When and Where: Qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix gets under way Saturday at 2 a.m. ET. The session will be shown live on Speed. You can also view a live stream of the prequalifying practice session at SpeedTV.com on Friday beginning at 11 p.m. ET. For those in the United Kingdom, qualifying will be live-streamed at SkyGo. Detailed timing and statistics will be available at Formula1.com.
Preview: The start of a new Formula One season is always filled with massive excitement and a strong feeling of stepping into the unknown.
While preseason testing is highly scrutinized for signs of how the team's new cars are performing, no one truly knows how the cars stack up against each other until that first qualifying session in Australia. It can often set the pattern for the season to come.
While nothing can be known for certain, the indicators point to this being one of the most competitive Formula One seasons in memory, which may come as something of a relief to many of the sport's fans after Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel romped home with his second consecutive driver's championship last year, having won 14 of 19 races.
Much of the reasoning behind the anticipated tighter field is put down to the elimination of the blown diffusers, which gave the top teams a massive advantage last year.
Indeed, McLaren driver Jenson Button, who placed second in last year's championship tally, backed the commonly held belief that the top spot is genuinely up for grabs this year.
I've never known it as open as this, Button said, according to the Guardian. Never. The last five or six years I've raced, you would have the McLarens or the Ferraris or, one year, the Brawn, then the Red Bull in 2010 and 2011, but no, I've never known it like it is this time.
There are also six world champions on the grid, the most ever, meaning that there are certainly plenty of drivers who will not be overawed by the prospect of winning.
Predictions: Despite all the talk of the open nature of the 2012 season, it is still difficult to look past Vettel as the man to beat. The Red Bull team may not carry the same advantage it did last season, but the German deserves respect as a genuine great, who can win even without the aid of a far superior vehicle.
Although both the Red Bulls of Vettel and teammate Mark Webber finished down the field in the first two practice sessions at Albert Park, there was a a strong suspicion that they were running with heavy fuel loads. Expect them to be running at the front end of the grid come qualifying time.
In the first practice session, Button's McLaren topped the charts, and the Brit will fancy his chances of snagging a front-row spot, having won the Australian Grand Prix in 2009 and 2010.
The other event of note on Friday was Michael Schumacher recording the fastest time in the second practice session. After phenomenal success together, first with Benetton and then with Ferrari, it would appear that team principal Ross Brawn has finally come up with a Mercedes in which the seven-time world champion can compete for race wins. And Mercedes could well be the surprise package in qualifying.
There are less positive indications coming out of the Ferrari team. The new car looked poor in winter testing, and the famed Italian manufacturer could struggle in Melbourne.
Much attention will also be focused on the return of former world champion Kimi Raikkonen, back in F1 with Lotus after a stint in rallying. He could be a wild card in the pack, and is always compelling, both on and off the track.