Vettel and the chasing pack
RED BULL RACING
RED BULL RB8 RENAULT
It's quite simple: Red Bull start as the favourite just as they did in 2010 and 2011 when they became world champions together with their golden boy, Sebastian Vettel. It says everything that rivals fear what breakthrough designer Adrian Newey might have up his sleeve ready to spring on them in Melbourne.
Vettel is one of the top five drivers out there, though some still wait to see just how he copes with consistent and sustained pressure after two seasons of making the most of the best car. He is relaxed, calm, immensely likeable - and, of course, extremely fast. And the clear favourite.
Webber had difficulty last year adjusting to the characteristics of Pirelli's tyres after a season spent matching Vettel in 2010. Now he's ready once again to be a major threat. A tough, determined racer who sees the bigger picture, his day could still come after his near-miss in 2010.
McLAREN MP4-27 MERCEDES
McLaren must come out fighting hard this year if they are to have a chance of challenging Red Bull for the world championship. After two seasons in which delays getting their cars fully up to speed left them a mountain to climb, the signs are that the MP4-27 will be very competitive.
Button did a brilliant job last year, staying out of trouble, getting the best from Pirelli's short-life tyres and outscoring Hamilton to finish runner-up to Vettel after scoring three excellent victories. This year he is going all-out to go one place better, and to establish himself as the team's de facto leader.
Hamilton had a fragmented 2011, with personal problems off the track detracting from his focus on it. He had far too many silly accidents, notably with Ferrari's Felipe Massa, and at times lacked focus even though he also won three races. This year he's back on form mentally, so watch him go.
Melbourne will confirm whether Ferrari are in trouble after difficult tests with a radical new car that, while fast over single laps, lacks the race pace and balance of major rivals Red Bull and McLaren, and also Mercedes and Lotus. There is speculation whether they can even fight for a podium place.
Alonso, together with Hamilton, is one of the two best drivers in the game and kept things positive in testing as he and team-mate Massa accrued a mileage beaten only by Williams. The feisty Spaniard can always be relied upon to deliver brilliant performances while pushing the team in the right direction.
Massa faces the most crucial year in his F1 career after two disappointing seasons since his life-threatening accident in Hungary in 2009. He must match Alonso's pace if he is to remain a Ferrari driver in 2013, and insiders suggest that he is in a much stronger frame of mind this year.
MERCEDES MGP W03
Mercedes have an awful lot to prove this year, after disappointing seasons since 2010. They signed up high-calibre engineers such as Bob Bell, Geoff Willis and Aldo Costa, and team principal Ross Brawn believes they are ready to step up and start winning. Insiders have been impressed by their race pace in testing, in particular.
Rosberg recently suggested that they will have the pace to "annoy" Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari, and desperately hopes so for he is in danger of being overlooked after two years of outshining his much-vaunted team-mate. An overdue first victory would go a long way towards boosting his reputation.
For Schumacher it is past time to deliver performances that are consistently better than Rosberg's and to silence the growing number of critics who believe that he is a long way past his best. The seven-time champion needs to demonstrate convincingly that the old fearsome skills remain intact.
LOTUS E20 RENAULT
Lotus - formally Renault - have shown great speed and race pace throughout pre-season testing even though a problem with the front suspension mountings prevented them from doing the first test in Barcelona. Without question, they start the year as the dark horse that might just be able to upset the top-four teams.
The decision to grab 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen and rescue him from his self-imposed exile in rallying is inspired, and there have been clear signs from testing that the frequently misunderstood Finn is as hungry as he was in his heyday with Ferrari. Certainly Ferrari themselves think so.
Raikkonen may find himself challenged within Lotus, however. Spearheading the French renaissance in F1, GP2 champion Romain Grosjean is also returning and is determined to demonstrate his new maturity and to remind people of the pace he showed when he partnered Fernando Alonso back in the Renault days.
PAUL DI RESTA
FORCE INDIA VJM05 MERCEDES
The Silverstone-based team did a superb job in 2011 to beat Sauber, Toro Rosso and Williams hands-down on their way to sixth in the constructors' world championship. Now they match two very quick young drivers as they seek to do better still in 2012, with a car that has shown strongly in testing.
In his rookie season in 2011, Scot Paul di Resta showed immediately that he could equal team-mate Adrian Sutil's acknowledged pace in both qualifying and races. He was a consistent points contender and demonstrated that he is a great British talent of the future, but now his challenge is to keep delivering.
Young German Nico Hulkenberg took a pole position in his impressive rookie season for Williams in 2010 but was dropped in favour of Pastor Maldonado's money. Now he is back racing after a season as Force India's test driver and can be guaranteed to push Di Resta all the way.
