LONDON, March 9, 2013 (AFP/F1plus) - Five drivers look likely to challenge Sebastian Vettel to prevent the German winning his fourth consecutive Formula One world championship title this year.
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. Since bursting on to the F1 scene with a rare combination of speed and innocence in 2007, he has endured a sharp learning curve in the spotlight and struggled to settle into a role in which he is at home. 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
Mark Webber (Red Bull)
For any F1 driver, his main threat and his benchmark comes from his team-mate 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 to increase his total of wins to nine but overall he suffered too much from poor starts and some wretched misfortunes. As competitive as ever, he has the experience and the know-how to deliver
the results he needs but if he is in an outstanding car he faces the almost unbeatable problem of knowing that Vettel has the same machinery.
But after 196 Grands Prix, and 34 podiums, he deserves the chance that Red Bull will give him to race without shackles for a final bid for title glory in the twilight of his career.
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. That will be a bonus for him even if the departure of technical director Paddy Lowe to Mercedes is not, though he has left the team after the main work on the MP4-28 car has been done and tested.
Button's calm, analytical style of working and racing will change the atmosphere slightly after the heat of his rivalry with the flamboyant Hamilton as McLaren, seeking to celebrate their 50th season in Formula One, hope they can pick up in 2013 where they left off last year with performances oozing speed and potential.
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.
Twice a champion, he knows what is required and may draw some consolation as he prepares for 2013 in recalling that it took Michael Schumacher five years at Ferrari to reboot the team and start winning all over again.
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.
As it was, the former Sauber, McLaren and Ferrari pilot proved he had lost none of his flair in the cockpit or panache in public by delivering a stunning victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and a droll throwaway line on the team radio, in which he admonished his race mechanic for being a nuisance.
"I know what I am doing," the Finn told him. And he certainly did. After that year of reacquainting himself with F1, a revitalised Raikkonen will be a formidable rival to Vettel. He needs the car and the team to back him all the way -- and that may be a "big ask" -- but if it happens the pure speed and racing artistry of the Finn will speak volumes for his potential.