The Chinese Grand Prix, now in its ninth year as a Formula 1 venue, is host to plenty of talking points this weekend (Image | providingnews.com)

The Chinese Grand Prix, now in its ninth year as a Formula 1 venue, is host to plenty of talking points this weekend (Image | providingnews.com)

Two rounds down, seventeen to go, and the 2013 Formula 1 season is already shaping up to be a rather intriguing, and at this stage utterly unpredictable, affair.

There are already a great number of talking points following the curtain-raiser in Melbourne and last weekend’s eyebrow-raiser in Sepang, but we’ve taken four to examine and highlighted the three teams in most turmoil up and down the grid…

1) Are team orders still acceptable in Formula 1?

“Felipe, Fernando is faster than you.”

“Nico please drop back, there’s nothing to gain – I want to bring both cars home please.”

“This is silly Seb, come on.”

Can you tell which of these three is the odd one out?

We’re going to skip straight past the obvious argument – yes, of course Sebastian Vettel should be punished and probably suspended, but there’s no chance whatsoever that he will be – and move straight onto the bigger picture. Can F1 still put up with team orders in an era where even some drivers are no longer taking them seriously?

Nico Rosberg’s begrudging acceptance of Ross Brawn’s pleas to hold station showed a great deal of restraint and professionalism, two qualities which have eluded Vettel throughout his adult life, but the team orders handed down to the older German deprived him of a podium finish he almost certainly could have secured. And yes, Lewis Hamilton was only significantly slower because he saving fuel and tyres, but if Rosberg’s car wasn’t carrying the same hindrances, why should he have been bound by them?

Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, inevitably, have been the main talking point of the Formula 1 world for the last three weeks

Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, inevitably, have been the main talking point of the Formula 1 world for the last three weeks

In-fighting of this sort is an ugly stain on one of the most high-profile, and profile-dependent, sports in the world. Competing in F1 is an almost unparalleled status symbol for teams, drivers and sponsors alike. And even if these drivers are supposed to be driving for a team, competing in a constructors’ championship, the very existence of the drivers’ championship inevitably creates friction – the first competitor you want to beat is always your teammate. So acceptable or not, ugly or not, team orders will remain a necessary facet of F1 until one of those two championships ceases to exist.

2) Will Pirelli’s new rubber ever be accepted by all parties?

For some, Pirelli’s new, even less durable tyres are surely making F1 in 2013 that little more interesting. Fans will enjoy that having to stop more often puts drivers under a little more pressure to bang in the hot laps when their wheels are at the peak of their new, shorter lifespans. And the odd few teams, most prominently Lotus, will certainly enjoy the benefits of a car that is drastically less punishing on its boots than its main competitors.

The majority, though, see extra pit stops and shorter windows of peak performance as a loss for F1. Red Bull have criticised the tyres for

Paul Hembery, Pirelli’s F1 head, defended his company’s employers in the aftermath of Sepang: “Everyone else came and said they don’t know what [Red Bull] were talking about.

“It was a challenge. You have a combination of the new car, winter testing in the cold, new tyres, and the first time they come together is in Melbourne. And it has happened again. We have had two races and we tend to look at the first group of four races to see where we are.”

Kimi Raikkonen's strong start to the season - including victory in Australia - has him penned as a definite championship contender (Image | Getty)

Kimi Raikkonen’s strong start to the season – including victory in Australia – has him penned as a definite championship contender (Image | Getty)

3) Will Fernando Alonso ever win a championship with Ferrari?

Let’s face it, the omens aren’t good. Again.

Beginning the fourth season of his Scuderia adventure, Alonso is firmly established as Ferrari’s number one driver after Felipe Massa vied with him early in the 2010 season. He’s often been touted as the fastest driver on the grid, but Ferrari have rarely developed a car to merit similar praise since the Spaniard’s arrival.

