Motorsport: 2019 Formula One season preview
After a long winter the Formula One field fires into action this weekend in Melbourne.
Albert Park plays host to the season opening grand prix, and that means our first chance to see who has made the best use of the downtime since Lewis Hamilton won his fifth world championship at Abu Dhabi in November last year.
Pre-season testing form means little, as the teams experiment with different tyres, fuel loads and strategies at different times. If you dig a little deeper some trends do emerge, and Mercedes-AMG and Ferrari appear to be at the front again, but we won’t know for sure until qualifying time on Saturday - as that’s when there’s nowhere to hide.
Will it be a Mercedes-AMG parade again?
Since the introduction of the current hybrid powertrain regulations the German brand has dominated - taking both the driver’s and constructor’s titles every year. Lewis Hamilton enters the season looking for his sixth world title, and given his brilliant form in 2018 he’s the pre-season favourite.
Teammate Valtteri Bottas is driving for his future this year, with French young gun Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings to takeover as Hamilton’s teammate in 2020. So Bottas is entering the year determined to add to his tally of three wins in his two seasons at Mercedes; which is a poor return in such a dominant car.
The only concern for both Hamilton and Bottas is the pace of the Ferrari in pre-season testing. Many pundits are predicting the Italian squad has not only closed the gap, but may have a small pace advantage headed into the year.
Is this the year Ferrari finally claims a world title again?
It has been more than a decade since the famed Italian team won a world championship; the 2008 constructor’s crown, while Kimi Raikkonen was the last driver’s title winner in 2007. The ingredients are there, the car has been quick and Sebastian Vettel is a four-time world champ, so there are no excuses.
That’s why team principal Maurizio Arrivabene was sacked at the end of last year and replaced by highly-rated technical boss, Mattia Binotto.
Raikkonen was also dropped to make way for rising star Charles Leclerc, which could create and intense inta-team rivalry. The last time Vettel went up against a younger ace was when Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo arrived at Red Bull and comprehensively beat the German.
Could we see a repeat in 2019? It’s hard to predict as Vettel is well-established within the Ferrari team but Leclerc was impressive in his debut season with Sauber-Alfa Romeo last year and is seen as a world-champion-in-waiting by many.
Vettel isnt concerned about having a target on his back, though. Instead hes hopefull Ferrari can steal a march on its rivals. Albert Park has been a happy hunting ground for the German, having won the race the last two years.
“We are more prepared than last year, our car seems to work fine but having said that it is difficult to do better than last year as we won," he said. "Obviously this is the first race of the year and you’re normally a bit nervous as you don’t know exactly where you are. At this point I think we are all hunters and all hunted, but hopefully going away from here, I will be in the position of the hunted.”
Will Honda help make Red Bull Racing a title threat again?
After four years of publicly criticising Renault engines, Red Bull has bitten the bullet and swapped to the unproven Honda powertrains for 2019. Will it be a masterstroke or disaster?
Despite the deficiencies in the French engine, Red Bull Racing has always had one of the best chassis on the grid - if not the best. If Honda can provide a stronger and more reliable engine than it has in the past then Max Verstappen could be a title darkhorse.
The team has clearly nailed its fortunes to the young Dutchman, with the tension between he and Ricciardo a clear factor in the Aussie’s decision to jump ship to Renault.
His replacement, Pierre Gasly, has shown glimpses of promise but is yet to establish himself as a front-runner. He’ll need to do that quickly, making sure he’s close or ahead of Verstappen early in the season and always running in the top six, as Red Bull has notoriously little patience for young drivers who don’t excel.
Can Ricciardo still star?
Leaving behind a race-winning car for the uncertainty of the mid-field pack is a bold move for Ricciardo. The French car maker is determined to close the gap to the big three at the front of the field, but that’s easier said than done. Even hiring an established winner in Ricciardo is no shortcut to success.
But the team has been investing in its technical team in a bid to make both the chassis and its engine more competitive. Pre-season testing looked promising but, as mentioned earlier, it is an unreliable indicator of form.
For Ricciardo the change of scenery appears to have given his motivation a boost, and the change of teams won’t diminish his ability behind the wheel - and he is without question of of the sport’s true aces.
Speaking ahead of the season the West Australian said: “It’s an exciting thought that my first race for Renault is my home Grand Prix. There’s always so much hype at the start of the Formula 1 season, and this has been amplified by me joining a new team.
"I’ve had this date circled since I announced I’d be signing with Renault and I’m looking forward to getting race week started. It’s been a long winter with a lot of theories and speculation going around, but the race track is where we settle all that. We had a good winter test, I’m growing happier every time I step into the car and the first race will be especially exciting."
Which team will be best of the rest?
Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are expected to lock out the front of the grid again, but behind them the battle to be at the head of the mid-pack is tipped to be tight.
Renault, McLaren, Haas, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso were closely matched in winter testing and with some big name drivers (Ricciardo, Nico Hulkenberg, Raikkonen and Carlos Sainz Jr) the fight should be close.
Renault won the battle in 2018 and the addition of Ricciardo will only strengthen its case to be the ‘best of the rest’ in 2019.
McLaren is making a fresh start this year, with Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne making way for Sainz and rookie Lando Norris. The team is overhauling its technical department after its chassis proved uncompetitive in recent seasons and it now has a year of experience with the Renault engines.
Sainz is a talented young driver and has the potential to be a star so the chance to lead the McLaren squad may be just what he needs to break out.
Alfa Romeo has taken control of the team formerly known as Sauber and installed Raikkonen and Italian rookie Antonio Giovinazzi to try and drag the team up the grid.
Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s junior team, also appears to have made progress during the break. It too has an all-new driver line-up with rookie Alexander Albon joining the returning Russian, Daniil Kvyat.
Fairytale comeback or nightmare season?
Ahead of the 2011 F1 season Robert Kubica was one of the sport’s rising stars. Then the Pole cheated death in a horrific rally accident, almost severing his forearm. Despite losing full movement of his right arm, he has nevertheless returned to racing.
After spending 2018 as the Williams teams test driver he is back in a race seat now in what has the potential to be a feel-good story for the sport. Kubica’s talent was never in question before the crash but now, after such a long break between F1 starts, it’s less clear how he’ll fare.
Compounding his challenges is the form of the Williams team. The British outfit didn’t have its car ready for the start of testing, costing the team time and leaving them at the back of the pack.
Worryingly Williams’ technical boss, Paddy Lowe, has taken a leave of absence which doesn’t bode well for the team’s fortunes this year.
Who will be the rookie standout?
The rookie class of 2019 is a strong one, with four newcomers entering the sport. Britains next great hopes of F1 success are Lando Norris and George Russell.
Norris is McLaren’s first rookie since Hamilton and comes with similar levels of hype, based on his rapid rise through the junior formula.
Russell will partner Kubica at Williams and, like the Polish driver, his season will hinge on the speed of the car; which hasn’t looked good to date. Like Norris he’s coming into the sport with a big reputation, having won the Formula Two championship in 2018 and has strong connections to Mercedes.
Alex Albon was a controversial choice for Toro Rosso because he had already committed to a three-year contract with Nissan’s Formula E team before the F1 team came calling. But the Austrian energy drink company is obviously a believer in his potential because it fought hard to get him aboard.
Giovinazzi isn’t a total novice, having started two grand prix for Sauber in 2017 as a substitute, but 2019 is his first proper year. Like Leclerc he is a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy and has spent the last two seasons working closely with the Italian team as a development driver.