The dawn of the 2020 Formula 1 World Championship is upon us.
Despite background questions regarding the influence of coronavirus on events to come, the opening Australian Grand Prix should give us the first true indicators of performance and prospects over the next nine months.
Lewis Hamilton starts the season with a real chance of matching the all-time record of world titles achieved by Michael Schumacher; the “Magnificent Seven” earned with Benetton and Ferrari in the mid-1990s and early 2000s.
The last of those titles was wrapped up in 2004 in a totally dominant year when Schumacher won 13 races, including the first five on the bounce.
Albert Park in Melbourne was the season opener then as it is now, and Schumacher crushed the opposition, achieving one of his five career ‘grand slams’ in setting pole position, winning the race, leading every single lap and recording fastest lap. Hamilton would love to do the same, and if he does he will go one ahead of Schumacher with six grand slams to his credit.
But despite Mercedes’ strong performance in pre-season testing with Valtteri Bottas setting the outright fastest lap - almost half a second ahead of Max Verstappen’s second quickest time - I think the team will have more of a battle than Schumacher’s Ferrari outfit had back in 2004.
“Ambitious, talented and ferocious”
Red Bull showed tremendous pace in the latter part of the 2019 season, the Honda power unit has been improved and even more closely integrated into the design of this year’s car, and Verstappen is an ambitious, talented and ferocious competitor who will push Hamilton all the way.
The Dutchman only won three races last season, compared to Hamilton’s 11, but with a new long-term contract at Red Bull and a teammate in Alexander Albon, who is likely to be supportive but unthreatening, Verstappen is perfectly poised to cause a stir.
His first home race at Zandvoort in the Netherlands just four races into the calendar will give him an extra boost and with five years experience behind him, he understands the complexity of putting a full campaign together.
Ferrari as a team also won three races in 2019, and the evidence from testing has not indicated a huge leap forward in terms of outright pace - but is that because the bosses are playing the game differently?
Shining in testing 13 months ago was the prelude to disappointment in the races, and perhaps a more measured approach will help build momentum rather than disrupt it.
Charles Leclerc goes into his second season with Ferrari in a very different position. He knew he had to play second fiddle to Sebastian Vettel in the early days, but during 21 races he has put himself on an even footing with the four-time world champion, and the team will simply support whichever of them delivers the best results. As long as they don’t take each other out as they did in Brazil last November…
Can Renault fight back?
Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari are still the teams most likely to win races and earn podium positions, but the battles just behind will be tightly fought.
McLaren, with Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris at the helm, did an outstanding job last year to finish fourth in the constructors championship after several poor campaigns but holding onto that position will not be easy.
Renault are determined to fight back, and need to prove to their board of directors that an involvement in Formula 1 is a positive for the French car manufacturer. The business of road car production is changing so rapidly and the value of spending millions of euros on going racing around the globe is going to be closely inspected by the bean counters.
Frenchman Esteban Ocon joins Daniel Ricciardo in the Renault driver line-up, and that is a powerful combination.
Testing results demonstrated that McLaren and Renault also need to be wary of the Racing Point drivers Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll. The pink cars appear to have found a new lease of speed thanks to embodying a great deal of inspiration from Mercedes, and for a driver like Perez who has grabbed podium positions in Bahrain and Baku in the past, there could be some real opportunities.
Bull changing spots
A new name and a new look has seen the Toro Rosso team transformed into AlphaTauri, but the drivers remain unchanged, with Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly hoping those Honda engine developments will also boost their chances.
And no change at Haas means that Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean remain teammates for a fourth consecutive year.
Alfa Romeo have kept Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi; it’s only two years since Raikkonen started the Australian GP from the front row for Ferrari and he delivered some solid results for Alfa last year too.
Which leaves us with Williams, and a new driver in Nicholas Latifi, the Canadian who was a race winner in Formula 2 and now gets his chance alongside impressive British youngster George Russell. It still won’t be easy to get a Williams into the second stage of qualifying at most events.
Very soon now, F1 cars will be blasting through the sun-soaked parkland of Melbourne to initiate a whole new campaign of drama and excitement.
Who knows how it will turn out? But I hope you can join us on Channel 4 to follow every highlight that comes up. It promises to be a cracker of a season.
Join the C4F1 team for highlights of qualifying from Melbourne on Saturday 14th March at 12 noon with highlights of the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday 15th March at 2.10pm.