This could be an interesting one.
It seems like every year we talk about a potential classic, but it's hard to deny that the ingredients are there for 2012.
For a start there's the fact that an unprecedented six world champions will line up on the grid, with the return of Kimi Raikkonen adding to an already extraordinary depth of talent. Among them, Sebastian Vettel will be bidding to follow in the footsteps of Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher and become only the third man in grand prix history to seal a hat-trick of titles.
Given the magnitude of that possible achievement, it is remarkable - though perhaps not surprising - that he should be such a favourite for the forthcoming season.
That, of course, owes to his utter dominance in 2011, but there are reasons to hope that this year will not turn into the same hegemonic procession. While pre-testing has been incredibly hard to read, there has been enough to suggest that 2012 could indeed be one of the closest championships in years - a sentiment McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh echoed on Monday.
Raikkonen is the wildcard, although its unlikely he'll match Red Bull © XPB
In fact, there's plenty of intrigue even after 12 days and thousands of miles of testing. How will the new Pirelli tyre compounds (the company intending to increase degradation further in the hope of spicing up the action) affect the races - and how quickly will teams come to terms with the new compounds? Will Lewis Hamilton shrug off the litany of issues - many of his own making - that dogged him in 2011? Can Mercedes leapfrog Ferrari, or will the Italian constructor match McLaren's feat from last year and turn up with a far more competitive car than the one we saw in testing?
Then there's the wildcard of Lotus. Locked into an innovative exhaust layout that proved the wrong way to go last year (under the Renault name), the team was quick from the outset in testing, but suffered a serious setback when it missed four of the eight days with an unexpected chassis hitch. Then of course there is the driver line-up, and the added intrigue of whether Romain Grosjean can match up against a certain 2007 world champion.
There are changes further down the order too, and the Melbourne race could tell us something about how Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne match up in a battle which could ultimately produce Red Bull's next favoured son.
Of course, how much we can learn will depend upon how competitive Toro Rosso, and perhaps more precisely the rest of the field, prove. Like any great unknown, that only adds to the intrigue.
Two DRS zones should create some decent overtaking opportunities at a circuit that does not always lend itself to the art of passing. After a solitary zone at the exit of Turn 16 failed to add much to last year's race, a second zone - with the same Turn 14 detection point - has been added for the exit of the first chicane, running down to the hard-braking right-hander of Turn 3.
With new compounds, it's reasonable to expect a bit of variation in strategies. Talk of possible four stoppers will probably prove wide of the mark (as they did last year) but the green track surface can be hard on rear tyres in particular and it might not be impossible.
• 186 wins - the total number of victories racked up by the six world champions - Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Sebastian Vettel - during their time in F1. The six also boast a collective 410 podiums and 160 pole positions. The rest of the field, in contrast, can boast 19 wins, 77 podiums and 26 poles.
• France 3, Italy 0 - Not the result of a football match, but the count of French and Italian drivers in the field heading into Australia. The last time three French drivers were present was the 1999 Brazilian GP - Jean Alesi, Olivier Panis and Stephane Sarrazin flying the tricolore. The last race without an Italian entry was the German GP in 1973.
Vettel had not won before last year © LAT
• Before last year's win, Sebastian Vettel had not finished a single Australian Grand Prix, crashing out in 2008 and 2009 and retiring with a wheel problem two years ago. There are, however, clear signs that this is a track that suits the German: he has never been beaten in qualifying by a team-mate, scored pole with an advantage of more than 0.7s last year, and in the last two editions of the race the only time he has not led has been through retirement or when he has pitted.
• Fernando Alonso has scored points in his last nine Australian Grands Prix. In the last two editions of the race his weak spot was the first corner though: hit by Button two years ago, he spun to last, while in 2011 he was forced to almost take to the grass to avoid Button.
• His qualifying score against his team-mates may not be great (3-6), but Kimi Raikkonen has good race results here: a clean sweep in 2007 with pole, win and fastest lap, he has also climbed the podium in 2002 (the first rostrum of his career), in 2003 and in 2006. Raikkonen also has the record of fastest laps at Melbourne: four.
• Romain Grosjean moves from one world champion, Alonso, as his team-mate in the final part of 2009 to another, Raikkonen. A daunting task: his qualifying score against Alonso in 2009 was 0-7.
• Bruno Senna will start the season with number 19, the same used by his uncle in his debut year with Toleman back in 1984.
• At Melbourne Ferrari leads McLaren for wins (6-5) and poles (5-4), but its recent performances have been disappointing: the Scuderia has scored only one podium in the last four years and their last pole and win dates back 2007 (Raikkonen).
• In the last five seasons the pole-sitter in Australia went on to win the title.
• In the last four editions there was at least one accident on the opening lap, while the safety car has been deployed in nine of the 16 races.
Mansell led from the lights in '86, but saw his title dreams evaporate © LAT
Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost headed into the 1986 Australian season finale in a three-way fight for the world championship. Mansell held the points lead from Prost and Piquet heading into the weekend, and he also qualified on pole - with Piquet sharing the front row and Prost lining up fourth.
