Recent Formula One seasons have been marked both by the quality of the racing and – at least in two of the past three years – by the closeness of the competition. The campaign that gets under way here on Sunday, though, has the potential to be tighter than any of them.
When it comes to deciding who will finish where in the two championship tables one might as well play two-up, the Australian gambling game in which two coins are tossed in the air and punters must decide whether they will fall heads up, tails up or one of each.
If 2014 is set to be the year of radical change, when the engines will be downsized from 2.4-litre V8s to turbo-charged 1.6-litre V6s, 2013 is the year in which an absence of new regulations is likely to see the top teams converge in such a way that the only thing that identifies them is their colourful livery.
This season, then, is the culmination of what in F1 terms has been a period of very stable rules, which means finding the edge technically has become increasingly difficult. Most of the avenues have been explored and the conclusions reached are generally similar. With so little to differentiate what will matter more than ever is skill behind the wheel.
There will, of course, still be huge efforts to maximise the tiniest advantages from the cars but really what is on offer is five world champions mixed in with Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg and Felipe Massa all competing in what is, for all the Formula's pride in innovation and engineering advantage, very closely matched machinery.
After taking the title last year the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, was already acknowledging that there were specific drivers who could make the difference in 2013. "I think both Fernando [Alonso] and Lewis [Hamilton] and Jenson [Button] are potentially very strong threats for next year," he said. "Fernando has driven with a great tenacity and consistency this year. He is at his peak. He will be a formidable competitor next year."
They will both be that but, simply put, Sebastian Vettel and his team have become used to winning. "That," Horner told F1 Racing magazine shortly before the season began, "gave us tremendous self-belief and meant that even when we fell behind in the middle of last season and Seb was 40 points off the championship lead, we never once lost our focus."
"I fought for the championship last year in a car that was two seconds off the pace in the winter," Alonso has equally rightly countered but, if Vettel, who has three championships to his name, makes it four by beating Alonso, Button, Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen in cars with little between them, he will have settled any doubts about his qualification as one of the racing greats.
The only general agreement is that last season's famous five, which finished Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus, Mercedes in that order, should again be the leading outfits. Behind them will probably be the midfielders of Force India, Williams and Sauber, with Toro Rosso a little behind them but ahead of the dilatory double act of Marussia and Caterham.
It is unlikely that seven different drivers will again win the first seven races. But last season's frivolous opening engagements are not something that anyone wants to see a repeat of. It was only when the campaign developed a coherent narrative that it became truly compelling, when Vettel and Alonso were fighting for the drivers' title, eventually won by the German by three points.
Last month's three testing sessions in Spain, while clarifying very little, provided further evidence that 2013 would be simply too tight to call. All the leading teams had their moments but, as Button said when he arrived in Australia this week: "Last winter, if we put a list together of the quickest cars, it would have been completely wrong at the first race. We just don't know."
And yet we do – sort of. At least we know that Red Bull's RB9 will be mightily competitive. It may be hurt by the decision to ban double DRS (there are a few regulation changes, after all) which was a key component of its downforce last season. But Red Bull, who surged ahead only in the final races of last season, have appeared, in the winter, doubly determined to hit the track running this season and even their relatively modest performances in Spain failed to disguise the car's possibilities.
The team that could push them more than any other is Ferrari, while close behind them could come Mercedes and Lotus. Hamilton's switch from McLaren to Mercedes is the biggest transfer move in years and brought the cold, pre-season months to life. Hamilton's move was ridiculed by manyut Mercedes have come up with a fast, well-balanced car which on initial impressions looked as if it might even be stronger than the McLaren. Hamilton, it seems, could well be quick enough to win races, if not quite the championship this year. Mercedes will be at their most competitive when conditions are cooler.
Lotus fancy their chances of breaking into the top three. Last year third-placed Raikkonen was one of the most consistent drivers on the grid and this season he will start match fit. If Romain Grosjean can finish more races, the team's fortunes will be transformed. Like Mercedes, though, Lotus may struggle to be truly competitive in all conditions.
That brings us to the team who face the biggest challenge of all: McLaren. Last year they dropped from second to third and they may struggle to finish in the top four this time unless they manage to consistently place Button in his narrow window of opportunity. They finished last year with the fastest car on the grid. But that did not dissuade them from making a radical redesign and, when they faltered badly in practice on Friday the team principal Martin Whitmarsh admitted that it had been one of his toughest days in his 24 years in Formula One.
A disappointed looking Button said: "I agree with Martin. There is a lot of work for us to do. The car feels like last year but a lot slower. In terms of the balance there is not a good feeling but I don't think we are too far away. But we have to work on the car's ride and downforce. It is not the place where we want to start the season."
Just at the time when McLaren want to impress a potential new title sponsor they are struggling . A former world champion, who did not want to be named, said yesterday: "McLaren may have to come to terms with the fact that they are just another team."
That would be hard to take, especially– in their 50th anniversary year,. For McLaren winning mere races has never been enough. This is a team that has always considered itself to be the best and they need championships to prove it.
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