Will Sebastian Vettel dominate again? Are McLaren in better shape this year? How bad are things at Ferrari? Will Kimi Raikkonen have a car capable of podiums? Can Michael Schumacher challenge for wins in 2012? By Sunday evening in Melbourne we should be one step closer to answering these questions … or there could be a whole bunch more to answer. Either way, the long wait will be over and the 2012 season will be underway.
On FormAfter a disappointing 2011 season, Lewis Hamilton has vowed to refocus on Formula One this year and the early signs suggest he is approaching the season in a much better state of mind. It's almost impossible to read anything into the times he set in pre-season testing, but his general demeanour was much improved. He was more like the Lewis of old, and if he can transfer that confidence onto the track he should have a serious shot at the title.
Out of formMuch has been written about Ferrari's struggles in pre-season testing, but the true extent of the problems (or lack of problems) won't become clear until Sunday evening. Mixed messages have come out of Maranello, but the team appears to be targeting the Spanish Grand Prix to get back on track. It just has to hope that Red Bull and McLaren don't make significant improvements of their own over the next four races.
One to watchThe Force India looked quick in testing and Paul di Resta proved last year that he is a safe pair of hands. Melbourne is often a race of attrition, with the new cars taking a pounding on the bumpy surface, so if di Resta can keep it all together he will stand a good chance of scoring some decent points.
Talking pointsSix world champions Never before have six world champions lined up on a Formula One grid, so assuming they all make it to Sunday's race, 2012 will kick off with a new record. Some of the champions stand less of a chance of adding to their title count than others, but they are all in top teams and even Michael Schumacher at Mercedes and Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus could have an outside shot at race wins this year.
Tyres Last year's on-track action was much more exciting than previous years and that was mainly thanks to Pirelli. This year the Italian tyre manufacturer has vowed to keep things interesting by reducing the performance gap between the compounds and making the whole range softer. Last year most drivers tried to limit their time on the harder compound during races, but this year the decision won't be so clear cut. Pit walls will have a hard time working out strategies as the races unfold and that should make for more overtaking as the drivers find themselves on different compounds in different states of wear. The softer rubber should also provide a boost to the midfield teams that often struggled to bring the hardest tyres up to working temperature last year due to their lack of downforce.
The Concorde Agreement While we are all hoping for a tense battle on the track, there will also be an intriguing scrap developing off it. In 2013 the current Concorde Agreement which binds the teams, the FIA and Formula One Management (FOM) together will expire and it is in interest of all the sport's stakeholders to replace it - especially if CVC Capital Partners, F1's current majority owners, is considering selling. The Concorde Agreement determines how the sports profits are distributed and naturally everybody wants a little bit more. Since 2006 the teams have been getting 50% of the pot, which is divided between them as prize money. Bernie Ecclestone and FOM are naturally opposed to giving them any more money and the first signs that they are ready to put up a fight came last week when Ecclestone suggested the teams should cut their spending instead. During the last negotiations in 2009 the teams were united under the Formula One Teams' Association, but since Ferrari and Red Bull left last year it appears as though Ecclestone is going to have an easier time playing his old game of divide and conquer. Either way, it should provide for some thrilling background stories if the racing fails to live up to expectations.
- Albert Park staged two non-championship Formula Libre Australian Grands Prix in 1953 and 1956, although the cars ran around the circuit anti-clockwise
- The 1953 event was made up entirely of Australian drivers but the 1956 race was timed to coincide with the Olympics and attracted big names such as Sir Stirling Moss and Jean Behra, who were both entered by Maserati in 250Fs. Moss won the race by over two minutes from Behra and by a lap over the rest of the field
- In 1991 Adelaide hosted the shortest grand prix ever when the race was stopped after just 14 laps due to heavy rain. It was just 32.883 miles long and lasted less than 25 minutes. However, in terms of laps it was still longer than some of the old German Grands Prix at the 14-mile Nurburgring, which were often just 12 laps long
- Three Frenchman will be on the grid this year after three years without one. Romain Grosjean returns and Jean-Eric Vergne and Charles Pic will make their debuts. The last Frenchman to score points at the Australian GP was Sébastien Bourdais, with seventh place and two points in 2008. The last Frenchman on the podium down under was Olivier Panis, who was second for Ligier in 1995
- This will be the 28th Formula One Australian Grand Prix; the race was first staged in 1985 at Adelaide
- There have been 48 retirements at the Australian Grand Prix from 132 starters in the last six years
- Drives make 60 gearchanges per lap at Albert Park and spend 66% of the lap on full throttle
- There have been nine safety-car periods during the past six races at Albert Park
CircuitBuilt around a man-made lake and using public roads, Albert Park is the perfect place to kick off the new season. While overtaking is limited mainly to turns one and three, there should be more this year with two DRS zones occupying the preceding straights. An abundance of gravel traps rather than concrete run-off areas restrict the margin for error and any weaknesses in the cars will be exposed over the bumpy track surface.
FIA driver stewardJohnny Herbert returns to the stewards' panel at the Australian Grand Prix for the second year in a row. He last sat on the panel at the inaugural Indian Grand Prix last year.
WeatherRain is expected on Friday afternoon, which could be frustrating for drivers still trying to find a set-up in their new cars. The rest of the weekend should be dry, although thunderstorms have been circulating in the local area this week and could threaten to turn the racing on its head. Sunday's main event starts at 17:00 local time so temperatures will start to dip, which could cause some head-scratching for the teams with Pirelli's new tyres.
BettingBetting on the first race of the season is always a risky business, but the bookies (along with most of the paddock) seem to think Sebastian Vettel is nailed on to win in Australia with odds of 5/4. A Lewis Hamilton victory will yield a better return at 4/1, but Mark Webber could be the one to go for with odds of 7/1 at his home race. If you don't believe Ferrari's tales of woe, Fernando Alonso is 9/1 to win while Felipe Massa at 50/1.