Formula One returns: A few firsts and a lot at stake

Eleven of the original 22 races have either been cancelled or postponed, and F1 is going ahead — for now — with a shortened eight-race season.

Lewis Hamilton is chasing history as he aims to equal Schumacher’s seven drivers’ titles, which looks eminently possible this season.   -  AP

Will someone finally topple Mercedes? We asked this question a little over three months ago as the 2020 Formula One season was about to get underway in Melbourne in March.

Since the beginning of F1’s hybrid era in 2014, no team has come close to the Silver Arrows, not even remotely. But in each of the past three seasons, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, a four-time world champion with Red Bull, should have challenged and could have beaten Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes. In 2018, the German led the standings at the halfway mark in what was evidently the fastest car on track. But a series of team and driver errors by Ferrari and Vettel saw Hamilton take the title by a comfortable 88 points.

READ| Ferrari boss Binotto: Had to redesign flawed 2020 car

In 2019, the two teams were equal in terms of both qualifying and race pace. But Mercedes delivered error-free performances, while Ferrari struggled to find a balance between its two drivers, and Vettel seemingly came apart at the seams under the challenge of his much younger team-mate, Charles Leclerc. The result: Mercedes finished the season in first and second, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in third ahead of Leclerc. Vettel’s fifth place matched his performance in 2014, when another younger, up and coming team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, out-raced the then four-time reigning champion.

What happened to Ferrari?

After the drama of 2019, it is to be seen if Ferrari will favour the 22-year-old Leclerc — he has a contract till 2024 — over the departing Vettel. Leclerc took the Pole Position Award last year and beat his illustrious team-mate in just his second season in the sport, while Vettel announced in early May that he will be leaving the team at the end of 2020 after contract negotiations broke down.

Vettel had said at the time that “in order to get the best possible results in this sport, it’s vital for all parties to work in perfect harmony... What’s been happening in these past few months has led many of us to reflect on what are our real priorities in life. One needs to use one’s imagination and to adopt a new approach to a situation that has changed. I myself will take the time I need to reflect on what really matters when it comes to my future.”

READ| McLaren team principal: Our Formula One future was never a doubt

Reflect he will. As for perfect harmony, there was no sign of that between him and the team in 2019. Ferrari looked unsure whether to let Leclerc race his senior team-mate and ended up making some shoddy decisions that cost the team race wins and other podium finishes.

 

And it’s go, finally!

The 2020 season was set to have a record 22 races, with Vietnam being added to the calendar and the Dutch Grand Prix — which would have been a home race for Verstappen — returning to the grid after 35 years.

As it stands, 11 of the original 22 races have either been cancelled or postponed, and F1 is going ahead — for now — with a shortened eight-race season.

For the first time in F1 history, more than one race will be held at a single venue in a season. Austria hosts the first of two double-headers over the first two weekends of July — the Austrian and Styrian Grand Prix. That augurs well for Verstappen, who won Red Bull’s home race in 2018 and ’19. The fast and tight Spielberg track suits the driving style of the Dutch driver, who is incredibly into his sixth F1 season at just 22 years of age.

READ| F1’s revised 2020 calendar - Eight races in Europe, for now

After Austria, the carnival moves on to Hungary, where Hamilton has won seven times — that’s five more than any other driver on the grid — before the season’s second double-header at Silverstone, a race that should suit Mercedes’ raw power, and outings in Spain, Belgium and Italy.

How they stand

In pre-season testing this year, Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, fresh off second place in the 2019 drivers’ championship and, without a doubt, the team’s No. 2 driver, was fastest, and the team put in more laps than any other. The Silver Arrows were clearly in pole position after an overhaul of the aerodynamic and power unit packages over the winter and the introduction of the new dual axle steering (DAS) system.

While Mercedes goes into the first race of the season once more as the favourite to win both titles, Red Bull, with a new steering and double bulkhead arrangement, could be the team to most likely challenge the Brackley-based outfit.

READ| Face masks and no fans: How Formula One's 'new normal' will look

Ferrari, meanwhile, brushed off claims that its pre-season testing was a disaster, but indications are that the Prancing Horse is not in the same bracket as Mercedes or Red Bull. The improved pace from Renault, Racing Point and McLaren should see them fighting for more podium places and also liven up the midfield, where the drivers have seemed to be in a different race from the top three teams since the beginning of F1’s hybrid era.

For Charles Leclerc (left) and Max Verstappen, this is in all likelihood their last chance to become the youngest ever F1 champion, a record that Sebastian Vettel currently holds (23 years, 134 days) and LEwis Hamilton previously held. Verstappen turns 23 on September 30 and Leclerc does so just 16 days after that.   -  Getty Images

 

What’s at stake

Mercedes has won the last six drivers’ as well as constructors’ championships, with Nico Rosberg’s 2016 title being sandwiched by Hamilton’s five. The six consecutive constructors’ crowns match Ferrari’s run between 1999 and 2004, and Hamilton could take home a fourth straight title to equal Vettel’s 2010-13 dominance (only Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher has won more consecutively — five between 2000 and ’04).

Hamilton is chasing history as he aims to equal Schumacher’s seven drivers’ titles, which looks eminently possible this season, and 91 race victories, which could take a little longer (Hamilton is on 84, and the season has only eight races as of now).

For Leclerc and Verstappen, this is in all likelihood the last chance for either to become the youngest-ever F1 champion, a record that Vettel currently holds (23 years, 134 days) and Hamilton previously held. Verstappen turns 23 on September 30 and Leclerc does so just 16 days after that.

READ| Mercedes to use black cars in stand against racism

Verstappen made his debut in the sport at just 17 years and 166 days in 2015 and already holds a raft of other youngest-ever records, but Red Bull has over the past four seasons provided the Dutch prodigy with a car that can win races but not the championship. However, the coronavirus-curtailed season could make up for the gap to the Mercedes cars — there’s the obvious advantage in the first two races in Austria, and then there’s Hungary, where he took his first pole in F1 before finishing second last year, and Spain, the site of his first F1 win in 2016. However, in Great Britain, Italy and Belgium, it’ll be all about whether Red Bull has the pace.

Leclerc debuted just two years ago and immediately showed the makings of a future champion, moving up to Ferrari from Sauber in 2019. The Monegasque racer and Verstappen rose through the ranks of junior formulae together, and their tussles last season could just be a harbinger of the decade ahead in F1.