Year of the Bull, again?
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The start of Formula One's 64th season is also the beginning of an end. 2013 will see the last of the 2.4-litre V8 engine that has powered F1 cars for the last seven years. It will be replaced by a 1.6-litre V6 engine from next year, a move that is likely to reset everything to zero.
Because of this, all teams have one eye — and nearly half their resources — dedicated to next year's cars. And since there are no real developmental gains to take from this season, there's a certain degree of pointlessness, for the teams, about 2013.
But it's unlikely that there will be any drop in intensity: there are, after all, two titles and hundreds of millions of dollars to be won. So what to expect from 2013? Will Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull stretch their incredible winning runs into a fourth year?
The winter testing pace doesn't always indicate how things will pan out during the season. But a few rule changes — primarily restricted Drag Reduction System (DRS) during qualifying — that would, at least in theory, hurt Red Bull had people believing that their dominance, and therefore Vettel's, might just come to an end this year.
But after being considerably off the pace in pre-season testing, which must have filled his rivals' hearts with hope, Vettel and his 'Hungry Heidi' quickly snuffed that optimism out by posting the fastest Friday practice timings ahead of the season-opening race in Melbourne. The German, like it or not, remains the man to beat.
Where does it leave the other teams and drivers? Teammate Mark Webber was second in free practice, but he has hardly challenged Vettel after 2010 despite driving almost the same machine. Among others, as Friday's results show, Ferrari are sluggish, McLaren even more so, and while Mercedes have been fast, reliability issues remain. Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton, if he finishes more races, and Ferrari's Alonso, if he has a better qualifying pace than last year, could run Vettel close. The dark horse, however, could be Lotus's Kimi Raikkonen, with his experience, attitude and a car that has looked fast and good.