for this season's 19-race campaign.

But Vettel knows that days like this are few and far between and that the marauding hordes of McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes and maybe even Renault, are steeling themselves for the long game. Red Bull's first win in Australia came at the end of an almost perfect winter of preparation during which they did all they could to mask the pace of the latest carbon sculpture chiselled by the deft hand of Adrian Newey.

With McLaren burdened by an overcomplicated exhaust system that required a radical pre-race overhaul, and Mercedes and Ferrari enduring a weekend to forget, the challenge to the champion had already evaporated before the starting lights went out. Vettel's principle task was to stop his palms from getting too sweaty in his Nomex gloves.

Mark Webber's pace in the sister Red Bull showed that a slight off-day at the office can be the difference between a public dousing in champagne and the subdued sipping of a can of flat energy drink at the back of the team garage, punctuated by awkward silences.

The Aussie seems to have a glass ceiling of fifth-place finishes in Melbourne and he won't need a rocket from team boss Christian Horner to narrow the gap to Vettel. The motivation will, as it always has, come from within. For Webber is his own worst critic.

Red Bull's malfunctioning KERS system is an enduring concern for the team. While they had the luxury of abandoning the power boost system ahead of race day knowing there was a relatively short run to the first corner in order for Vettel to protect his grid position.

Sepang is a different prospect altogether. Two long straights connected by hairpins will offer KERS-equipped rivals a great chance to stay in touch with Red Bull even if they've ceded track position in qualifying. Factor in the new Downforce Reduction Systems (DRS), aka adjustable rear wings, and there is added potential for the lead cars to be in close proximity heading to the first round of pit stops.

The much-vaunted DRS didn't really provide a whole lot of overtaking in Albert Park but, as Vettel told us in his post-race interview, it's a work in progress.

McLaren's recovery from their pre-season testing woes was nothing short of miraculous and is testimony to their infinite resources and work ethic. Lewis Hamilton's runner-up finish showed that the graph of improvement for the Woking outfit is positively alpine. The exhaust modification made ahead of Melbourne was a simple one. There is more to come from this package.

Pirelli's colour-coded, super-sticky and not-very-hard-wearing tyres failed to provide the expected flurry of activity on the pit lane and the late race overtaking opportunities in Melbourne with the top three all making do with two stops and the seventh-placed Sauber of rookie Sergio Perez wowing everyone with his pace on a single-stop strategy.

Perez lost his debut points finish in the stewards' room when his, and team-mate Kamui Kobayashi's, cars were excluded for a minor rear wing infringement. Perez will surely find it much harder to go the distance on the abrasive Sepang surface next weekend.

The most invigorating performance of the weekend came from Vitaly Petrov, on the podium for the first time for Renault. His team will have found it heartwarming but, even if they didn't admit it, all will have been wondering what might have been had Robert Kubica not been forced to watch the race from his hospital bed. His stand-in Nick Heidfeld failed to ignite the flame of expectation.

If Vettel is tempted to kid himself that his title defence will be a lap of honour round the world's race tracks, he would just need to check Fernando Alonso's face at some stage next weekend for a dose of reality.

The Ferrari team leader found himself on the gearbox of his 2010 title decider and nemesis Petrov. However, his battling run to fourth and fighting talk afterwards suggests he expects the prancing horse to be right on terms from Friday.

Mercedes, and Michael Schumacher in particular, flattered to deceive in pre-season testing but only a fool would discount a team run by Ross Brawn.

Hamilton reckons the Sepang race will show a truer picture of the situation: "Albert Park is a great track, but a circuit like Sepang is where the differences between the cars will start to become clearer." But McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh simultaneously concedes that Red Bull may not have unleashed their full speed in Melbourne.

Last year, the finishing order was Vettel, Webber, Rosberg, Kubica, Sutil and Hamilton. There won't be any sheep-shearing photo calls in Malaysia, but maybe Vettel will keep up the animal association and get up close and personal with the endangered Bornean Orangutans, before, that is, he renders the opposition extinct.

Sunday Indo Sport