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F1's 2012 season begins in the land down under

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After months of preparation and testing, it's time for 12 teams and 24 drivers to get the 2012 Formula One season underway with this weekend's Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Double world champion Sebastian Vettel returns to Australia as the defending race winner. One year ago, Vettel started on the pole and put on a dominating performance on the 3.295-mile (5.303-kilometer) Albert Park course. The Red Bull driver only relinquished the lead during his first pit stop. He finished 22 seconds ahead of his closest competitor, Lewis Hamilton from McLaren.

During last week's final pre-season test session in Barcelona, Spain, Vettel seemed satisfied and optimistic about Red Bull's car for this season, the RB8. Now he's eager to see how well the car will perform in Melbourne.

"Testing has been busy over the last few weeks, and I think we have made a decent step with the car," Vettel said. "You never really know where you are until we get to Melbourne and even then you don't really see what everyone has got until qualifying."

Several changes in technical regulations and modifications to the cars have been implemented for the new season.

The Drag Reduction System (DRS) -- also known as the movable rear wing -- and the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) remain for 2012, but perhaps the biggest rules change for this season is the elimination of the exhaust-blown diffusers, which Red Bull utilized so well last year. The ban of the diffusers will affect the downforce of the cars.

Another significant revision is the height of the nose on the cars. Pit stops will be more of a challenge for teams this season. The use of helium in the wheel guns has been banned, which will make for slightly longer pit stops.

"I think the new rules have definitely made it a more competitive place," two- time Australian GP winner Jenson Button said. "It's been very difficult to read pace over the winter because a lot of teams have been playing their cards close to their chests. I think it's going to be extremely close, and I can't wait to find out where we sit in the pecking order."

The Australian GP will be a homecoming for Mark Webber from Red Bull and Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo.

Webber's best finish in front of his home crowd is fifth, which occurred three times, most recently in 2011.

"This will be my 11th Australian GP, and I can't wait to get started," he said. "The Grand Prix is one of the best sporting events that we have in Australia. It's great to see the support and Australian flags in the crowd. I've incorporated more of an Australian theme into my helmet, which I'll be using for the whole year, not just in Australia."

Webber snapped a 25-race winless streak with his victory in the November 27 season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix.

Ricciardo drove for HRT in the final 11 grand prix last year before he moved over to Toro Rosso for this season.

The Australian GP will also mark the return of former world champion Kimi Raikkonen to F1. Raikkonen had spent the past two years competing in the World Rally Championship. He signed with Lotus (formerly known as Lotus Renault GP) after last season had concluded.

"This will be the first race, so I don't know how we'll compare to the other teams," Raikkonen said. "My engineers have been running simulations and looking at the test data, so we have an idea of how the car should work at Albert Park, but we won't know for sure until we get out on track. It's very difficult to say before we've been out on track, but I think and hope we'll be reasonably strong."

Raikkonen won the Australian GP during his F1 championship season in 2007.

Series: Formula One. Date: Sunday, March 18. Race: Australian Grand Prix. Site: Albert Park Circuit. Track: 5.303 km (3.295 miles), 16-turn temporary street circuit. Start Time: 2:00 a.m. (et). Laps: 58. Miles: 191.110. 2011 Winner: Sebastian Vettel. Television: Speed.

03/14 21:18:34 ET

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