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.
11 Nico Hulkenberg Best championship position – 11th, 2012
12 Esteban Gutierrez Rookie
Sauber designer Matt Morris' decision to go for very narrow sidepods – contrary to the designs of any other car on the grid – could be win or bust. The idea is that the reduced frontal area of the car makes up for the reduced acceleration of airflow to the diffuser area of the car. It's refreshing to see the Swiss team taking this step having previously been accused of conservatism. That may mean that, from track to track, the car swings between excellence and mediocrity more than most, but hey, Sauber people got used to that (for different reasons) last year.
In 2013, the team has Nico Hulkenberg to help mask the C32's shortcomings and fully exploit its strengths, and he's surely the best driver Sauber's had since introducing Raikkonen to Formula 1 back in 2001. The Hulk is fast in all track conditions, makes relatively few errors, has a go-for-it instinct and rarely has off days. Don't dismiss Esteban Gutierrez, either; he finished third in the GP2 championship last year, and he's not the sort to crash while trying to match Hulkenberg. He'll build to his limit and should get closer to his teammate's pace throughout the season, though he's unlikely to ever exceed it.
FORCE INDIA-MERCEDES VJM06
14 Paul di Resta Best championship position – 13th, 2011
15 Adrian Sutil Best championship position – 9th, 2011
Having finished in the top seven in the Constructors' Championship for the past three seasons, Force India has proven its ability to punch above its weight. This is a team on a small budget. If Paul di Resta is confident, he's proven he has Hulkenberg-matching pace – damn fast, in other words. If he's not, as in the second half of last year, he may slip behind teammate and F1 returnee Adrian Sutil who himself tends to shine only sporadically but is very consistent in form. It's hard not to think that going for super rookie Jules Bianchi instead would have shown far more ambition.
What can almost be relied upon is that tech director Andrew Green and his team will have produced a potential giant-killing car despite financial restrictions. Let's hope it is fully exploited, every time out.
16 Pastor Maldonado Best championship position – 15th, 2012
17 Valtteri Bottas Rookie
When a driver who scores a win finishes that season only 15th in the championship despite starting every round, you know that either he or his car was unreliable. In Pastor Maldonado's case, it was the former. The man who had the consistency to win the GP2 title in 2010 and who drove with the pace, composure and discipline of a Lauda to win the Spanish Grand Prix last year, also spent too much time bouncing off curbs, walls or other cars in the manner of Andrea de Cesaris.
If Maldonado can tame that ferociousness without losing speed, he could have a long career in F1. If he can't, he's going to start getting overshadowed very rapidly by rookie teammate Valtteri Bottas who many believe is one of those potential supertalents. How far up the grid this intra-team battle will be performed is dependent on the FW35, but it has shown promise, and Williams' tech department under Mike Coughlan's stewardship is getting stronger.
TORO ROSSO-FERRARI STR8
18 Jean-Eric Vergne Best championship position – 17th, 2012
19 Daniel Ricciardo Best championship position – 18th, 2012
James Key (tech director, ex-Sauber), Luca Furbatto (chief designer, ex-McLaren) and Jon Tomlinson (assistant chief of aero, ex-Williams) are three very important new recruits who all had input on the team's STR8 and, in our opinion, could be enough to help the team finish the season as high as sixth in the championship. But what will drive that, too, is the continued competition between the two F1 sophomores driving for them.
Daniel Ricciardo had a consistent edge in qualifying pace last year, but it wasn't until the second half of the season that he regularly outperformed Jean-Eric Vergne in the races, too. Right now, the Aussie looks the most likely candidate to replace his compatriot Webber at Red Bull one day, but JEV is talented enough to regain that “favorite” status if Ricciardo should lose even a little focus. Put simply, both of STR's drivers are excellent.
20 Charles Pic Best championship position – 21st, 2012
21 Giedo van der Garde Rookie
There's nothing in the car's pre-season test form nor in the driver lineup to suggest Caterham will move forward this season. In fact, holding on to its hard-earned 10th place in the 2012 championship may be unrealistic, given that Heikki Kovalainen and Vitaly Petrov have been replaced by Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde and given that its only true rival, Marussia appears to have taken a step forward.
Pic did a very creditable job for Marussia, but that was as a rookie, learning from teammate Timo Glock. It's hard to imagine van der Garde will bring much worthwhile to the table, other than money. The Dutchman is not hopeless, but nor is he ever going to adequately fill Kovalainen's shoes.
22 Jules Bianchi Rookie
23 Max Chilton Rookie
This team is entering its fourth season (it started as Virgin back in 2010) and for the first time has a car that was shaped in a wind tunnel. As well as producing arguably the most elegant of all the 2013 F1 designs, John Booth's little team has shown itself capable of making great strides over the course of a season, reducing its speed deficit to the front runners. However, this has proven little help in actually moving the team up the grid; such is the difference between the haves and the have-nots.
Two great new arrivals at Marussia for 2013 are 1) Pat Symonds as technical director, following his period in enforced exile from the F1 paddock, and 2) Jules Bianchi, as promising a rookie as Bottas. Bianchi's learning curve would have been far more shallow had he been partnering Glock, but Max Chilton finished fourth in GP2 last year and so has more than just a large amount of money in his favor.