x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Formula One: Sebastian Vettel's path to title looks straighter with familiar road blocks along the way

The German arrives in Australia as favourite once more, but with Fernando Alonso primed and rivals looking to shine for their new teams, nothing is certain as the cars roll out for the start of the 2013 Formula One season. Gary Meenaghan reports.

Sergio Perez of Mexico has left the Sauber team for McLaren, where he will find he has mighty big shoes to fill in taking Lewis Hamilton's place.
Sergio Perez of Mexico has left the Sauber team for McLaren, where he will find he has mighty big shoes to fill in taking Lewis Hamilton's place.

In a sport dominated by decimals, crunch the numbers and the destination of this year's Formula One World Championship should appear obvious.

Sebastian Vettel has taken the past three titles, clocked up 26 race wins and has achieved both feats with a team - Red Bull Racing - that has finished in the points at all but two of their previous 74 races.

Complement those figures with the retirement of Michael Schumacher (one less world champion in the field), the decision of Lewis Hamilton to switch to a weaker Mercedes-GP (one less world champion expected to fight for the title) and a smaller, less experienced grid (one less team; rookies making up a fifth of the field) and a victorious Vettel seems destined.

Were he to achieve it, the 24-year-old German would join an elite club. Only two men in six decades have won four successive titles: Juan Manuel Fangio achieved it between 1954 and 1957 and Schumacher claimed five in a row during his era of domination in the early 2000s.

So, should the record books be dusted off and readied to be rewritten?

"I want the world championship trophy to stay in my cabinet," said Vettel, already the sport's youngest triple champion. "That's the reason I compete in Formula One."

Fortunately for fans, F1 has a recent habit of producing unpredictability in abundance.

Last season, the sport threw up seven different race winners from the first seven races, while this year's pre-season testing saw the first nine sessions topped by nine different drivers.

Vettel, who was the only driver from the five leading teams who did not finish quickest on any of the 12 test days, said the sport has "never had a winter less conclusive than this one".

"It's impossible to read the pace of the car, therefore to make someone a favourite for Australia is not that easy," he added.

The cynics suggest Red Bull are not showing their true strength.

In testing, Vettel and Mark Webber, his Australian teammate, appeared to run heavy fuel loads, rendering it pointless comparing their lap-times with that of rivals.

The first glimpse of the Austrian outfit's genuine speed arguably may not arrive until Saturday afternoon's qualifying session at Albert Park.

"It's always difficult to assess where we and the others stand," Vettel said. "We will know a little bit more after four races, but it also won't be more than a trend.

"Of course, we can assume that the big teams will be at the front."

Vettel's most prominent rival, Fernando Alonso, will certainly be breathing down the champion's neck again.

Ferrari's top driver was last year provided a car that was embarrassingly off the pace from the moment it arrived in Australia and yet he displayed phenomenal ability to remain in the title hunt until the final grand prix of the year in Brazil.

This year, following an arduous pre-season training regime that saw him undertake a cycling programme in Dubai, he cuts a more confident figure. Gone are the forced comments stressing the long way to go until the end of the season, instead he is speaking of how he is "excited to get back racing and winning".

"Last year was the best year of my career and I was very happy with the performance, but I think this year will be better," said the 31-year-old Spaniard, who finished on the podium 13 times from the 18 races he completed.

"We have a better starting point, and I have learnt from some mistakes of last year … I have prepared better. I am better than last year."

Ferrari, who have come within a few laps of winning the world title in three of the past five years since their last drivers' championship in 2007, know that the two-time champion Alonso is capable of maximising the tools at his disposal.

And they appear to have gifted him some much-improved tools.

"Last year, we had a very difficult winter and we were completely lost," Alonso said. "We didn't know what the car was doing, we didn't understand what was going on in the wind tunnel and on the track.

"This year, we hope that we have reduced the gap and we arrive in Australia in better shape than Brazil - which means 200 times better than last year in Australia."

Alonso's car was an average of half a second off the pace in qualifying last year and yet he still came within three points of the championship.

If his machine is as quick as it appears and Ferrari maintain their remarkable reliability, it is little surprise to hear the likes of Hamilton say "anyone would struggle to beat him".

As for Hamilton, when he announced he was joining Mercedes-GP, he and many others acknowledged 2013 would be a transitional year.

Testing has suggested, however, the 2008 champion can expect better than eight months of mediocrity and, of late, he has refused to rule out a championship bid.

The Briton's former team, McLaren-Mercedes, also arrive shrouded in uncertainty.

Hamilton's replacement, Sergio Perez, will be embarking on the biggest challenge of his brief F1 career, while teammate Jenson Button acknowledged wholesale changes to the car design could set the team back in the early stages of the season, although they should pay off later in the year.

Button won here last year and how he copes with the challenge of Perez this weekend will be one of many fascinating aspects of the weekend.

The 33-year-old Englishman finds himself as a team's de facto No 1 driver for the first time since 2005 and with responsibility comes pressure, yet he says he is "loving" his role at the moment.

Perez, meanwhile, is out to topple his teammate.

"My target is to beat Jenson and all the others," the Mexican said.

"As a Formula One driver you dream about winning your first race all your life and I am desperate to know what it feels like."

Perez's quest - and that of Vettel, Alonso and the rest of the 22-car field - starts on Friday when the cars take to the track for the first practice, at 12.30pm Melbourne time.

For those who crunch numbers, that is 5.30am UAE time.

 

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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