Revved up for season of contrasts
It will be tough at the top, and equally tough at the bottom, in this F1 campaign, writes David Kennedy
The first Formula One race of this season will declare a winner in Melbourne, Australia this morning. Speculation is vapourous in the face of fact, but while bearing in mind that the first race is not always a portent of things to come as teams grapple with teething trouble, statistically speaking, just over a third of winners here fail to go on to take the title.
It's hard to imagine a podium without at least one Red Bull driver and, of course, Mark Webber would be the preferred choice of 22 million fellow Aussies since he lives in the shade of that firmament called Sebastian Vettel.
All eyes will be trained on Lewis Hamilton and how he gets on in his debut for Mercedes. Or how McLaren cope with his loss as Jenson Button assumes head boy status within the team.
Ferrari is in the ascendancy. The Italian team last won a drivers' title in 2007 and a constructors' title in 2008. Fernando Alonso's championship wins in 2005 and 2006 with Renault complete the cosy quadruple. Together they are surely a title win waiting to happen.
It's tough if you're not at the top, budget-wise that is. Red Bull sells a whopping 4.6 billion cans of its energy drink a year and consequently enjoy unlimited funding. Ferrari and Mercedes are manufacturers with open cheque-books who theoretically can buy the best.
So when Lotus, with only half the budget of Mercedes, finished ahead of the German manufacturer in the constructors' title last season and Kimi Raikkonen finished ahead of Hamilton, Button and Webber in the drivers' title, it would surely have put a smile on founder Colin Chapman's face were he alive today.
A 'them-and-us' situation is developing in F1 with several teams struggling financially. McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh went further by suggesting that seven of the 11 teams are in survival strategy, which is a radical statement if that list includes his own team. HRT, the Spanish outfit, have bitten the dust and there's no one to replace them on the grid. If any more go that route Bernie will have fewer cars to fill the fresh tarmac of his Asian dreams.
The knock-on effect of this penury is that many decent drivers who should be in F1 have been overlooked because the pay-as-you-play brigade have brought much-needed finance to wilting bank accounts, but the teams that have had to resort to that strategy end up with a dog chasing its tail as success and development are put on ice just to keep the factory doors open. The concern for the minnows is that rule changes and the introduction of V6 engines in 2014 will render them even more vulnerable. But that's fodder for another day.
A few new faces on the grid include Mexican Esteban Gutierrez in the Sauber. He won the GP3 championship in 2010. Esteban and his family are quality folk. I hope he doesn't find the piranha bowl of F1 too daunting. Williams have rewarded their reserve driver of three seasons, 2011 GP3 champion Valtteri Bottas, with a drive. It's a great endorsement for the GP3 series with so many drivers making the transition to F1.
Giedo van der Garde from the Netherlands has been knocking on F1's door since 2006 and finally he gets to join his many contemporaries from F3 and GP2 with a seat at Caterham alongside Frenchman Charles Pic.
French Formula Renault and F3 Euro series champion in 2007 and 2009 respectively, Nice-born Jules Bianchi, replaces Pic at Marussia. His uncle Luciano Bianchi won Le Mans in 1968 but was killed there the following year.
A fourth Brit joins the grid as Max Chilton completes the Marussia line-up. His millionaire father owns Carlin Motorsport and their contribution to the coffers of the Russian team will help offset a fraction of the team's €56m losses.
The talented Adrian Sutil returns to Force India after being dropped following a GBH conviction against Lotus chief Eric Lux. He'll be avoiding that garage as well as his ex-friend Lewis Hamilton for not standing up for him in court.
Gone from F1 are Komui Kobayashi (Sauber), Bruno Senna (Williams) and the two refugees who were left without a drive when HRT went bust, Pedro de la Rosa and Indian driver Narain Karthikeyan.
It promises to be another season filled with hope and fuelled with optimism as five world champions do battle against those who harbour ambitions to make that figure six. Sky Sports' F1 HD dedicated channel will feature live coverage with Martin Brundle and Damon Hill. The BBC will show half the races live, mainly the European ones, as well as highlights of the others. David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan will be joined by technical analyst Gary Anderson. Setanta will also be featuring all the races.
F1 excitement will be back in the living rooms of eager fans for whom the long winter was a slow drag to the first race. If you didn't watch the race live, you've all of Paddy's Day to catch up on the action.