F1 2012 Preview: Good luck calling this one

This time last year the new F1 season promised changes and unpredictability – yet in the end the more things changed the more they stayed the same, at the front at least.

If Sebastian Vettel pipped Fernando Alonso and co to his and Red Bull's first serious silverware in 2010, then last season was a serene stroll that looked on the cards during pre-season testing, let alone the early races.

The German's procession arguably overshadowed what behind him was a pretty entertaining year.

However, the good news is that 2012's record season of 20 grands prix should see a closer scrap at the front as well as further back.

Admittedly the Adrian Newey-evolved RB8 is still likely to be quickest when the first genuine show of pace comes along at qualifying in Australia in seven days' time.

But McLaren will be closer, setting up a proper fight for development and time rather than the futile chase of last year. Add a Lewis Hamilton desperate to bury his personal and professional struggles of 2011 under a pile of wins, and the all new mature Jenson Button primed to challenge for his second title, and McLaren ooze promise and determination.

If there is pressure on Woking to end their 13-year wait for a constructors' title, how about Mark Webber?

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For such a dominant car last season and ignoring any conspiracy theories over Vettel's standing in the team, the Australian wasn't at the races in 2011. At the age of 35, Webber simply has to be closer to his treble-chasing team-mate or else.

Behind those four cars, the big story is likely to be a red one.

Last season Ferrari brought a conservative car to the grid that was left behind. It won once, with Alonso's victory at Silverstone helped by the temporary ban on using exhaust gases to help generate extra downforce.

That ban is fully enforced for 2012, which should have played into Maranello hands – but that's not going to happen. Instead Ferrari have gone from one extreme to another, designing the revolutionary F2012 with innovative front suspension that they can't get to work for their drivers and an aero package that looks like a transformer from the 1980s cartoon.

Judging by testing, the car seems to be performing like one too.

Ferrari cancelled media briefings with drivers in Barcelona – taken as a sign things weren't going well – while their glory run after troubling numbers in the opening test in Jerez was taken in a similar spirit.

Those were rumours – and technical chief Pat Fry appeared to back them up with the incredible admission Ferrari won't threaten the podium in Melbourne, let alone victory.

That news will no doubt please Ross Brawn at Mercedes, who took a little longer to unveil their W03 but seem to have made inroads into the leaders.

After that, indications point to a grid bunched up like the M25 with the two Norfolk-backed teams – Lotus and Caterham – set to book-end a compelling midfield squabble.

Adrian Sutil has been dumped by Force India, so Scottish driver Paul di Resta could have a free rein to drive as he sees fit in what looks a quick VJM05. Nico Hulkenberg now partners him – a man who put his 2010 Williams on pole in Brazil before being cast aside. The two team-mates should produce a fascinating rivalry.

Big things are expected of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne, who sits alongside Aussie Daniel Ricciardo in a new Toro Rosso line-up. Having invested time in Jaime Alguersuari and Sebastien Buemi, Red Bull Marque Two saw fit to get rid just as the pair looked like paying back.

Whether Sauber prove more interesting in 2012 is a moot point, while Williams would probably appreciate fewer headlines. The return of Renault as their engine supplier should give Grove a boost, but it won't work miracles after a shocking 2011.

The picture at the back will remain the butt of most jokes. Of 2010's other two entrants, Virgin have been renamed after Russian sports car manufacturer Marussia and completed a move from Yorkshire to Banbury. As for HRT, they have relocated to Spain, taken on a wealth of Spanish resources and employed both a Spanish driver in Pedro de la Rosa and a livery akin to the Spanish flag. Sensing a theme?

Unlike Caterham, who passed their crash tests last year so they could get on with developing their car, HRT passed theirs during the final test – allowing them a few kilometres of F112 shakedown during a filming day; the first time HRT have gone into the opening race with some mileage.

Marussia's crash test success came after testing. They go into Melbourne completely cold. So the two teams at the back are set to be further behind than ever – suddenly the 107pc qualifying time they need to make the starting grid looks a big ask.

But in reality, what happens in front of them will be what really matters – and unlike last season, you will need a bit of luck predicting that.