Is there a closer gap to Red Bull this year?It will be tough for Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel to better last year's dominant performance — but with suggestions that their rivals are closing in they could be facing a very different challenge.
Vettel had one of those incredible seasons in 2011 where everything seemed to slot into place, allowing him to secure an unprecedented 15 pole positions in the 19 races with a total of 11 race wins helping him to cruise to the title.
In varying measures, his success was down to his pre-planning of how to get the best from the tyres, the struggles of his team-mate Mark Webber and the inability of his rivals to string together a sustained series of races where they exerted pressure on his metronomic performance.
There are several reasons, however, why Red Bull's dominance could be stifled this year (at least that is what many F1 fans hope will be the case!) allowing them to be caught and — perhaps - conquered.
The ban on blown diffusers, the increased restrictions on front wing stiffness and a more aggressive approach to tyres from Pirelli may have been talked of as minor modifications, but they are significant for Red Bull, perhaps more than for any other team.
The Milton Keynes squad initiated the blown diffuser concept and were the most advanced with it — and it allowed them to run their car at a very aggressive rake, giving them significant advantage in aerodynamic performance.
They also pioneered flexible front wings, creating them stiff enough to handle the FIA's load tests but able, at a certain loading, to bend closer to the ground for improved downforce.
Finally, the old car was quite aggressive on its tyres, quickly getting them up to speed on a single lap run but then suffering degradation quicker than others. That meant, in Webber's hands at least, they had to stop sooner for tyres than their rivals, making it harder for them to stay ahead when other cars were close.
This year, Pirelli has aimed to create tyres that behave even more aggressively — putting Red Bull at a potential disadvantage unless they can make the new car gentler on its tyres.
All that said, the car they have produced — as would be expected from the pen of Adrian Newey — was reported to be one of the most stable of all in testing, particularly in terms of traction and the ability to get the power down quickly out of corners.
That should help on tyre wear — as this is an area where much of the degradation comes from due to slip and wheel spin — but it does not indicate how the team will cope with the other two issues.
The car's efficient downforce put it in a league of its own in the mid-speed and high-speed corners last year — so the key indicator to Red Bull's potential this year could well be revealed by looking at the car's performance in those areas in Melbourne.
Vettel kept it simple in 2011Vettel had a very simple tactic last year, which focused on optimising the car for a single lap, securing pole position, making a good start and building a big enough gap before the DRS zone kicked in. After that, he simply had to manage the race from the front.
Webber could not manage the car so well and even he could not get close enough to scupper the German's race routine — but there are still no team orders at Red Bull so if he can manage to get to grips with the RB8 and the new Pirelli tyres more quickly this year, then the intra-team rivalry seen in past years could make a welcome return.
It may not only be Webber applying the pressure, though, as the chasing pack are thought to be closer this year than they were in the past - and if Vettel gets caught, it could make for a rather different story.
The Red Bull has significant KERS limitations compared to its rivals as it uses a smaller unit with reduced capacity for boost over the course of a lap. That was fine last year for Vettel because he mostly managed to escape a racing situation — but Webber proved it was a harder deficiency to deal with when racing rivals.
As a racer, Vettel has matured in recent years but last year he was mostly in control of his own destiny. At one of the few times he was not, he did still show he can be affected by pressure with a basic mistake that handed Button victory in Canada.
As with Michael Schumacher when he had to cope with his advantage at Ferrari diminishing, it will be interesting to see how Vettel manages if the gap does close between the leaders — and that could make for a cracking season.