Tim Collings lists the crucial factors that will influence the outcome of the first race of the new World Championship season.
Qualifying - Red Bull set the pace last season with 15 poles from 19 races, Vettel taking ten and Webber five. Alonso had two and Hamilton one. In head-to-head last season between team-mates Vettel outpaced Webber 12-7, but made hard work of turning pole starts into wins.
Here last year's pole man Vettel failed to finish, but the 2008 and 2009 pole-sitters both won and lifted the championship. "I think maybe qualifying has less value this year because there are more factors in the race," said Alonso.
Race pace - Only guesswork can help with forecasts for this opening race, but pre-season testing suggests Ferrari and Mercedes can be threats to Red Bull and that McLaren may have found more performance at Albert Park thanks to their new exhaust, floor and front wing package. Expect Vettel, Webber, Hamilton and Alonso to produce thrilling speed along with Button, seeking his third straight Aussie win.
Race craft - With five World Champions in the field along with another handful of vastly-experienced drivers, there will be no lack of guile being exercised during Sunday's 55-lap contest. The rule changes, introducing a Drag Reduction System (aka adjustable rear wings) and re-introducing a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), are expected to aid the bold over-takers.
Tyre wear - The most unpredictable factor this time around. It will be tyre-management that decides the outcome – and dictates strategy -- thanks to Pirelli's arrival with rubber designed to degrade rapidly. This could play to the strengths of men like Button and Schumacher. More wear means more pit-stops, more thought applied to strategy and more risk. Most teams are predicting three or more stops and a late rush to the flag on light fuel loads.
"A new F1 starts here in Melbourne in terms of strategy," said Alonso.
Strategy - The key factor and always an influential, if not decisive, one at Albert Park where Button's finesse in planning last year's race brought him a maiden victory with McLaren and a second successive Aussie win.
Button forecast: "If we're doing three (pit) stops and the race is 60 laps long, you're going to be stopping every 15 laps. But if everyone's stopping on lap 15, you want to stop on lap 14 because you'll overtake them. The problem comes when everyone's thinking the same way and you're going to be bringing it further and further forward. So you'll have people stopping on lap nine and then you have to do the rest of the race on two sets of tyres -- and they're not going to last that long! It's impossible for them to last that long with the degradation. The first few stops are going to be early and the last stint is where you'll need tyre management. I think we'll see so much overtaking in the last stint it will shock everyone. It's going to go to the last corner -- which is great. I don't know if all the races will be like this, but this one will because we don't yet understand the tyres."
Engine reliability - Always a key factor in any race, but important at Albert Park where the teams want to survive the opening race without need to switch units and begin making any serious use of their seasonal total of eight. The relatively cool weather and configuration of the circuit is likely to be kind, but poorly-prepared back of the grid teams may suffer.
Start - A poor getaway can destroy even the fastest man's hopes for glory. Both Webber and Vettel suffered last season from weaknesses in their starting systems. Alonso and Hamilton have proved themselves to be gifted starters, the Briton also being especially strong in producing opening lap speed and passing moves. The new rules may assist this -- or level the playing field.
Traffic, back-markers - All of the top men will want to avoid trouble and becoming embroiled in any contact with slower cars, flustered new boys or frustrated chargers on worn rubber. Every point lost now counts at the end of the year.
Physical fitness - Age is only a number to Webber who may be the fittest man of all at 34, despite his injuries in 2008. At 26, Hamilton is also a fitness-obsessive while Alonso, 29, is clearly fitter than he may sometimes look... Champion Vettel, just 23, has youth on his side while Schumacher, at 42, has worked hard to regain his muscular sheen of former times.
Weather - Who knows? This is Melbourne... but as a twilight race, the sunshine through the trees or dusk's darkness could be a factor.
Form and consistency - Alonso's consistency at Albert Park should make him the pre-race favourite. He has taken points eight times from nine starts, won once, had four podiums and been in the top five seven years in succession. Schumacher is seeking a fifth Aussie win (but first since 2004) and Button a third in a row...
Mental strength - After his roller-coaster career and 2010 setbacks, there is no doubting the determination and focus of Webber, still bidding to be Australia's first F1 champion for 30 years. It is one of his core strengths. Alonso is another great competitor and Vettel, defending his title, should not be under-estimated as he proved all through last season.
Experience - Five champions will take the grid along with five other drivers who have each started more than 100 Grands Prix apiece, including Trulli on 238 and Barrichello on 307. This is Webber's 158th race and Vettel's 63rd. For all, it is the hazards provided by less-experienced men that may be troublesome.