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New kids on the block

The late confirmations of Giedo Van der Garde and Luiz Razia by Caterham and Marussia respectively have ensured that the Australian GP will feature a bumper crop of at least five rookies.

Van der Garde and Razia join fellow newcomers Valtteri Bottas, Max Chilton and Esteban Gutierrez. As Motor Sport went to press Force India had yet to confirm whether Jules Bianchi would also finally be announced as a race driver, the alternative choice being a return for Adrian Sutil.

Not counting Sutil there will be just eight drivers on the Melbourne grid who have completed more than two full Fl seasons — the five World Champions plus Felipe Massa, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg. Among those who competed last year and are now absent are Timo Glock, Kamui Kobayashi, Heikki Kovalainen, Vitaly Petrov and Bruno Senna.

The unprecedented turnover in recent seasons reflects the fact that so many teams are struggling to raise cash and are looking increasingly towards drivers who are able to guarantee sponsorship.

It’s a sign of the times that Marussia very publicly ended an ongoing contract with the salaried Glock in order to make way for Razia, who brings substantial funding from Brazil.

Fine tuning likely to be key this year

The phrase ‘evolution not revolution’ has long been bandied about at launches of new Fl cars, and it’s the most apt description of this year’s crop.

With stable rules there were never going to be too many dramatic changes, and over the winter it really was a question of honing established packages, especially for front-running teams who kept developing their 2012 models until the very end of last season.

In addition, as has become the norm in recent years, teams often save the real novelties — at least those that can be easily seen and studied by rivals — until either the final test session in Barcelona, or the first race in Australia.

Aside from the unusually narrow sidepods of the Sauber C32 there was little reason to raise an eyebrow as each car was unveiled. There was one regular talking point, however, thanks to the FIA giving the teams the option to cover up the ugly stepped noses of 2012 with what has been termed a vanity or modesty panel — a piece of carbon that shatters easily in T-bone impacts, and which creates a hollow area on top of the nose.

Ferrari fans were relieved to see that the Italian team has followed that route, and the F138 is thus considerably more attractive than its predecessor. Some teams have, however, retained a step, or a version of it. Designers have alternative theories about the aero or weight distribution benefits, although all agree that while it might be highly visible, in reality the step issue is of limited relevance.

The other key factor affecting this year’s designs is what’s coming in 2014, when the arrival of V6 turbo engines ensures that everyone has to start with a clean sheet of paper. Teams long ago began to pursue 2014 concepts, and even those with considerable resources on which to draw have already made compromises, and will continue to do so. Why pour extra effort into something that will have a shelf life of one year?

That split of R&D effort into 2014 and ongoing development of the current car will be one of this season’s biggest themes. The consensus is that teams will have to take a view on their short-term prospects and make a call on what they can gain or lose by continuing to focus on their current cars. That challenge will make the development war all the more intriguing.

Along with the usual pursuit of ever more marginal aero gains, getting the most out of the 2013 tyres will be the key to this season. In an attempt to spice up the racing Pirelli has developed its products to provide quicker warm-up followed by greater degradation over a race stint. It’s going to be fascinating to see how those characteristics play out between different cars and, perhaps more importantly, driving styles.

Last year Jenson Button suffered for much of the season from an inability to get his tyres into the right working range, but the 2013 rubber should complement his smooth style, and possibly work against those who are more aggressive.

A little extra spice is added by the fact that Pirelli’s choices for the first four races feature so many different combinations of its compounds, namely medium/supersoft (Australia), medium/hard (Malaysia), soft/medium (China) and soft/hard (Bahrain). That chopping and changing will ensure that teams and drivers are kept on their toes as they learn more about the tyres — and in considerably hotter conditions than those experienced during winter testing in Spain.

The opening salvo of testing in Jerez provided few real pointers. McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus all looked strong and between them set the fastest times on all four days, while Red Bull’s new RB9 was ominously quick on the harder tyre. Sebastian Vettel pointed out that the team was in better shape than at the same point last year.

Meanwhile much attention was focused on Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, and critics of the latter’s move were given plenty of ammunition when an early brake failure sent the 2008 World Champion into the tyre wall. However, as Ferrari demonstrated last season, much can change over the course of a season. Discount Mercedes at your peril…

Motor Sport’s seasonal F1 preview begins on page 61

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