It has been a bright, clear and sunny dawn in Melbourne on St. Patrick's Day ahead of one of the most anticipate days of the 2012 season. After two months of testing and a day of practice yesterday, today we will finally get a feel for what the true pecking order of the 2012 field is, with this evening's qualifying session being the very first occasion for teams and drivers to push their 2012 cars to the limit.
This is when all the talking stops and the cars and drivers do the business. Yesterday's rain-affected practice sessions only add to the uncertainty heading into qualifying, although teams are always reluctant to show their hand on a Friday, especially at the first race of a season. Teams will spend this afternoon's final practice making final set-up adjustments for qualifying and the race, with a flurry of activity expected in the final ten minutes as teams complete their usual qualifying simulations.
Based on observations during testing, the smart money in the paddock is on Red Bull, McLaren and Mercedes to perform, while a large question mark hangs over Ferrari and Lotus. While Ferrari has openly admitted to lacking the pace with their radical F2012, the drive and talent of Fernando Alonso can never be underestimated. On the other hand, Lotus looked extremely quick during testing, going fastest on four of their eight days, but the consensus in Melbourne appears to be that they will not be challenging for the victory.
At the very front, McLaren appear to be the most likely challengers to Red Bull, but the threat of Mercedes is still to be determined, as is the true impact of their DRS-activated F-duct rear wing and F-duct front wing. Team principal Ross Brawn is considerably more confident this year than he was 12 months ago and a strong day on-track on Friday only adds to speculation that the W03 could finally win a race for the Silver Arrows.
The midfield battle is expected to be as tight as ever and could feature even more teams in 2012. Force India, Sauber, Toro Rosso, Williams and Caterham are all likely to be fighting in the midfield this year and could be joined by Lotus depending on where the E20 slots in.
Even at the very back of the grid major questions remain to be answered. Marussia and HRT both came to Melbourne without any decent mileage under their belts and, with the 107% qualifying rule requiring a minimum standard to qualify, the presence on Sunday's grid remains in doubt. Last year, after rushing to complete their cars on Friday, HRT failed to reach the 107% standard and had to sit out Sunday's Grand Prix, although Marussia, having completed a full pre-season programme fell well within the 107% target.
Qualifying begins at 5pm this evening in Melbourne which is 6am CMT or 7am CET, with the first pole-sitter of 2012 to be known at approximately 6pm local time.