The Briton slipped behind Piquet, Ayrton Senna and Keke Rosberg away from the line, but worked his way back and when leader Rosberg retired on lap 63 he moved into second - enough to guarantee himself the title if he could finish there. One lap later and his championship bid ended in spectacular fashion, the Mansell's left-rear tyre exploding on the Brabham straight.
Williams opted to call in Piquet, who was leading, for a tyre change in the wake of Mansell's accident, and he rejoined 15s down on Prost. He managed to close the gap to just over 4s in the final laps, but he could not catch the Frenchman and Prost duly claimed the second of his four world championship crowns.
Senna and Prost share their final podiums © LAT
The 1993 Australian Grand Prix gained significance - although unrealised at the time - as the scene of Ayrton Senna's last F1 win. It was also the last race for four-time champion Alain Prost, the Frenchman electing to retire at the end of the '93 season. Perhaps fittingly he joined Senna on the podium, and their embrace signified the end of an era-defining rivalry.
As in '86, Australia was the final round of the season and Senna deprived Williams of a season-long pole position sweep in qualifying, ending up almost 0.5s clear of Prost and Damon Hill.
The race start was aborted twice as Martin Brundle stalled his Ligier on the warm-up lap and then Ukyo Katayama's Tyrrell and Eddie Irvine's Jordan did likewise as the field waited for the green lights. When it did finally start the top four of Senna, Prost, Hill and Michael Schumacher stayed in that order. The German managed to pick off Hill, but retired after 19 laps with an engine failure. Senna managed to edge away and eventually won by 9.259s, with Prost surviving a late attack from Hill - who spun as a consequence, but hung on to third.
Schumacher and Hill got very close before that collision © LAT
Michael Schumacher clinched his first world championship title in acrimonious circumstances in the season-ending Australian GP of 1994. The ingredients were ripe for a classic showdown: Damon Hill, having won the previous grand prix in Japan, came into the denouement just one point behind Schumacher, who had led the championship throughout the year. Hill's Williams team-mate Nigel Mansell also deprived Schumacher of pole, the German instead starting second, one spot in front of Hill.
Schumacher took the lead at the start, and with Hill hounding him the championship hopefuls ran in tandem for the first 36 laps. Hill was beginning to lose ground when Schumacher brushed the wall at the East Terrace corner. Hill was upon him and at the next corner attempted to pass while Schumacher went for his normal line. In the ensuing contact the German was eliminated from the race. Hill tried to continue but eventually was forced to do the same with irreparable damage to his suspension.
By default Schumacher clinched the title as race stewards subsequently deemed it a racing accident, but it was a far from glorious affair.
A controversial race, blighted by the McLaren 'driver' orders © LAT
Not quite a thriller in the vein of '86 or '94, the 1998 Australian GP was dominated by McLaren, with Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard seemingly unassailable. By this time the race had moved to its current venue in Melbourne's Albert Park, and was the first race of the year. Hakkinen took pole and Coulthard second, with the next nearest challenger - the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher - more than 0.7s down.
Hakkinen led from Coulthard into the first corner while Schumacher - who had attacked the Scot away from the line - retired on lap six when his engine blew. McLaren therefore had free reign and proceeded to ease away from the field. On lap 36 Coulthard took the lead when Hakkinen mistakenly came into the pits, but he would hand the place back a few laps from the end following a pre-race agreement between the pair that whoever led at the first turn would be allowed to win if the opportunity presented itself.
With the entire field lapped, Hakkinen and Coulthard cruised to the chequered flag, where they were split by just 0.702s - the closest finish in the race's history.
Coulthard triumphed in unlikely circumstances in 2003 © LAT
Coulthard was again involved in the 2003 Australian race, which proved to be his final F1 victory. The race itself was enlivened by changeable weather and several incidents, with Coulthard only moving into the lead ten laps from the finish.
In keeping with the pattern of the previous season qualifying had been an all-Ferrari affair, with Schumacher more than 1s clear of everyone other than team-mate Rubens Barrichello. The Brazilian jumped the start massively however, and then crashed on the in-lap before his penalty, ending his race.
Schumacher meanwhile became involved in a wheel-to-wheel duel with Kimi Raikkonen, during which he lost his right deflector: enough of a hindrance to keep him behind the Finn and off the podium, the first time he had missed out since Italy in 2001.
Williams looked set for its first victory of the year with Montoya, but on lap 48 the Colombian spun in the first corner. He was able to resume, but Coulthard had slipped past and was able to seal victory, with Montoya and Raikkonen rounding out the top three.
From the forum
I expect Red Bull and McLaren to be much closer this year, with a Red Bull driver taking the drivers' title but McLaren taking the constructors' if Hamilton can leave personal problems at home and show Button's level of consistency, whether he manages to beat Button or not this year will depend on where his head is at.
In terms of real surprises, I think the Caterham team will be the surprise of the season. One of the three newest teams that now has KERS and is maturing as an f1 producing company. The Lotus team will not be a surprise if they do well. They have been knocking on the door the past two seasons, and should have done better last year but went the wrong way on rules interpretation with their exhaust system.
For anyone not familiar with Melbourne, forecasts are all but meaningless - weather can and will do what it likes, when it likes.
*Key stats supplied by FORIX collaborator Michele Merlino.
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