Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
Now 28, and with one world title under his belt, it is time for Hamilton to deliver the kind of consistency and speed that will enable his new team to become front-runners, race-winners and world championship challengers, a feat that proved to be beyond the inspirational qualities of seven-time champion German Michael Schumacher.
Hamilton’s switch from McLaren to Mercedes is the biggest move of the off-season and makes him something of an unknown quantity for his rivals. His best races at McLaren were scintillating. His poor ones often produced controversy.
After 110 Grands Prix, 26 poles and 21 wins, nobody — least of all Sebastian Vettel —is questioning his ability or potential.
But it is time for the real Lewis to stand up and be counted now as a clear team leader — providing he can outpace his old friend Nico Rosberg in a car that matches his talent.
2012 championship position: 4
Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
Vettel may be the man with “champion” written after his name and a number on the side of his car but it is the 31-year-old Spaniard who is most widely deemed to be the sport’s finest all-round driver.
Last season, working with a car that was described as anything from a dog to a tank in some quarters, Alonso squeezed every drop of performance from it to take the title fight down to the wire.
Few other drivers are capable of such selfless and well-judged “percentage” driving in which sheer speed is sometimes managed with care to ensure consistency and competitiveness. He produced several great drives that saw him in the points when others might have given up the fray and that fighting spirit deserves reward with a car to match his skills.
If Ferrari can do that then Alonso has every right to believe he can add to his 22 poles and 30 victories from 197 races so far.
2012 championship position: 2
Mark Webber (Red Bull)
For any F1 driver, his main threat and his benchmark comes from his teammate and, for Sebastian Vettel, that means the determined Australian Mark Webber. Now 36 and in his sixth consecutive season with Red Bull, Webber will be more focussed than ever on claiming as many race victories as possible but also mounting a title challenge after three seasons in the shadow of the champion.
Last year, he recorded magnificent victories at Monaco and Silverstone.
2012 championship position: 6
Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus)
It looked like a gamble 12 months ago when the newly renamed Lotus team brought the 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen back to F1 after a premature retirement and a few seasons of fun in rally cars and pick-up trucks.
But the gamble paid off handsomely as the season unfolded and had the team developed their car as consistently as the 33-year-old “ice man” improved his racing he might have been among the title scrappers at the final race.
2012 championship position: 3
Jenson Button (McLaren)
Many pundits believe this could be the season in which the 2009 champion — the last title-winner before the Vettel era of domination — will rise again and bring the championship home to McLaren for the first time since Lewis Hamilton won in 2008.
At 33, and freed of the battle for top dog status with Hamilton, the cool and calculating Button can organise the team around him and establish himself as undisputed number one while Mexican Sergio Perez settles in as his number two.
2012 championship position: 5
Mark these dates
March 17, Australian GP: Melbourne
March 24, Malaysian GP: Sepang
April 14, Chinese GP: Shanghai
April 21, Bahrain GP: Sakhir
May 12, Spanish GP: Barcelona
May 26, Monaco GP
June 9, Canadian GP: Montreal
June 30, British GP: Silverstone
July 7, German GP: Nurburgring
July 28, Hungarian GP: Budapest
August 25, Belgian GP: Spa
September 8, Italian GP: Monza
September 22, Singapore GP: Marina Bay
October 6, S Korean GP: Yeongam
October 13, Japanese GP: Suzuka
October 27, Indian GP: New Delhi
November 3, Abu Dhabi GP: Yas Marina
November 17, United States GP: Austin
November 24, Brazilian GP: Sao Paulo
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