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· Pocket Sand
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F1: A Vettel Hat Trick In 2012?
Six World Champions on the grid for the opening Grand Prix of the season represents an unprecedented array of talent for Formula One, yet few would count on anything other than another Sebastian Vettel title this season.

Kimi Raikkonen's return from a year away in rally racing has added one more former champion to F1 ranks this season, joining Vettel, Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button.

He will be driving for Lotus this season – that is, the team formerly known as Renault, not the team that used to be called Lotus, which is now Caterham.

Raikkonen's return will add interest, yet F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone is worried that may quickly ebb away if 2012 turns into another Vettel procession.

It was not just that Vettel clinched last year's title with four races to spare, but the manner in which he did it – regularly taking pole position, turning it into a good lead in the first few laps then simply maintaining that margin to the checkered flag.

"We don't want what happened last year, which was not too good," Ecclestone said. "We perhaps need a change. The only person that would say no to that would be Sebastian, but everybody else would agree with it."

In F1, a driver can only be as good as the car he sits in, and Vettel's chances of a third straight title hinge largely on how Red Bull and its renowned designer Adrian Newey have managed to adapt the car to the latest slew of new regulations.

The biggest change on last year is the banning of the "blown diffuser" – a device that channeled exhaust fumes onto the aerodynamic undercar diffuser, enhancing downforce in cornering. The diffuser had been the key to F1 design ever since the Brawn GP team got a jump on everyone in 2009 and surprisingly won the title in its debut season.

The arcane world of undercar design could again prove to be decisive, but for F1 fans the most noticeable difference in the design of the cars this season will be much more visible: new rules on front nose height means all teams bar McLaren and HRT have a two-tiered front section, staying high from cockpit to front axle, then sloping down sharply in the section to the front wing.

McLaren's decision to go it alone among the leading teams and retain a straight front section is a bold one that could prove either a masterstroke or an oversight.

McLaren has had a much less frantic offseason leading into 2012 than it did the previous year, when it struggled to incorporate an elaborate exhaust system onto the car, and the bullish comments coming out of the team suggest Hamilton and Button will be Vettel's strongest rivals in the early part of the season.

"The car is feeling good," Button said at the final testing session in Barcelona. "Whether we're fastest, second fastest, not fast, I don't know. But it feels we've made a good step.

"I'm reasonably happy with what we have going to the first race. I don't know where we are, but I'm feeling comfortable."

Jenson Button (Pictured) could provide the stiffest challenge to Red Bull in 2012. (Photo: LAT Photographic) http://speedtv.com/gallery/

Adding to the good vibe at McLaren are the difficulties experienced by its main rivals in preseason testing – Red Bull had reliability issues with its gearbox and other new parts, while Ferrari was troubled by the car's inconsistency in varying conditions.

"So far testing has been quite good for us, not perfect," Vettel said in Barcelona. "Surely we had some bits here and there failing and some bits that we need to sort out but all in all I feel happy."

Given Vettel's dominance in 2011 its easy to forget that his teammate Mark Webber pushed him all the way in 2010 and, but for a driving error on a wet curb in Korea, could well have ended up world champion.

Webber struggled with the introduction of Pirelli tires last year but now that he is accustomed to the rubber, the Australian driver has declared himself ready for a championship tilt in 2012, and will start the season chasing his first ever win in his home Grand Prix on March 18.

"It is going to be a great battle again at the front, and this is what I am excited about, it is what I am training for, it is what I am preparing for and this is why I am looking forward to getting the first part of the championship under way," Webber said.

Ferrari's woes appear deeper than the issues at Red Bull, with technical chief Pat Fry not disguising his disappointment at the lap times in Barcelona testing.

"I am disappointed by our performance level at the moment," Fry said. "I could either be depressed, more disappointed or less disappointed, I don't know. We've still got a reasonable amount of work to do."

Ferrari is not known for its patience with a lack of performance and, Alonso aside, no one will be feeling overly secure at Maranello heading into the new season.

Mercedes has been the best of the rest for the past two seasons, and is aiming to take the step from consistent points gatherer to at least regular podium positions.

Team principal Ross Brawn has declared his team ready to belatedly give Schumacher some podium positions to add a sheen of success to an otherwise underwhelming comeback by the seven-time world champion.

"Last year there was a lot of resource soaked up fixing problems with the car, so we have certainly moved a long way in 12 months," Brawn said. "What is apparent is that there are five or six teams in a much closer grouping perhaps than we have seen for a number of years."

Lotus' hiring of Raikkonen was a statement of intent from an ambitious team, and while preseason times are notoriously unreliable guides to performance, it appears the team will at least be competitive.

The bad news is that Raikkonen's arrival seems like a tacit admission that Robert Kubica's attempted F1 comeback from injuries suffered in a 2011 rallying crash will not be possible in 2012, if ever.

The team's second driver will be Romain Grosjean, who had a brief and error-strewn time as Alonso's teammate at Renault in 2009 but has since demonstrated his readiness by running away with the GP2 title last season.

He is one of three Frenchmen who will come into the sport in 2012; a welcome and overdue renaissance for a nation so central to F1 history. The others are Jean-Eric Vergne at Toro Rosso and Charles Pic with Marussia (formerly Virgin).

France's gain is matched by Italy's pain. The ousting of Jarno Trulli at Caterham leaves F1 without an Italian starting driver for the first time since 1973.

Trulli has been replaced at Caterham by Russian Vitaly Petrov, who is able to bring much more sponsorship revenue to the team. While the top four teams enter the season with the same driver lineups as last year, it has been the usual case of musical chairs among the smaller teams.

Former Williams driver Nico Hulkenberg returns with Force India, replacing Adrian Sutil. Australian Daniel Ricciardo won a seat at Toro Rosso in a propitious career boost which earmarks him as a potential Red Bull driver of the future. Bruno Senna replaces his veteran Brazilian compatriot Rubens Barrichello at Williams, while HRT – under new management – has gone against the young driver trend by hiring Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan, who have a combined age of 76.
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