The Prancing Horses performed well in Australia, crucially with Massa continuing the burst of positive form he produced at the tail end of past season. With his teammate providing much-needed support, Alonso must be more confident of a better year. But that’s no guarantee of a title challenge. The Mercedes have greatly improved, Kimi Raikkonen cannot be disregarded as a championship contender, and Massa’s form suggests he may be capable of beating Alonso from time to time.

4) Has F1 missed/Will F1 miss HRT?

Last year, they were the joke of the field and had a line-up whose combined age (76) was almost double that of some of the other teams on the grid, but it’s easy to forget that HRT actually finished both the 2010 and 2011 seasons ahead of Virgin/Marussia in the constructors’ standings.

The team’s driver line-up last year may have put paid to HRT. In an era where F1 teams face the stark decision of gambling on raw talents or plumping for the big spenders when looking to fill their cars, the Spanish outfit managed to do neither, partnering superannuated but respected test driver Pedro De La Rosa (who, importantly, is also Spanish) with former F1 racer Narain Karthikeyan. Even if it’s fair to assume that Karthikeyan brought a reasonable budget, these two were never on a par with the drivers of the Caterhams and Marussias.

Although it sounds harsh to say so, HRT ultimately brought little to F1 in its unspectacular three years in the sport (Image | Sky)

Although it sounds harsh to say so, HRT ultimately brought little to F1 in its unspectacular three years in the sport (Image | Sky)

So will HRT be missed? Mostly, unfortunately, no. The team achieved no competitiveness and brought in no sponsor interest; last season it’s title sponsor was a sign saying “This Could Be You”. The people who will miss HRT most are the likes of Valtteri Bottas and Esteban Gutierrez, who will lament the fact that an extra ‘established team’ driver will be eliminated in Q1 this season.

5) Three (pairs of) drivers who need to beat their teammates in China

Usually, of course, we’d be picking out three individuals in this segment, but this early on in the season there are plenty of teams whose hierarchy has not yet been established.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, Mercedes: Obscured behind the all-consuming fire of the Red Bull team orders debacle, Mercedes’ own driver positioning was, in reality, not a great deal less controversial. The only difference between the two incidents was that Rosberg displayed the maturity and good judgement that Vettel lacks.

Can Mercedes recover from effectively benching the man who led them last year in favour of their new signing? There is no Number One at Mercedes (they’re 9 and 10, if you look closely), but perhaps there needs to be. Until then, these late-race scenarios are going to continue to cause the Silver Arrows’ sizeable brain trust a sizeable headache. The fastest solution would be for either Hamilton or Rosberg to produce a crushing performance in Shanghai that puts their colleague firmly in the shade – and both are starting from the front two rows. Game on.

Paul Di Resta and Adrian Sutil, Force India: The returning German was faster than his Scottish teammate for most of the weekend in Australia, despite his year out of the sport. Di Resta seemed set to redress that balance in Malaysia, having performed better over most of the weekend, but he was caught out by weather in Q2 and ended up starting six places behind Sutil in the race.

This mattered little, as neither Force India made it to the half-way stage before a bizarre issue with their wheelnuts forced both cars into the garage. The team remain confident that they have serious speed, but this isn’t the biggest budget on the grid and the faster man over the next few races will be the first to receive vital new developments later in the year. Again, a pairing to keep an eye on.

Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo, Toro Rosso: If F1 fans weren’t certain before this season that this will be Webber’s last year with Red Bull, they probably can be now. That means there will be more pressure than ever on his two would-be successors going into round three. (I agree that Vettel should be suspended, which would give RBR reserve Sebastian Buemi first shot at an audition, but Vettel isn’t going to be suspended.)

Vergne and Ricciardo have known their fate since the start of last year, but the events of last weekend might have put their fight forward by a year. Ricciardo has scored the first blow this weekend – but, after his horrendous start from sixth in Bahrain last year, can the Aussie produce a strong performance from 7th in China?

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