REUTERS - Team-by-team prospects for the Formula One season starting in Melbourne, Australia, on March 17 (listed in 2012 championship order):
Sebastian Vettel (Germany), Mark Webber (Australia)
Vettel and his team, both chasing their fourth successive titles, are the favourites. They showed last year that they can come roaring back from a sluggish start and opponents know that any car designed by Adrian Newey is sure to be quick and competitive. Webber, now the oldest driver on the grid at 36 and maybe in his last season with Red Bull, has a new race engineeer. He also had a 38 cms titanium rod removed from his leg over the winter which will give him peace of mind. They were fastest on only one test day but rivals suspected they were masking their potential and have plenty in reserve.
Fernando Alonso (Spain), Felipe Massa (Brazil)
The glamour team are on a different planet compared to this time last year. Alonso has said the new F138 car is “200 times better”, even if still not the fastest. The Spaniard skipped the first test to focus on fitness work and will be hungrier than ever for his third title. Massa knows it could be his final season with the team but he has his confidence back after a dismal start to 2012. Sure to be contenders all the way to the finish.
Jenson Button (Britain), Sergio Perez (Mexico)
This could be Button’s best chance yet of a second title. Lewis Hamilton has left and new team mate Perez is still finding his feet. The car looks quick but the team need to unlock a more consistent performance from it. McLaren expect the pair to be trading places and battling for grid position from the start. Perez is well placed to take his first win and the team expect him to push Button all the way.
Kimi Raikkonen (Finland), Romain Grosjean (France)
Raikkonen took one win in his 2012 comeback year and the Finn hopes to do much better than that now, with a real championship challenge a possibility. The Lotus has shown good pace in testing, even if the mileage has been less than the others, and the team are now aiming to crack the top three. Grosjean, now married and with a child on the way, has been seing a sports psychologist and should be a calmer racer than the crash-happy competitor who was banned for a race last year. Some rivals suspect Lotus could be the second quickest car after Red Bull.
Lewis Hamilton (Britain), Nico Rosberg (Germany)
Can 2008 world champion Hamilton, replacing now-retired Michael Schumacher, be a winner with Mercedes this season? That is the big pre-season question and the signs are that he might not have to wait as long as he feared even if testing times can be misleading. The car is a clear improvement on last year’s disappointing vehicle and Hamilton can be counted on to wring the most of it. Rosberg, winner in China last year, will be a strong team mate. Podium contenders at least.
Nico Hulkenberg (Germany), Esteban Gutierrez (Mexico)
Sauber were the quiet revelation of 2012, with four podiums. Doing better than that will be tough for the all-new lineup. But the ‘Hulk’ is highly rated with two full seasons under his belt with Williams and Force India. With a Ferrari 2014 seat likely to be up for grabs, he will be doing all he can to impress. Gutierrez has been learning the ropes with Sauber for a while but remains an unknown quantity. The car is one of the best looking but testing times suggest a mid-field battle ahead.
Paul Di Resta (Britain), Adrian Sutil (Germany)
The team have reverted to the 2011 line-up who finished sixth overall. Sutil, returning after a year out, has plenty to prove while Di Resta is targeting the podium in his third season in F1. That could be possible in the right circumstances but the budget remains tight.
Pastor Maldonado (Venezuela), Valtteri Bottas (Finland)
Maldonado handed Williams their first win in nearly eight years last season and there is no question that he is quick, but he also squandered a lot of points. Now he just needs to stay out of trouble and use his head. Bottas has spent a year learning the tracks and is a top hope for a team desperate to get back up the pecking order. The former champions believe fifth place overall is a realistic target.
Daniel Ricciardo (Australia), Jean-Eric Vergne (France)
An unchanged line-up from last season but, with the possibility of a vacancy at sister team Red Bull at the end of the season, both drivers have a real incentive to impress. How much the car allows them to do that remains to be seen.
Charles Pic (France), Giedo Van der Garde (Netherlands)
Two new drivers, both bringing sponsorship to the team, marks a change in direction for an outfit that previously hired men with top team experience. The car has looked a bit of a handful in testing. Caterham, still without a point, have been 10th for the past three seasons and the Renault engine alone should ensure they stay there.
Max Chilton (Britain), Jules Bianchi (France)
A rookie line-up but promising nonetheless. The only team still powered by a Cosworth engine is using KERS for the first time, which will help them get closer to Caterham. Bianchi is highly rated, managed by Nicolas Todt and with Ferrari support. A first point for Marussia still looks very unlikely but stranger things have happened. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by John Mehaffey)