Official track action in 2012 has now begun, but the pecking order is still totally unclear.
“The tea-leaf reading will go on until after the third practice session (on Saturday),” Peter Sauber told Switzerland’s Blick. Only after that one-hour session will Melbourne qualifying be looming, but many paddock insiders believe Malaysia – a more ‘normal’ circuit – will be a better barometer.
The confusion is greater in 2012 because the field is apparently so tightly packed.
“I’ve never known it as open as this,” said McLaren’s Jenson Button, who set Friday’s fastest laptime. “Never.”
Lewis Hamilton agreed: “I’m convinced that Red Bull, Mercedes and us are equal.”
Red Bull, however, is widely believed to be the frontrunner, but Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber said they were unhappy with the balance of the RB8 on Friday.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Webber.
Also unclear is just how good the new Mercedes is, after Michael Schumacher in second practice returned to the ‘P1’ position he had become so familiar with in his first career pre-2010.
“When I saw the (W03) car on track I immediately sent a text to Norbert (Haug),” Alex Wurz revealed to Sport1, “(saying) ‘looks very good’.
“I honestly have to say they are not yet on Red Bull’s level, but they are not too far away,” the former F1 driver, who is in Melbourne as Williams’ new driver mentor, added.
It seems clear that Ferrari ranks somewhere beneath the top trio, and Spain’s Marca newspaper reports that a substantially-redesigned chassis will not get up and running until the European season begins in mid-May.
“We definitely haven’t seen the real picture yet,” Fernando Alonso is quoted by Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport, after going fourth quickest in both of Friday’s sessions.
“Vettel is not as bad as tenth,” he insisted, “and Kovalainen is not as good as eighth.”
Red Bull’s Christian Horner admitted: “Qualifying will be the first time we have driven with empty tanks.”
Team advisor Dr Helmut Marko added: “We are satisfied, it looks quite good. But McLaren is very strong, and the Mercedes (cars) will be in the top five.”
Triple world champion Niki Lauda told Germany’s Speed Week: “I am sure the championship this year will be decided later that it was in 2011.
“The top cars and the whole field appears to be closer together — it could be a great season.”