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Record six World Champions in action at Albert Park

Two dozen drivers of a dozen different nationalities will occupy the Albert Park grid on Sunday March 18 when the 2012 Formula 1™ Qantas Australian Grand Prix becomes the 859th race in World Championship history and the first in the sport’s 63rd season.

With no fewer than six World Champions on track, much of the media attention will focus on the latest driver to attempt a comeback after turning his back on the sport.

Finnish ace Kimi Räikkönen is back. World Champion with Ferrari in 2007, and the race-winner here in Melbourne at the start of that season, Raikkonen claimed six race victories and pipped Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso to the title by a single point.

After two years in which he had a crack at the favourite Scandinavian discipline of rallying, Räikkönen returns to F1 at the wheel of a Lotus Renault, a team seeking its own return to former glories.

“I can’t deny the fact that my hunger for F1 has recently become overwhelming,” said the 32-year-old Finn when the news of his signing broke. “It was an easy choice to return with Lotus Renault GP as I have been impressed by the scope of the team’s ambition. Now I’m looking forward to playing an important role in pushing the team to the very front of the grid.”

Comebacks can be hard work though – just ask Michael Schumacher. The man with more titles than any driver in history was out of F1 for three years after winning 91 races and seven World Championships in his Benetton and Ferrari heyday.

‘Schumi’, now 43, has yet to score a podium finish, never mind another race win, since returning in 2010 to join Germany’s Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team. Schumacher continues for a third straight year in the all-German team with Nico Rosberg as his partner.

Coincidentally Räikkönen will be running alongside a team-mate also making his own return. France’s Romain Grosjean comes back, he says, stronger and better after winning the GP2 title during his own two-year exile following a seven-race stint with the then Renault team in 2009.

“There’s a big grin on my face at the prospect of getting behind the wheel of this year’s car, and I feel very privileged to be given this opportunity,” says the 25-year-old. “To be racing alongside a former world champion and someone who is hungry and returning to Formula 1 will be a great experience, and I’m sure will help raise my level of performance too.”

First, however, they need to raise the performance level of the E20, the latest Grand Prix car from the team’s Enstone base in Britain. Kimi’s task in adding to his tally of 18 Grand Prix wins – still inside the top 15 in history – has been made harder by teething troubles in pre-season testing.

Lotus were forced to suspend track activities after just one day of last week’s Barcelona session when analysis of their E20’s chassis after an accident to Grosjean revealed unwanted information. “Not running this week has been a tough decision to take, but we feel that our choice is the right one,” observed team principal Eric Boullier.

“On the positive side, we have quickly identified the issue with the chassis and our design office has already devised a solution. We will be present at next week’s test in Barcelona. We draw faith from the fact that the E20 was quick out of the box in Jerez and showed its reliability there. We have a lot of work ahead of us over the next week but everyone at Enstone is ready for this challenge.”

Also up for a different challenge is reigning champion Sebastian Vettel. At just 24, the German is the youngest man ever to take back-to-back titles. His own challenge in 2012 is to be the latest to claim three successive World Championships, which would put him in an esteemed group of just three. The fact that the other two are Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher is a measure of how far Red Bull star Vettel has travelled since his debut in the USA in 2007.

Despite being #1 for the last two years, Vettel is quick to insist that all 24 drivers start on a level playing-field in Melbourne in March. “For us it all starts from zero again, zero points, everyone has the same chance and we are all building our new cars. So, until we really put them on track to race each other we don’t really know.

“It would be wrong to go into this season and expect 2011 to happen again, as in getting into the lead early and having a very big gap to other competitors in the Championship. So I think it will be very, very tight this year and everything else would be a surprise to be honest. Looking at the cars, you know there’s not much room we have left to play (with) for designers and to find something extra.”

That ‘something extra’ may well come from the driver; the legendary Sir Stirling Moss has recently said Vettel is the Fangio of his day, so he is probably best placed to provide it should Red Bull’s new RB8 require a helping hand.

Like Vettel, Spain’s Fernando Alonso boasts two titles which he won back in 2005-06 with Renault. Can he annex a third of his own with Ferrari? This will be Alonso’s third season with the most winning marque in Formula 1, but the F2012 did not exactly set pulses racing on debut in Spain and Alonso too will have work to do.

The last two of our six World Champions are team-mates: that’s Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton at Vodafone McLaren Mercedes where, last season, Hamilton suffered the chastening experience of being beaten over a season by a team-mate for the first time in his racing career.

The 27-year-old Briton’s response has been to work even harder in pre-season altitude training in Colorado and Switzerland as he prepares to scale new heights on track.

“The winter has been a great opportunity to recharge – I got away into the mountains, spent a lot of time hiking and running, improving my fitness and starting to prepare for the new year,” said Hamilton when McLaren launched their MP4-27. He also echoed Vettel’s own words.

“It’s always great to get away from everything; change the scenery. And what’s great about Formula 1 is that you start each season with the baseline completely reset – everybody starts again from zero – and that always makes me so hungry.”

In addition to the title-winning sextet, three other drivers in the 2012 field are proven race-winners: Ferrari’s Felipe Massa with 11, our own Mark Webber with seven and Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen with a singleton from his brief time with McLaren.

Along with Lotus, Scuderia Toro Rosso are the only other outfit to have made a double driver change for 2012, allowing Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo the chance to prove what he can do in Red Bull’s sister team.

Dan will run alongside Jean-Eric Vergne, one of only two rookies in the field. The other is Charles Pic at Marussia F1; those two young Frenchmen and Lotus driver Grosjean will be to the fore when our next backgrounder focuses on the French Connection in F1.

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