New F1 season could prove unpredictable
The Formula 1 teams arrived in Melbourne's Albert Park to be greeted by grey skies, intermittent rain and blustery wind. But not even the weather could dampen the palpable excitement and nervous tension.
The start of the new season is just a few hours away and everyone from world champions Red Bull to lowly HRT is desperate to find the answer to the question they have been asking all winter. Where will they be come Saturday and Sunday afternoons?
The F1 teams like to keep outsiders guessing before the first race by saying they don't know where they are in terms of competitiveness, but usually this is little more than kidology.
Such is their capacity to analyse data with massive super-computers that usually they have a very good idea of their position in relation to their rivals, despite the well-known difficulty of predicting form from pre-season testing.
But this year seems different; they genuinely don't seem to know - so the usual anticipation ahead of the first race of the season is magnified.
Lewis Hamilton said that judging by the data that mattered from winter testing he felt McLaren were "in the top three or four".
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso has also bigged up his team's chances for the 2012 season. Photo: Getty
Meanwhile, a senior engineer from one of the teams who will be contesting what is expected to be a congested midfield battle told me he was pretty sure Red Bull and McLaren were out front but he didn't know "whether we will be third or seventh".
Some people's anticipation is more nervous than others', though.
For teams such as Mercedes and Lotus, there is a genuine sense that they have done a good job and moved forward over the winter.
In fact there is a growing sense in the paddock that Mercedes may even be able to give McLaren and Red Bull a run for their money, something team principal Ross Brawn was quick to dismiss as "unlikely".
For others, the desire to discover the true pace of their car is tinged as much with trepidation as anticipation.
Ferrari have had what Fernando Alonso described here on Thursday as a "tough" winter, struggling with "quite a complex car in terms of set-up and understanding it".
Alonso was doing his best to talk up the team's chances, saying: "Maybe we didn't reach our targets but it doesn't mean that we are slower than the other cars. That we will not know until Saturday."
Others are keen to play down the importance of this first race of the season.
Vettel said that Australia this weekend and Malaysia next would do no more than demonstrate a "trend" for performance over the season.
And Brawn said he "preferred to look at the first four races and the range of circuits we have and see how that looks".
But the statistics belie that point of view.
Albert Park might be a unique street circuit, with a dusty, low-grip surface, and the teams may only just be beginning to work with their new cars. But actually it has proven to be a rather good arbiter of the season to come - five of the last six winners of the Australian Grand Prix have gone on to become world champion that year.
Other themes are also emerging this weekend that will have importance to one degree or another as the season develops.
F1 wouldn't be F1 without a good technical conspiracy and this year looks like being no different.
Already during pre-season testing there have been eyebrows raised at the way some teams are trying to exploit exhaust gases for aerodynamic effect.
This practice was supposed to have been ended by rule changes that have restricted the positioning and angle of the exhaust pipes and put much stricter limits on engine mapping - both an attempt to rid the sport of so-called exhaust-blown diffusers that became such important tools over the previous two seasons.
But this weekend another potential controversy has emerged over the rear wings on several cars, particularly the Mercedes, Red Bull and the Ferrari.
These new devices - that some believe to be on the fringes of legality - seem designed to exploit the DRS overtaking aid in ways not originally intended.
The DRS was designed as a tool to make overtaking less difficult - if a driver is within a one-second margin of a car he is trying to overtake, he can use the DRS in a specified zone on the track to give him a straight-line speed boost.
Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari, meanwhile, have what appear to be extra slots on the rear wing that can work in conjunction with the DRS to either increase straight-line speed even further, or allow the teams to run extra downforce with no drag penalty.
The most noticeable feature of the 2012 cars, though, remains the noses - and specifically the ugly 'platypus' step on all but the McLaren and Marussia.
This is a result of a rule that has lowered the nose tips of the cars to increase driver safety, but not lowered the top of the chassis.
The result is a grid full of ridiculous and ugly-looking cars, and very few are troubling to hide their frustration at the situation.
"It is unfortunate," Brawn said, "and the teams should look at themselves and blame themselves.
"[Governing body] the FIA tried to do what they could and a number of teams wouldn't agree to the changes because they said they wanted to carry over their chassis, which we all know is a load of nonsense because nobody has carried over their chassis.
"We've ended up with a very odd feature on the cars which is not very endearing and I'm sure will get fixed for 2013."
The noses, of course, will soon be forgotten if the season is close and competitive. And that will only begin to become clear as this weekend unfolds.