After what is always a frustratingly unrevealingly winter testing, the 2012 F1 season (the longest ever if Bahrain maintains its green light) is finally underway. It’s fair to say that after Red Bull dominated last season, many fans weren’t really expecting an exciting season this year although there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic. There’s no doubt that 2012 was always going to be about which team could regain the most downforce from the banned exhaust blown diffuser.

Despite McLaren running a much lower chassis than the other teams – thus avoiding the use of the ugly step-nose – they don’t appear to be lacking in downforce. However, one must ask how much more airflow they could create under the car if they were to utilise the step-nose (dubbed the ugly duckling)?

So what of Hamilton’s pole position lap? Well, it certainly looked fast and smooth, not traits you would associate with a car that has lost a large amount of rear-end traction. On the slower corners of turn 1, 2 and 3, Hamilton still appears to be able to get on the power early. Certainly, he can’t be as aggressive as last year coming out of the corners but Mclaren appear to have reclaimed most of the downforce that the EBD used to provide.

What is most telling about Hamilton’s sprint is how smooth and in control the car looked. Everybody talked about how smooth the RB7 looked last year and how little the drivers would have to fight with the car. Obviously, the cars aren’t directly comparable to last year but having lost the influential EBD, the MP4-27 looks like it has dealt with that major rule change very efficiently.

Of course, this is only Saturday. The story of qualifying can be very different to that of race-day. But it’s certainly a surprise how far back Red Bull are but they’re still expected to fight for a podium if they get their strategy right. Ferrari are having some major issues but that’s been well-documented throughout winter testing so it’s just a case of development and deep analysis of the car. And finally, Mercedes and Lotus (last year called Renault) appear to have made significant steps forward. Now it’s time to see what race pace these machines have.