Star-studded Formula One grid takes aim at stopping Vettel's streak

The Red Bull driver's quest for his third successive title, against the best collection of F1 drivers in history, is one of many intriguing storylines.

Sebastian Vettel will be the man to beat in this season's championship.
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A 62-year-old motorsport with a history as delightful as it is dramatic will, in four days, start what is arguably its most important season in decades.

This year's Formula One season will feature its most glittering grid ever competing in its longest season ever; a 20-race calendar that takes the sport back to two countries - and markets - it reluctantly left; new faces, new regulations and newly rebranded teams; all played out against a backdrop of financial uncertainty.

Questions, too, need addressing:

Can Sebastian Vettel - one of a record six world champions in the field - become only the third driver to win three successive titles?

How will Kimi Raikkonen - another of the Supreme Sextet - fare following two years away from the sport?

Will the beleaguered Bahrain Grand Prix - cancelled last year following civil unrest - go ahead this season as scheduled?

Predictions in sport have the habit of making a genius appear a fool and vice versa. Yet it could hardly be deemed maverick to suggest Vettel's index finger will point skywards at least occasionally this season.

The German dominated conclusively last year as he won 11 of 19 grands prix and finished in the top four at every race except in Abu Dhabi. Everybody involved with the sport knows a repeat of such supremacy would be bad news; there are few more effective ways of sapping supporter interest than a one-horse race.

If Vettel, 24, can complete a hat-trick of consecutive championships, only Juan Manuel Fangio (four seasons) and Michael Schumacher (five) would have longer stretches of dominance. Ominously, Red Bull Racing appeared to have the fastest car during pre-season testing in Spain, but the strength of Formula One lies as much in the speed of development as the speed of the cars.

Fabled marques such as Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes are working indefatigably to eclipse their rivals. McLaren in particular have one colossal, driver-shaped reason to ensure they provide a car capable of competing with the RB8.

According to Bernie Ecclestone, F1's commander in chief, another season of mediocrity for McLaren would compel their precocious poster boy, Lewis Hamilton, to search for success elsewhere. As much as Ecclestone loves to generate confabulation, it is a scenario that does not require too much imagination.

While Hamilton's teammate Jenson Button, the 2009 champion, told The National last year that "if I didn't win a world championship again in F1, I would be slightly disappointed, but I would know that I have been a world champion and I will always be a world champion", Hamilton, 27, has made no secret of his desire to emulate his hero Ayrton Senna and win three drivers' titles.

If he feels leaving McLaren will help him achieve that, he will depart, but testing saw Button and Hamilton complete more than 100 laps each and both appeared confident of closing the gap to Red Bull.

Fernando Alonso, Hamilton's former stablemate at McLaren, showed at last season's British Grand Prix he can win races for Ferrari even in a mediocre car. The two-time world champion consistently over-performed in 2011, but while the Italian manufacturers promised to get the Prancing Horse galloping again this year, problems plagued them during pre-season to the extent both Alonso and teammate Felipe Massa were gagged from speaking to media.

Ferrari's era of success - they claimed six drivers' titles and eight constructors' crowns between 1999 and 2008 - is fading fast.

Michael Schumacher won five consecutive drivers' championships between 2000 and 2004 with Ferrari before the German retired at the end of the 2006 season. Since his return in 2010 with Mercedes-GP, glimpses of his natural talent have been evident, but his best finish remains fourth.

While the 43 year old has refused to rule out extending his contract for a further year, both Schumacher and Mercedes require assurances this season from each other that their immediate goals are achievable.

Much the same can be said of Formula One's more recent returning champion. Kimi Raikkonen rejoins the grid for 2012 after a two-season sabbatical from the sport. The Finn quit Ferrari after failing to add to his 2007 drivers' title, so one of the season's most fascinating subplots will be whether Raikkonen - the man who once said there is "no point" being in F1 if your car can't win the championship - is forced to be merely an also-ran or whether his new team, Lotus, give him a vehicle to fight at the front.

Testing proved positive for the team formerly known as Renault: Raikonnen finished fastest at the first session in Jerez and, despite a serious chassis problem in the second, teammate Romain Grosjean was quickest twice at the final test in Barcelona, before Raikkonen topped the timesheets on the final day. The car's chassis remains a cause for concern, but indications are encouraging that the issue has been addressed.

Off the track, securing lucrative sponsors has become imperative to surviving in the sport.

Tony Fernandes, the team principal of Caterham (formerly Lotus), told The National last year that his outfit's operating costs were US$90 million (Dh330.5m) for the season. Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren are believed to function on double that figure.

It is understood - but unconfirmed - that almost half of the 12 racing teams have genuine financial concerns, with at least two facing the possibility that they may not have the sufficient funds to race all season. Stories are circulating of wages not being paid, corporate sponsors pushing to renegotiate deals and bank loans being denied.

Vijay Mallya, the co-owner of Force India, has seen his Kingfisher Airlines - weighed down by more than $1.2 billion in debt - edge precariously close to collapse. Speculation will inevitably heighten surrounding Fernandes's future in F1 if his newly acquired English Premier League football club, Queens Park Rangers, fail to survive the relegation fight they are currently embroiled in. Demotion to the second tier of English football costs a club at least £25m (Dh145.3m).

With such uncertainty, it is hardly surprising teams are looking to extract an increasingly larger share of revenue from Ecclestone. However, combine the commercial rights owner's financial ferocity with the lack of unity that comes with the decision by several teams - including Red Bull and Ferrari - to exit the Formula One Teams Association (Fota) and Ecclestone's announcement that teams' chances of obtaining more money are "slim to none" sounds predictably portentous.

Eccleston is intent on taking F1 back to Bahrain this season and collecting his $40m race fee, despite growing concerns by teams, sponsors and media regarding safety. Last year's violent uprising eventually saw the Kingdom's Crown Prince cancel the race, but it is widely accepted there will be no such decision this year.

At the official ticket launch in Sakhir last month, the situation appeared under control with only a heightened police presence providing any indication of the continuing issues.

However, if the British government follow in the footsteps of the United States and issues a travel alert, British-based teams' insurance could be nulled, effectively forcing the race off the calendar for a second year.

This year will see the return of the United States Grand Prix, which will be held for the first time at the custom-built Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. The United States remains the one market Ecclestone has failed to conquer and with a population of 310 million, it is undoubtedly, regardless of his claims, the one he wants a foothold in the most.

As Martin Whitmarsh, the chairman of Fota and team principal of McLaren, said: "Formula One needs America more than America needs Formula One."

Which is precisely why Ecclestone has already agreed a deal to take F1 to the United States twice in 2013. The series will visit New Jersey as well as Austin, and it does not stop there: 2014 sees the sport break new ground in Russia, talks are believed to be underway about a return to South Africa, and a new F1-ready facility is being built in Argentina.

If the history of Formula One is enthralling, the future of Formula One promises to be engrossing - both on and off the track.

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& Gary Meenaghan