Vettel for the fourth time, or perhaps a new champion? Ahead of the new Formula One season the question is whether the three-time champion from Germany again dominates or whether Fernando Alonso or another top driver can win the drivers’ crown.

“It all points to it again being very tight,” Red Bull driver Vettel has himself said as the teams get ready for the first race of the season, the Australian Grand Prix, in Melbourne on March 17.

Most of the other drivers realise Vettel and Red Bull are the benchmark. “Red Bull will again be the team everyone has to beat,” commented Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg.

The season though is looking difficult to forecast. Vettel may be the favourite but Alonso, who was beaten by just three points to the championship last season, is certainly a candidate, while the likes of Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren’s Jenson Button, the Mercedes pair of Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, and Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber should be among the contenders.

“You don’t have to be a genius to have an idea who is among the favourites. It will be the usual suspects,” said Vettel.

Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus and especially Mercedes impressed with lap times in the pre-season testing sessions, but these tests are notoriously unreliable when it comes to forecasting actual racing. Red Bull, for one, did not really show their hand in testing.

Technical regulations have barely changed from last season, but the tyres could be a factor again. During tests even drivers like Button, who has a reputation for knowing how to handle his tyres, has had problems with the new Pirelli rubbers. Yet a start to the season like last year — when the first seven races produced seven different winners — is unlikely in view of the few technical and regulation alterations.

Vettel believes the RB9 is a step forward from last year, while Alonso also goes into the season in an upbeat mood with Ferrari.

“We have now a car that is responding well to what we change on the car,” the Spaniard said during testing. “We have a car that is doing what we expected the car to do.”

Mercedes hopes for a change of fortune with new driver Hamilton, signed from McLaren. The team has even had to play down expectations following fast times in testing in Barcelona.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said Mercedes had recorded “some head-turning times” and “will be a factor this season.”

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