As the new NASCAR season continues to heat up, another big date is approaching in the calendar for fans of motorsport. The drivers, crews, and cars of Formula 1 are all on the other side of the world in Australia, getting ready for the first race of the season in Melbourne. Nobody wins and loses a championship on the first race of the season, but every driver on the grid will be hoping to set the tone for the season to follow. It looks set to be an exciting season – so let’s take a closer look at who looks set for glory, and who’ll be lucky to score a point.
To some people, this is a transitional season for the sport. There are major changes to the cars coming in 2021 designed to allow for safer, faster racing, and also to allow drivers to follow each other much more closely. One of the most frustrating issues drivers have had to contend with while racing the current generation of cars is that they tend to overheat after two or three laps driving too closely to the car in front, and so the chasing car has to back away and surrender the battle. This issue will still be present in 2020, and many constructors appear to be biding their time for next season rather than making significant alterations for this one. The cars, save for a change of livery or name here and there, look largely the same as they did in 2019. The drivers, though, are hoping to make huge changes.
The biggest story of the season will be whether Lewis Hamilton can take another step toward sporting immortality by winning yet another World Championship. If he does, it will draw him level with Michael Schumacher at the top of the all-time list – and still young enough to race on for another season or two and try to break that long-standing record. In pre-season testing, there have been no signs that Hamilton is slowing down, and so we can probably expect him to display the same level of performance that saw him comfortably eclipse the rest of the field in 2019. The question is whether anybody else is capable of taking a step up to contend with him.
In seasons past, the first person we would look to for that competition is Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari. With no disrespect intended to the former four-time world champion, that’s no longer the case. Vettel is beginning to look like a man out of time at Ferrari and finished behind his much younger (and faster) teammate Charles Leclerc in the final standings. Although Ferrari hasn’t publicly come out and said that Leclerc is now considered to be the team’s number one driver, Vettel’s frequently dejected demeanor and Leclerc’s growing confidence suggest a changing of the guard. If Ferrari does cause problems for Mercedes and Hamilton this year – which isn’t a certainty, because their pre-season testing has thrown up mixed results – it’s likely to be Leclerc pushing the Brit the hardest.
While Ferrari has been struggling for the past two years, Christian Horner and his Red Bull team have been trying to discover the kind of form that saw them win drivers’ and constructors’ championships of their own in the past. In Max Verstappen, they have a driver with all the natural ability in the world, but a streak of petulance and hot-headedness that have led to poor decision-making in the past. Last year, Verstappen appeared to be a little more mature and less prone to making rash mistakes. If he’s been given a car suited to his talents, he may also be in a position to cause Hamilton sleepless nights. Alex Albon has won the battle to sit alongside him for the season, pushing Pierre Gasly back to the renamed AlphaTauri team permanently, but is very much a number two driver. Verstappen will be given priority over Albon all season, and so Albon probably won’t be in the reckoning.
There have been signs in the past that Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas might have the tools to challenge Hamilton from within, but we’ve seen the same story play out with Bottas on numerous occasions now. He starts the season strongly and then goes into a mid-season dip, by the end of which Hamilton is too far away for him to catch up. Last season, some reports claimed that the dip nearly cost him his seat at Mercedes. He ended up signing a new contract, and he’ll be expected to justify his team’s faith in 2020. He might have the talent to contend, but he’ll need to display consistency in a way we’ve never seen from him in the past.
As for the potential race of the season, it’s hard to look past the traditional roulette affair of Monaco. You can get fairly consistent odds on most drivers winning a race at any other track during the season, but when it comes to Monaco, it’s more like trying to back a winning line on UK Online Slots. That’s probably why there have been various gambling games about Monaco made in years past, many of which can still be found on online slots websites today. Many racing purists argue that the Monaco street circuit isn’t suited to the speed or design of modern cars and should be retired from the calendar, but you don’t get that online slots thrill of having literally no idea what’s going to happen next at any other race. You might watch it for the crashes and the potential of a shock winner more than you watch it to see racing excellence, but you’ll still watch it.
We’ve covered the potential winners and challengers for the season to come, but who’s likely to struggle? The easy answer is ‘both Williams drivers,’ but the question of what Roman Grosjean has done to deserve another season driving a Formula 1 car at Haas is a difficult one to answer – especially with Niko Hulkenberg out of a job at Renault. Hulkenberg’s Renault replacement Esteban Ocon is also probably drinking in F1’s last chance saloon after previously being ejected from his seat at Racing Point. We also may be seeing the last of Kimi Raikkonen at Alfa Romeo Racing. Raikkonen is a former world champion, but at the age of 40 and stuck in an uncompetitive team, there has to come the point where he no longer sees a point in continuing.
We could all be wrong, of course. The lights could go out in Melbourne this Sunday, and George Russell could claim the chequered flag for Williams and shock the world. Stranger things have happened in motorsport – and strange things are almost certain to happen during the course of the 2020 season. We can’t wait to get started!