Can anyone stop Sebastian Vettel?

The 2013 F1 season starts in Melbourne this Sunday and it promises (hopefully) to be one of the most intriguing for years.  There are more title contenders than you can shake a stick at.  No less than 5 teams have a chance of winning the constructors championship.  Plus, HRT have quit the sport so there’s one shit back-marker fewer.  Will Lewis Hamilton thrive after his move to Mercedes?  How will Sergio Perez deal with the added pressure as his replacement?  Can Kimi Raikkonen step up and mount a serious title challenge?  Can anyone stop that energy-drink driving German from winning again?  There’s a faint whiff of the Michael Schumacher about Vettel, and although a hat-trick of championships is very impressive, it’s time someone else had a go.

            With the rather pointless pre-season testing yawnfest now over, we’re no closer to predicting a major challenger to Vettel’s throne.  Fernando Alonso looks the most likely; last year, the Spaniard drove an almost flawless season in an absolutely terrible car that was (literally) miles off the pace in March, yet still only finished three points behind Vettel.  Give Alonso a competitive package and he will deliver every microsecond of performance.  If Ferrari have delivered, Alonso will be, like cement, right up in the mix.  Lewis Hamilton is probably Vettel’s other main rival, but after his move to Mercedes, I think he will struggle, at least in the early part of the season, to get settled in his new surroundings.  I have no doubt he will still have the pace, but it’s just a case of delivering that consistently for a whole race and over an entire season – something Mercedes have noticeably lacked.  And not crashing into all and sundry.

            Of the other front-runners, it is Kimi Raikkonen who intrigues me the most.  Kimi is at a crossroads in his career; he’s already a world champion and he’s clearly still got the speed, but he’s the wrong side of 30 and has he still got that burning ambition inside him?  He is a driver’s driver; the sort of guy who turns up to the half an hour before the start, hops into the cockpit and delivers the goods.  He doesn’t bother with all the technical nonsense.  He just gets on with his job – driving fast.  Remember last season when his engineer gave him a load of hassle during the race?  Kimi’s retort was ‘leave me alone – I know what I’m doing.’  Classic Raikkonen.  If he truly does know what he’s doing, and the ice-cool Finn has the hunger and desire to compete up top with the big boys, then we’re in for an exciting season.

            I’m slightly worried by McLaren this season.  They’ve lost their number one driver and replaced him with a (sort of) mercenary in Sergio Perez.  He’s good and he’s quick, but the step up in class to McLaren is something for which I’m not sure he’s prepared.  It’s not good enough to have the odd stellar weekend when the rest of the time you’re scrapping around in the midfield.  He needs to turn up every weekend and perform at his best in every session because that is what McLaren demands – the best.  Moreover, I can’t see Button really troubling the champagne manufacturers much because he hasn’t been consistently fast enough.  Every other weekend he seems to be qualifying 8th or 9th.  He rarely sticks it on the front row in qualifying which puts him at a disadvantage, and with the seemingly pedestrian package McLaren have provided, another fourth or fifth finish beckons.

            Nico Hulkenberg’s move to Sauber is the probably the most noteworthy of the midfield teams.  The German has serious pace, a cool head and will be the leader in a team which was quick enough to win last season.  If he can learn the ropes quickly and his car set-up is right, he could cause a few surprises.  Pastor Maldonado is another who has pace to burn, but unfortunately the young Colombian’s driving style is so rash that he makes Romain Grosjean look like a cautious driving instructor.  After his debut race victory last season, he went nine races without scoring – exactly the sort of consistency which will get him a drive at Caterham next season.  If he can rein in his youthful exuberance (and it is a big if) and manage to keep his car somewhere in the vicinity of the road, he may be able to challenge for a race win or two.

            For what it’s worth, I think Alonso will be World Champion this year.  It is now 7 years since his last crown and he has lost the title at the final race twice in the past three seasons.  This has really hurt the Spaniard and he will return this campaign a new, improved, more mature and complete driver, ready to take on the might of Vettel and Red Bull.  In my heart I want Raikkonen to come second, but he probably won’t because he’ll turn up at the wrong racetrack or oversleep and miss the race.  Here’s to cracking season.  Let the racing begin.

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