As you'll read elsewhere on RACER.com, understanding the Pirelli tires – especially, making the soft tires last when using a heavy fuel load – is the dominant priority for Formula 1 teams this weekend, the opening round of the 2013 Formula 1 season in Melbourne Park, Australia. But over the course of the season, we see it playing out as follows.
RED BULL RENAULT RB9
1 Sebastian Vettel Best championship position – 1st, 2010, '11, '12
2 Mark Webber Best championship position – 3rd, 2010, '11
There are some fundamental reasons for Red Bull's championship glory over the past three seasons. Adrian Newey's design genius is a great starting point, but it's the team's supreme ability to introduce changes to the car throughout the season – and for those changes to work – that has confounded McLaren and Ferrari's attempts to break Red Bull's stranglehold. So if this year's RB9 starts merely competitive rather than dominant – as per last year's RB8 – don't assume it will stay at that level.
And let's not underplay the role played by Red Bull's drivers. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton may have convinced themselves that they're the best, but Sebastian Vettel can drive any car to its limit, so when he has a car advantage, he takes full advantage. When the car is less than magic, Mark Webber looks as good as his teammate. As long as the RB9 doesn't handle in the counter-intuitive manner of 2011's RB7, Red Bull Racing has two potential champions. And you can't say that about any other F1 team this year.
3 Fernando Alonso Best championship position – 1st, 2005, '06
4 Felipe Massa Best championship position – 2nd, 2008
Ferrari is more competitive than it was 12 months ago. Is it stronger than it was toward the end of last year, when it was still only fourth-best car? Well, if testing is to be believed (and that's the biggest proviso in the auto-racing dictionary) and if two practice sessions in Melbourne are a good indicator, the F138 should be closer to the pace, yes, but the compression at the top of the grid, as the current rules package reaches its fifth season, means there may still be races where the Ferrari gets outqualified by cars from Red Bull, McLaren, Lotus or even Mercedes. By the same token, there could be races where Ferrari has a noticeable edge.
Fernando Alonso, as he's proven in recent years, can make the difference if the car's not quite there, and can also exploit the best car. He's taken on the role held in previous F1 eras by Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher – you never count him out. If the Spaniard has a weakness, it's that he sees red when he's being beaten by his teammate. That's rarely been a problem since he joined Ferrari, but in the final six races of 2012, Felipe Massa looked as effective as he'd been four years earlier. If the F138 is good enough and Massa truly has recaptured his mojo, he could win races.
5 Jenson Button Best championship position – 1st, 2009
6 Sergio Perez Best championship position – 10th, 2012
If you carefully tracked McLaren's progress in testing, and listened to what Jenson Button was saying, the MP4-28 may be the car that blows the field away or it may be the one that will have monumental fluctuations in form. What came across is that the team and drivers didn't know why it was fast when it was fast, nor why it was slow when it was slow. There were also suggestions that it had a puzzling appetite for tires – curious considering JB and new teammate Sergio Perez are probably two of the best at looking after their rubber. Melbourne practice confirmed that grip – particularly at the front end, is currently limited.
Button is a class act, in and out of the cockpit, and if he has a car that he likes, he's absolutely on par with the Vettel/Alonso/Hamilton triumvirate. As ever, the only question-marks over Button are 1) his potential to get lost if he has to search for the car's sweet spot, and 2) finding those final couple of tenths in qualifying. Perez, meanwhile, has been talking big but he's surely in a minority of one in expecting himself to contend for the World Championship this year. He should regard 2013 as a chance to gauge if he has the potential to ever do so. In the mean time, his biggest priority will be working with Button to solve the McLaren MP4-28's issues.
7 Kimi Raikkonen Best championship position – 1st, 2007
8 Romain Grosjean Best championship position – 10th, 2012
Kimi Raikkonen isn't the driver he once was but he is the man he's always been – insouciant and unflappable, in or out of the racecar. And in an era when looking after your tires on race day is often as or more important as your outright pace, he's almost stumbled into acquiring the perfect attributes of the current F1 driver, applying attention and forethought to how to drive a full stint. Romain Grosjean is a fraction quicker, but a whole lot more wild and capable of doing the unexpected, good or bad. He said he learned some hard lessons last year, but that potentially calamitous run-in with a backmarker in practice at Brazil suggests he needed to do some more thinking over the winter.
The Lotus E21, meanwhile, appears to have the potential to be a regular race winner, and has been noticeably gentle on its tires during testing. But however much other teams may go down blind alleys or get distracted by 2014 cars, for Lotus to improve on Raikkonen's third place in the drivers' championship last year is surely too big a step…or is it?
9 Nico Rosberg Best championship position – 7th, 2009, '10, '11
10 Lewis Hamilton Best championship position – 1st, 2008
Despite having a seven-time World Champion on its books for the last three years, despite having undergone some major managerial upheavals over the winter, despite the team having an unproven track record for technical excellence since exploiting that double diffuser rule loophole (as Brawn GP) in 2009, this squad looks more promising than at any point since becoming Mercedes in 2010.
In Lewis Hamilton, it has arguably the fastest driver in Formula 1, in Nico Rosberg it has a guy who will shine when the car is how he wants it, and in the W04, it has a car that has shown some very strong pace in testing. Question marks will remain over the likelihood of the three managers – Toto Wolff, Niki Lauda and Ross Brawn – pulling in the same direction, and also whether the team can (or should) focus on 2014, if this year's car does indeed prove to be a hit. At the very least, it appears the silver cars could be occasional winners.