After topping the time sheets in both free practices for this weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, three-time defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel and his Infiniti Red Bull Racing team have given notice to the entire paddock that they will not go away easily.  With similar technical regulations to 2012, Red Bull has continued with the pace that gave them a three-peat in both drivers and constructors.


Vettel became the third driver in F1 history to claim three consecutive titles (Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher) after having a spirited battle with two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Scuderia Ferrari last year.  Alonso and Ferrari are back with a much improved car from 12 months ago.


After starring with an inferior car and fighting off the advances of both McLaren and RBR later in the year, Alonso fell three points short of his third title in the season finale at Brazil.  Alonso and teammate Felipe Massa are both on pace early, which is a good sign for the passionate Tifosi that live for everything Ferrari.  For Vettel to four-peat, he will have to get through Alonso first.


Vodafone McLaren Mercedes comes into 2013 with plenty of changes – both currently and in the future.   2008 World Drivers Champion Lewis Hamilton’s departure to Mercedes AMG Petronas opened up a seat for young Mexican Sergio Perez to join 2009 World Champion Jenson Button.


Along with the driver change, McLaren decided to redesign their car with a pull-rod suspension, similar to the setup that gave Ferrari problems early in 2012.  McLaren have been off compared to the other major teams in testing and in practice so far in Melbourne.  The team announced earlier this week that Vodafone will leave after 2013 but seem to have a new sponsor in line.


The aforementioned Hamilton moves over to the Silver Arrows team after spending his entire career with McLaren to drive with friend Nico Rosberg.  After struggling for most of 2012 with pace and tire degradation, Mercedes has shown up to Australia with fast cars and look to have a fighting chance for race victories, if everything falls into place.


A wild card for the title is Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus F1 Renault.  The winner of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November, Raikkonen starts his second season with the team coming off possibly his most consistent season other than his 2007 WDC year.  There is no doubt that Raikkonen is fast but his focus will determine whether the team earns their first title since Alonso raced for the team, under the Renault banner.


Another driver to keep in mind is Vettel’s teammate at Infiniti Red Bull Racing, Mark Webber.  The well-liked veteran enters 2013 looking for more consistency and to compete with his younger teammate.  Webber has always been fast and able to get solid results [his fifth place in his debut for Minardi back in 2002 as a prime example], but can he stay with Vettel, push him for race victories and a title is the bigger issue.


In the midfield, the battle is close between Sauber, Force India, Williams and Scuderia Torro Rosso should be tight all season long and the development with these smaller teams will determine how many points they score over the season.


Drivers to watch are German Nico Hulkenberg, who moved from Force India to Sauber in 2013 and seems confident with his new team.  Hulkenberg is replaced by countryman Adrian Sutil at Force India, returning after a one-year hiatus.  Sutil has been fast and is hungry to prove he should have not been removed for Hulkenberg last year.  One of the closest intra-team matchups will be between Sutil and Paul di Resta.


2012 Spanish Grand Prix winner Pastor Maldonado will be joined by Finland’s Valteri Bottas at Williams this season.  Neither driver lacks speed but consistency and the car are bigger questions for the young duo.


A major factor in the race will be tire conservation, with Pirelli bringing their super-soft and medium compound tires to Melbourne Park.  With the rough and slick surface that the street course provides, tire degradation and how drivers save their tires will determine pit stop strategy and what compound the drivers use for qualifying.


The Australian Grand Prix will be shown live on the NBC Sports Network late Saturday night.  It is a new season of Formula 1 and come to Drafting the Circuits to keep track of all the happenings during the 2013 season.