Sultans of speed return

Sultans of speed return

The new season promises to be one of the most enthralling in recent history.

As the Formula One teams set up their garages at the Albert Park circuit in Melbourne for the first Grand Prix of the season on March 17, the main question for many is whether Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team will write another page in the colorful 63-year history of the series by winning a fourth straight title.

Whatever the answer, by the beginning of winter testing of the new cars in Spain last month the stage was set for a racing season that promises to be as close and exciting as the last three. In fact, there are expectations of tighter competition and more unpredictable racing in 2013 than in previous years.

Vettel and Red Bull may have won the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the least three years, but the racing in those years was far from predictable, thanks to new technical regulations designed to facilitate overtaking. In the last two seasons, a rubber compound introduced in 2011 by the tire manufacturer Pirelli also helped enhance the racing.

There were seven different winners in the first seven races last season, as teams struggled to adapt at each track to get the most out of the tires. Although the teams began to understand the tires better midway through the season, no one ever mastered the art of finding the best grip.

Pirelli has responded to complaints with a tire compound that helps maximize speed. But the tire manufacturer has also maintained its goal of race excitement by providing a new challenge: The new tires wear out quickly, which means that the high speeds can’t be maintained for long periods.

When one car loses speed, another will have the chance to take over or challenge for position. As tires will need to be changed more often, drivers will be forced to make more pit stops. That will make it difficult for a driver or team to take the lead and dominate, and pit-stop strategy will again be essential.

That, in any case, is the theory.

“I think we never had a winter that was less conclusive than this one,” Vettel said during testing in Barcelona. “Tires last for one lap, or maybe for some other people it’s different depending on how much temperature you can generate.

“I think it’s impossible to read the pace of the car,” he added, “therefore to make someone a favorite for Australia is not that easy.”

Other drivers agreed that what winter testing did not do was establish which car is the strongest on those few fast laps afforded by the tires. If anything, they said, the testing suggested that most of the 11 teams are more closely matched in speed than in recent years.

This is largely because technical regulations have not be altered -- the big changes will come next year, especially with a new engine -- which has given the teams the time to draw closer together as they refine their cars to get the most out of rules that they now understand thoroughly.

The new Red Bull car is more an evolution of last year’s car than a revolutionary redesign, and since it was the best car last year, it should remain strong this season. It was rarely one of the fastest cars during winter testing, but that appeared to be because the team chose to hide its true strength.

So which teams and drivers appear capable of challenging Red Bull? At the top of the list is Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, which battled for the title until the final race last season. The Italian team lost the championship primarily because it was not fast enough early enough last year. This season it has tried to resolve that, building a car that is much stronger starting the season than the car it started with last season.

If Alonso can perform at the same level he did last year, the car and driver could make for a winning combination. In fact, the Spaniard said he is even stronger this year.

McLaren Mercedes is a more complicated case. It has suffered the blow of losing its star driver, Lewis Hamilton, who has left the team for Mercedes. But McLaren’s drivers, Jenson Button and Sergio Perez, are eager to put their stamp on the post-Hamilton team.

Hamilton said he had moved to Mercedes -- replacing Michael Schumacher, the seven-time world champion who did not win a race in three seasons at the team -- with no illusions about winning the title this season. But last weekend, he and his Mercedes team-mate, Nico Rosberg, finished as the fastest drivers on the last two days of winter testing.

So the Mercedes team with its reinvigorated driver partnership is a wild card. As is the Lotus team, where Kimi Raikkonen is back for a second year since taking a two-year break from Formula One.

Lotus was strong all last season, but was lacking a bit of speed -- as well as a more dependable second driver than Romain Grosjean proved to be. But Grosjean is back, and he was among the fastest drivers on the last weekend of testing. Raikkonen won a race for the team at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November, boosting the team’s confidence and setting the stage for what could be more victories this year.

There will be one less team in the paddock this season than last year, the HRT having folded over the winter. That means there will be 11 teams on the grid with 22 drivers, instead of the 12 teams and 24 drivers from last year.

The race calendar has also been reduced. A planned race in New Jersey will not be held, nor will the European Grand Prix. But with a total of 19 races, running from March 17 to the end of November, it will be one of the longest seasons ever.