LONDON, March 10, 2012 (AFP) - With the 2012 Formula One season set to get under way in Melbourne on March 18, AFP Sport looks at world champion Sebastian Vettel's five main rivals for this year's title:
Mark Webber (Red Bull)
After a struggle to keep pace with team-mate Sebastian Vettel last year when Red Bull ruled supreme, the 35-year-old Aussie will be doing his utmost to ensure his sixth season at Red Bull is a memorable one by challenging for the title. That means early-season wins, including a strong showing in front of his home fans at the Australian Grand Prix, where he has struggled to shine since finishing fifth for unsung Minardi in 2002 on his debut. Tyre management was Webber's weakness in the first half of last season as he adjusted his driving to the Pirelli rubber, but he proved his mettle with a strong victory in the final race in Brazil and believes there is more to come this season.
"It's going to be tough and there are a lot of guys to beat -- six champions out there, plenty of teams who have done handy times in winter testing," he said. "We have to do our best and see where we get to, but I know I feel good, I have confidence in myself and the team. Why not?"
Jenson Button (McLaren)
His extraordinary but wonderful victory in last year's Canadian Grand Prix confirmed his status as a true rival to Vettel and convinced many previously sceptical observers, including his former team chief Flavio Briatore, that he was, indeed, a deserving title-winning driver.
The champion of 2009 produced masterful performances throughout the season in a car that was not an out-and-out winner and provided excellent leadership for McLaren as team-mate Lewis Hamilton struggled with his inner demons and failed to find any consistency. Button, now a veteran of 210 races, proved, too, that he is the best tactician out there and is rarely upset by weather or other tricky conditions. His smoothness behind the wheel has helped him emerge as the McLaren leader despite Hamilton's lifelong association with the outfit. He is sure to be a strong rival this year to Vettel again.
Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
Apparently reinvigorated following a winter away from the limelight and the reigniting of his relationship with former Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger. The pair became embroiled in a media soap opera after breaking off their engagement in 2011, meaning that 2008 champion Hamilton endured a tempestuous year both on and off the track. Hamilton is now 27 and, following an intensive training period, at his fittest and strongest both physically and mentally.
A new trackside manager, Didier Coton, who had great success with Mika Hakkinen when he was at McLaren, is sure to bring more stability to Hamilton's weekends after a year without expert management at the races, during which he experienced several controversial moments, collisions and punishments. If he has regained his composure and finds the 'right place' mentally, Hamilton is capable of setting the title race alight if his car has the necessary speed.
Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
A low-key winter of disappointing results in testing and few inspiring moments could, as often, be deceptive when it comes to assessing the potential of the two-time champion and his F2012. His overall speed in testing was reasonable and he delivered consistent times, but the zip and zap that signals a car with title-winning pace was absent.
The 30-year-old champion of 2005 and 2006 remains a ferocious competitor, capable of great speed and commitment, but it looks as if Ferrari do not have the car or the technical strength to compete with Red Bull and, possibly, McLaren. One win in 2011 was not good enough for them or for president Luca di Montezemolo, who has given his backing to the team and second driver Felipe Massa again. He obviously believes something good is around the corner. Alonso may be able to deliver it, but he needs to raise his and the scuderia's game to do so.
Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) -if the car is finally up to his skills-
Given that Michael Schumacher is now 43 and Rosberg is just 26, it looks as if the German-born son of the original 'flying Finn', Keke Rosberg, has the best prospects for claiming glory in the much-improved 2012 Mercedes. Team chief Ross Brawn certainly has great faith in Rosberg and claimed pre-season
that he felt the Monaco-based racer has now matured into a complete driver ready to establish himself at the front of the field.
He will face a scrap for success to begin with from Schumacher, whose form in 2011 belied his years and proved that his enthusiasm and fitness remain at remarkable levels. Fast,
clever, talented and now stronger in all departments, Rosberg has to seize his opportunity this year and dominate Schumacher, lead the team and establish himself as a title contender. If he does not, like many others of great potential, he may find his time passes by. He desperately needs a first win to spark the rest of his career.