SAUBER C31 FERRARI
Peter Sauber is a great survivor and his team progressed as Monisha Kaltenborn and Sauber's son Alex played greater roles in 2011. It remains to be seen what effect the loss of designer James Key will have, or the odd decision to share his work out among engineering colleagues in Hinwil.
Retaining drivers Kamui Kobayashi and Sergio Perez will bring much-needed consistency which could be a major factor in the midfield fight. The Japanese driver continued to build last year on his reputation as one of the sport's best overtakers, and is settling down to become a very solid and reliable racer.
Perez kept Kobayashi on his mettle in his rookie season in 2011, even though a major accident at the chicane in Monaco shook the young Mexican. It took him time to recover fully, but once he was back on form he showed that he had lost none of his raw speed.
TORO ROSSO STR7 FERRARI
Toro Rosso have regrouped for 2012 around a new driver pairing of Australian Daniel Ricciardo and much-vaunted Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne, who replace Swiss Sebastien Buemi and Spaniard Jaime Alguersuari. At stake could be Mark Webber's seat at Red Bull in 2013, so there is everything to play for.
Australia's second Mr Nice Guy did the second half of 2011 with HRT and demonstrated similar strong pace to his under-rated team-mate Tonio Liuzzi. He generally doesn't make silly mistakes, either, so he won't be a pushover for Vergne and should be a strong asset to Toro Rosso in the tough midtable fight.
Vergne is the second driver in the French renaissance, and comes very highly rated. He has demonstrated clear speed testing for Red Bull in Abu Dhabi but also the edge of ruthless ambition that all future champions need. He is heavily tipped to become the new Alain Prost.
WILLIAMS FW34 RENAULT
Williams had a catastrophic season in 2011. But much has changed. Veteran engineer Patrick Head has retired and Sam Michael is now at McLaren, leaving Mark Gillan and disgraced former McLaren designer Mike Coughlan (of "Spygate" fame) in charge technically. Sir Frank Williams has stepped down from the board, leaving chairman Adam Parr to run the company.
Brazilian veteran Rubens Barrichello's 329-race F1 career is finally over as younger compatriot Bruno Senna gets a major career break after inconclusive outings for HRT and Renault in the last two years. He must now prove that he can carry some of the mantle of his illustrious uncle, the late Ayrton Senna.
Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado gets a second season courtesy of a huge sponsorship deal with his national oil company. At times he matched Barrichello's pace in 2011, but must now prove that he can marry a calmer head to his speed if he is to shake off a reputation as a hothead.
CATERHAM CT-01 RENAULT
Tony Fernandes' Team Lotus takes on the new guise of Caterham for 2012. Together with the fresh start is the urgent need to be seen to make the jump from "new" team to consistent midfield points-scorer in order to maintain the credibility and progress essential to future growth.
Heikki Kovalainen was one of the best drivers of 2011 even if much of his effort was hidden by the team's lowly status. He is always cheerful and committed and never gives up, and is thus a major source of inspiration and motivation to his engineers and mechanics.
Italian veteran Jarno Trulli is finally out of F1 after beginning his career in 1997; in his place comes Renault refugee Vitaly Petrov. The Russian showed flashes of strong form in 2010 against Robert Kubica, but needs to push Kovalainen hard to maintain credibility and prove he isn't a pay driver.
PEDRO DE LA ROSA
HRT F112 COSWORTH
The Spanish team are under new management now that Luis Perez-Sala is team principal in place of the ebullient Colin Kolles, who steamrollered their progress into F1 back in 2010. They have moved into new premises in Madrid but lost all testing after their new car failed a mandatory FIA crash test.
HRT's main trump card is former Arrows, Jaguar and McLaren racer Pedro de la Rosa. A massively enthusiastic character who loves racing, he gave up the test and reserve-driver role at McLaren to compete again. He has the pedigree to steer them in the right direction and develop the new F112.
The Spaniard's team-mate Narain Karthikeyan is one of the few things that haven't changed at HRT since 2011, and goes into another season of F1 with backing from Tata. The likeable Indian is unlikely to set the track alight, but can be seen as a relatively safe pair of hands.
MARUSSIA MR01 COSWORTH
Renamed after Virgin pulled out, the Banbury-based team lost all of its crucial testing after their new car failed one of its crash tests. That has given it a bad start for a season in which clear progress is essential, but a strong management team could turn that round if the car shows promise.
Timo Glock is a huge asset to the team. The German is experienced and feisty, and a great racer who used to challenge Lewis Hamilton when they were rivals in GP2. He's thus got the right credentials and will help the team move forward.
Wealthy young Frenchman Charles Pic is an unknown quantity. He showed strongly at times in GP2 last year but will have been compromised badly by the lack of test mileage, which means he'll have to learn the rudiments of his new role during GP weekends.