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Preview: Questions answered

After an off-season of intrigue, speculation and subterfuge, part of the true picture of Formula One in 2012 will be revealed on Friday in Melbourne

The waiting is almost over… and we’re about to get a true picture of the pecking order in this year’s World Championship.

More than 48,000 kilometres were compiled by the teams across three pre-season tests at Jerez and Barcelona, and the difficult task of establishing a pecking order from that ‘phoney war’ was made even harder when eight different drivers ended on top of the timesheets after the first eight days.

But those in the know agree on one thing: Red Bull look the team to beat once more – even though world champion Sebastian Vettel had his one day of running with the Melbourne-spec bodywork on his RB8 interrupted by an off-track excursion and a gearbox glitch, and their lap times haven’t set the world on fire.

Local hopes again rest with Mark Webber, and while the Australian (and the rest of the field) trailed in Vettel’s wake in 2011, the 35-year-old is optimistic of a better showing this year, 10 years after his stunning debut for Minardi in 2002.

Webber’s fifth place for Minardi that memorable day remains his best result at home, matched by his efforts for Williams in 2005 and for Red Bull last year. Of the tracks Webber has raced on every season in his career, Melbourne and Monza are the only two where he has yet to finish in the top three: is this his best – last? – chance to put that right?

While Red Bull are expected to be the favourites for this weekend’s 17th Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park, McLaren looks the team most likely to stop their charge. If looks count for anything, the MP4-27 is the class of the field; McLaren was the only team not to employ the stepped nose concept adopted by the rest of the field and the car looks beautifully streamlined as a result.

Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton have made positive noises about the new car, and both have recent success in Melbourne to draw upon: Hamilton won here in 2008, Button the two years after that.

Ferrari come to Australia rather more downbeat after a difficult winter testing period. Technical chief Pat Fry has all but ruled out podium finishes for the Scuderia early on this season, but Fernando Alonso remained defiant on Thursday, saying “I’m very relaxed about the possibilities of our car; maybe we didn't reach our targets but it doesn't mean that we are slower than the other cars.”

Behind last year’s top three, the picture gets trickier to read. Lotus, known last year as Renault, showed great pace in two of the pre-season tests with returning 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen and GP2 champion Romain Grosjean, but missed most of the first Barcelona test after a problem with its chassis.

Sauber topped the timesheets more than once in Spain, but can the Swiss squad realistically lift itself from a seventh-place finish in the constructors’ championship in 2011?

And what of Mercedes, with 43-year-old seven-time champion Michael Schumacher still without a podium in his ‘second’ career, and Nico Rosberg still winless after 108 Grand Prix starts?

As always, testing has thrown up more questions than answers, only some of which will be put to rest when the Albert Park pit lane opens at 12.30pm on Friday for the first practice session of the year. As Webber said on Thursday: “I’m sick of talking about it; I just want to get out there and get on the track.”

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