The state of play after testing...
With the three pre-season tests done and dusted and all eyes now trained on next week's season-opener, we assess the form heading to Melbourne.
Last Updated: 06/03/12 6:43am
With the teams themselves complaining that this particular pre-season has proved as difficult to analyse as any in recent memory, interpreting the timesheets from Jerez and Barcelona is very much a mug's game.
Yet it would also be wrong to say that nothing was gleaned from the 12 days of action over the last month - in fact what we have established from the action in Spain is that next week's season-opener in Australia can't come too enough.
Lotus on the up, Ferrari on the slide, McLaren within striking distance of Red Bull...the new season looks set to be close - very.
The accepted wisdom is that the World Champions remain out in front, though there's also a sneaking suspicion that this accepted wisdom is primarily based on their status as World Champions. When compiling any pre-season pecking order, Red Bull are the safest bet for top spot and there's no doubt they will be there or thereabouts in Melbourne. As Jenson Button muttered at the McLaren launch, "Red Bull aren't going to bring out a bad car, are they?" Too true. However, at the close of the winter season there also is realistic reason to believe that Red Bull's position isn't quite as good - let alone dominant - as it was this time a year ago.
For starters, the intriguing impression of Sky Sports F1's Martin Brundle from trackside in Barcelona was that the RB8, whilst fast and formidable, wasn't as slickly 'glued' to the track as its predecessor last season, while the introduction of the 'RB8 Mark Two' for the final two days of the winter season was short-lived with Sebastian Vettel only able to run for 25 laps on the Sunday. As such, the team may be forced to revert to their original package for the season opener - a reversion that is sure to be seen as a step back by their rivals and a source of encouragement.
In sum: we think they're ahead, but, in contrast to last year, not by much. Phew.
After the winter from hell in 2011, when the team quickly realised that the MP4-26 was an untrained dog without a bite, McLaren have been breathing a large sigh of relief ever since both Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton enjoyed a positive first impression of their new office in Jerez last month.
The MP4-27 remains a work in progress - the team only bolted on their Melbourne specs for the final weekend in Barcelona - but so far, so good. According to Martin Brundle, the car is "looking very good on track", and even Jenson's lack of running in the upgraded version on Saturday was compensated by Lewis' 115 laps on Sunday.
Expect a podium finish, at very least, in two weeks' time.
Considering the former Renault team's pre-season preparations suffered what appeared to be a massive setback at the start of the opening Barcelona test - when the discovery of suspension mounting problem on the second E20 chassis forced them to withdraw from the whole week - it would be quite the achievement if, as is being widely predicted, they prove to be the big movers of the winter.
On headline times alone, the sleek-looking E20 has certainly impressed - F1 returnees Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean each set the pace on two test days apiece in just eight full days of pre-season for the car. But with the timesheet a notoriously poor guide to the real picture, what is likely to be more telling was the car's consistent lap times across the two drivers' respective race simulations around the Circuit de Catalunya last Friday and Sunday. Although not as fast as Lewis Hamilton's McLaren on the final day for instance, Raikkonen's pace was impressively consistent across the stints with the team appearing to suffer from relatively manageable tyre wear.
If the top two teams run into problems in Melbourne - which history tells us isn't out of the question - then Lotus could very easily match the podium finish they achieved with Vitaly Petrov there last year.
While the W03 certainly can't be considered revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination, Ferrari's well-documented travails this winter look like handing Mercedes - in the early races, at least - the long-overdue chance to move up the pecking order after two seasons stuck as the unheralded fourth-fastest team.
The decision to delay the introduction of their 2012 car until the second winter test, and roll out an aerodynamic package more closely allied to the one that will run in Melbourne, appears to have paid dividends for the Brackley squad, with generally strong reliability levels also having meant the team could begin longer runs early on with their new challenger.
Tyre degradation has appeared something of a concern though; both Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg suffered a greater drop-off on the soft tyre than Lotus for instance over their long runs at the second Barcelona test - which could be an issue given the Enstone team look set to re-emerge as serious rivals this year. Nonetheless, Mercedes are hopeful they've closed the gap to the front runners.
Despite barring the media from talking to either Felipe or Fernando in Barcelona, the secret is now out: Ferrari are in trouble. The only remaining unanswered question is how much trouble.
