High hopes for this season, with new tyres the joker in the pack

Don't be fooled into thinking this year's Formula One championship will be a bit of a non-starter just because the teams will be focusing their energies on 2014 and the V6 turbocharged engines.

Last year saw new life breathed into the series with multiple winners and some great surprises. It was the best F1 championship in a long while and some of the drivers and teams who tasted fleeting success will be after more glory.

The introduction of the new engines next year will level the field a little to begin with, allowing for some lesser lights to shine on occasion and the odd upset to happen.

Chief among those wanting to go flat out this year will be Sebastien Vettel, who'll be very keen to win four F1 championships in a row. And as only two other drivers have won three championships in a row - Juan Manuel Fangio (1955-57) and Michael Schumacher (2000-04) - in the 63-year history of the championship, it's a big ask.


Vettel aside, there's great interest in how Lewis Hamilton will fare at Mercedes, especially after he and the car showed good speed in pre-season practice.

Jenson Button made everyone sit up and take notice of the McLaren outfit, who have yet to really get a good handle on their car, by putting in some blindingly quick laps during winter testing.

This year Ferrari aren't rolling out that "the car's a dog and we don't stand a chance" line, with Fernando Alonso being quoted as saying his car is "200 per cent" better than last year's.

Lotus have two of the brightest sparks in the pack with a resurgent Kimi Raikkonen and the gifted Romain Grosjean quietly confident they have the cars to challenge for the title. Grosjean though, needs to temper some of his out-of-the-box moves with a little more race craft, or his reputation as being a bit of a loose cannon might just stick.

The rest of the field will do what they always do - try hard and hope for a mishap up front that may open the door for a surprise result.

Williams and Sauber may well pull an outrageous result but Force India and Toro Rosso aren't at that level yet. Then we have Caterham and Marussia who will continue to take it to each other in their own private race now that HRT are gone.

Of the teams only two, McLaren and Sauber, have pushed the design envelop and explored unknown waters. McLaren have the pullrod front suspension while the Sauber has been put on a diet and is showing off much narrower sidepods.

But the joker in this season's pack will be the new Pirelli tyres. Their entire F1 range has been changed for this year and no one really knows how they're going to behave. Some are suggesting the super soft tyres will only be good for one flying lap and who knows what the wet compound is going to do.

Pirelli wanted to spice things up and have said the softer compounds across the entire range will ensure at least two pit stops per car and more excitement for the fans. Time will tell.

Rookie drivers
Five rookie drivers are making their Formula One debut this year: Valtteri Bottas at Williams, Giedo van der Garde at Caterham, Max Chilton and Jules Bianchi at Marussia and Esteban Gutierrez at Sauber.

Of the five it's Bottas who some think will have a standout season. The young Finn is said to remind several paddock veterans of a young Mika Hakkinen who was no slouch in his day. Funny that, Hakkinen just happens to be his mentor.

Bottas has the temperament to approach things in a measured way, but still has that raw pace that if harnessed well will eliminate the major mistakes like the one during practice at Hockenheim last year.

Bianchi is another with huge promise and has been rapid in practice. However, unlike Bottas, he doesn't handle pressure well yet and is prone to unforced errors.

Unlike in previous years, four of the rookies have nearly 6000km of track time already with Chilton having the least at about 4000km. While this is a decent amount of time in the car, it's in the heat of battle among a lot more seasoned drivers that will separate the men from the boys.

For the rookies to develop into fully fledged F1 drivers they have to be given a bit of a loose rein. This is not an open cheque to go out and cause chaos and mayhem, but the leeway to make the odd mistake without being overly chastised.

Their second season is the time to repay the faith put in them and get the results expected.

Those in the know speak
Chris Amon was a works Ferrari driver in the 1960s and one of a privileged few New Zealanders who contested several F1 full seasons. He runs his eye over what teams and what drivers we should be looking out for.

"This year is promising to be the best in a long time. Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes, Red Bull and Lotus are all capable of winning races.

"The Mercedes is still a little bit unknown but they have a very strong driver pairing and appear to have quite good pace," Amon said.

"If I had to pick one driver I'd have to say Fernando Alonso. For me he's the one and he was very strong last year in a less than competitive car.

"This year they have a much better car but I think the margins [winning] will be much smaller. It'll be a brave man who sticks his hand up and says this will exactly happen ...

"The tyres are just going to make it a lottery and could make what I think less likely to happen," he said.

Another who has seen just about everything in F1, and wrote a book about it, is Bob McMurray. He spent 33-odd years with McLaren and watched a few of the team's drivers make it to world champion.

As a recognised F1 pundit, Driven thought it would be churlish not to seek his thoughts.

"Before a wheel has been turned in anger on the rack I think this could be the closest season we've had ever," said McMurray.

"This is because we've had so few changes to regulations and so everyone's got it pretty much honed as far as they can.

"Most of the teams haven't changed too much on their cars and the focus will be on the top four teams - Red Bull (less than impressive in testing but they might have done that deliberately), Ferrari (who say every year 'this must work and we can't afford to fail etc, etc), McLaren (who have a new driver in Perez ... ) and Mercedes (whose drivers Hamilton and Roseburg will be battling to see who comes out on top," said McMurray.

"I've picked Jenson Button to put it on pole this weekend and be the world champion and McLaren to be constructor's champion."

Rule changes for 2013
DRS Usage
This year, free use of the DRS has been banned. Drivers can only use the system in specified zones, of which there will be two except at Monaco and Suzuka. In practice,
drivers are not held to the ''one second behind another car'' rule that is applied during the race.

Force majeure rule
Drivers who pull over after Q3 is finished to save fuel to make the mandatory one litre required won't get away with it anymore as the rule has been tossed. Stopping halfway
around the track with a litre of fuel will have drivers disqualifying, regardless of the reasons for pulling over, if there isn't a litre plus half a lap's worth of fuel in the tank.

Double DRS
The FIA has banned the Mercedes double DRS. It was deemed to be a moveable aerodynamic device, despite the fact that the only thing moving was what the FIA had
permitted to move. However, the FIA is allowing passive double DRS devices that don't require the DRS to be active to remain on cars.

Modesty Panel
The FIA is allowing teams to use a ''modesty panel'' on the nose cone to hide the visible step seen last year, which some teams were trying to use as an extra aero device

Only six cars will be knocked out in each of Q1 and Q2, to leave 10 cars battling for the pole in Q3.

For the last two seasons, there was a curfew system that prevented team members from accessing the cars for six hours overnight and this year that has been pushed out to
eight hours. Also, teams were allowed four exceptions in the past, reduced to two this year.

TAB Odds

(1) Sebastian Vettel 2.30
(2) Fernando Alonso3.50
(3) Jenson Button6.00
(4) Kimi Raikkonen12.00
(5) Sergio Perez15.00
(6) Lewis Hamilton15.00
(7) Mark Webber17.00
(8) Felipe Massa50.00
(9) Romain Grosjean50.00
(10) Nico Rosberg60.00
(11) Nico Hulkenberg100.00
(12) Pastor Maldonado150.00
(13) Paul Di Resta150.00
(14) Valterri Bottas150.00
(15) Esteban Gutierrez250.00
(16) Daniel Ricciardo500.00
(17) Jean-Eric Vergne500.00
(18) Charles Pic1000.00
(19) Giedo van der Garde1500.00
(20) Luiz Razia2000.00