The admission of Pat Fry that the team are unlikely to be able to compete for a podium spot should be read as the best possible spin on a situation that will surely be seen as intolerable inside Maranello and Italy. After all the hype and hope that the radical F2012 would be a winner if not a looker, it has appearared in testing to be the worst of both worlds: slow and ugly. Martin's word from trackside was that the F2012 was proving a handful on exit, and the impression from Sunday's timesheets is that it is also a tyre-eater: the drop-off on Fernando's lap-times was marked and he was only able to run a single, solitary lap on the supersofts before returning to the pits.
The optimists will continue to hope that Ferrari are hiding their competiveness and exaggerating their worries, but the realistic fear is that they have slipped towards the midfield over the winter and away from the leading pack.
As such, Melbourne could be messy.
Considering Toro Rosso are fielding a near all-rookie line-up for 2012, the team's pre-season programme has largely been impressive aside from a few days when the STR7 has stopped out on track. The car has shown to have a turn of speed on qualifying runs, although Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo were unsurprisingly given plenty of one-lap and pit-stop practice drills towards the latter end of pre-season due to their relative inexperience.
Strong development during the second half of last season has appeared to carry over into 2012, meaning the Red Bull junior outfit should be battling for the final points positions in Australia.
It's worth stressing here that these next few midfield positions are very interchangeable - even the teams are admitting that themselves - and Toro Rosso are likely to be vying with Force India and Sauber to emerge at the head of this particular pack.
The relative competitiveness of Vijay Mallya's squad has arguably been as hard to make a judgement call on as any during the winter. There have been highs - Nico Hulkenberg setting the pace on Day Two at Barcelona and Paul di Resta showing some consistent long-run pace during his final race simulation last Friday - but some lows as well such as when new Friday tester Jules Bianchi crashed the VJM05 at Jerez and, on the very last day of pre-season, Hulkenberg was forced to abandon his race simulation.
The German driver indeed admitted "we still need to find some more performance because the whole grid looks very close and competitive". With Lotus having taken a step forward, the team look likely to be in the Melbourne midfield mix with familar foes STR and Sauber with the winner of this particular battle likely to be decided by which team gets its car best set-up for the challenge of Albert Park.
As is traditional in Sauber's history as an F1 independent operation, the no-frills Swiss team head into the first race of a new season with a solid, reliable car. In the wake of a few early teething problems, the Ferrari-powered C31 settled down over the two Barcelona tests, allowing the team to rack up plenty of mileage, and looks to be a very handy machine.
It's also apparently caught the eye further up the pitlane, with Red Bull have apparently taken inspiration from Sauber's exhaust design when recasting the rear of the RB8. Quite the compliment for a team that is one of the poorest in the paddock.
If a single word was to succinctly review Williams' winter then it would be 'solid'. The FW34 has been ultra-reliable and both Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado have enjoyed mile upon mile of tracktime. But one word that hasn't been attached to the team over the winter is 'pacey'. Try as we might, we just haven't been able to spot any speedy reason to believe that the team is on the verge of recovering the ground they have lost over the last few years.
The good news is that Williams are progressing; the caveat is that their progress looks to be steady rather than spectacular.
Ambitious to break into the midfield pack, the successful and reasonably trouble-free introduction of the KERS device - the team ran without it in 2011 - over the winter marks another significant step forward for an outfit that is on the move both literally and metaphorically. Whether their relocation from Norfolk causes a few short-term blips remains to be seen, and the sudden exit of Jarno Trulli, long after the 2012 line-up was supposedly finalised, in favour of Vitaly Petrov meant that plenty of time was lost in Barcelona to such essential basics as seat fittings.
Expect more improvement from Caterham in 2012, but perhaps in the second half of the year rather than the first.
Although the team did make an appearance at the first of the two Barcelona tests running their 2011 charger, a failed crash-test meant that the 2012 MR01 was only glimpsed for the first time this Monday when it broke cover at its Silverstone shakedown. As the team itself has acknowledged, the car will only be run "in anger" when Practice begins in Melbourne next week - a state of unreadiness that surely puts the team's participation in the actual race in considerable doubt.
As is now becoming something of an F1 tradition, Spanish minnows HRT once more head to the first race with no full track testing to speak of with their latest car. The seemingly permanent state of transition the team has apparently been in since they joined the grid in near shambolic fashion in 2010 - a move to new headquarters in Madrid merely the latest saga which appears to have again left them playing catch up - continues to dog their hopes of progress.
With Caterham only set to pull further clear, the one ray comfort HRT have is that main rivals Marussia will roll out of the pit lane for first practice in Melbourne similarly underprepared and therefore both set to be in a private battle to make the 107% qualifying cut - something HRT remember failed to do last year.
Pete Gill and James Galloway