As March rolls around the Formula 1 circus is ready to roar into action once again. Rocked by the death of FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting, this weekend sees the Australian Grand Prix kick off the 2019 season on a sombre note. It is set be be one of the most exciting in recent memory and there are talking points up and down the grid.
Who is the fastest?Embed from Getty Images
This the age-old question in Formula 1. Testing revealed that Ferrari were on top but come practice and Mercedes pulled out a 0.8 seconds gap on their rivals. The truth is we will not know the true pace of each car until Q3 on Saturday as both teams will look to play down their pace compared to the other and may be engaging in sandbagging.
Last year, Ferrari looked to be in a similar position but lost out badly to Mercedes in the development race and Mattia Binotto will be determined not to repeat the mistakes of last season.
Red Bull shouldn’t be counted out either, the Honda engine remains something of an unknown entity but early signs show that the team could challenge for wins more consistently in the coming season.
Where do Williams go from where?Embed from Getty Images
The British outfit look to be the definition of a team in crisis. Earlier this week, Chief Technical Officer Paddy Lowe was placed on an absence of leave which is expected to be made permanent; carrying the can for the team’s failure to even turn to up the first two days of testing.
That time lost has seen them cut almost two seconds adrift of the field in free practice so far and George Russel’s best time of 1:26.453 is 0.9 seconds down on Stroll’s 1:25.543 in Melbourne practice last year. The car’s worrying lack of pace suggests it could be another year wedded to the bottom of the constructors standings for the team and could overshadow Robert Kubica’s triumphant return.
With Claire Williams feeling the pressure of this once great team on her shoulders, would she survive another year of being the perennial backmarkers?
Fastest LapEmbed from Getty Images
In a late development announced by the FIA that for the first time since 1959, an extra point will be awarded to the driver that finishes the race with the fastest lap. However, the point can only be awarded to a driver that finishes in the top 10 and it raises some interesting tactical decisions. Will the top teams seek to sacrifice their second driver by bringing him into the pits late in the race to take the extra point away from a championship rival? Or will drivers be inclined to turn their engines up one last time at the end instead of coasting home?
Either way, it looks as it will be another favour to the top teams. With the gap between the top 6 often more than 30 seconds come the closing stages of most races last season, any driver who so chooses could have a free pit stop to fit a fresh set of tyres and chase that extra point.
Best of the restEmbed from Getty Images
With the difference between the top three teams and the rest of the teams on the grid not showing any signs of decreasing, viewers have started calling the midfield battle the ‘Formula 1.5 championship’. Last year, it was Nico Hulkenberg who finished 7th (The highest a midfield driver could realistically get) ahead of Sergio Perez. With the midfield being expected to be even closer this year especially with the arrival of race winners like Kimi Raikkonen and Daniel Ricciardo, the battle for ‘best of the rest’ is one of the things to look out for.
Renault are the favourites this year as they had finished 4th last year and everyone is expecting them to make an improvement this year and close down the gap to the top 3 like they have done every year since they re-entered the sport in 2016.
With the FIA allowing more fuel in the car for the 2019 season, fuel-saving is expected to be less of a problem than it was last year and if there was one team which suffered the most because of fuel-saving, it was Haas (If Kevin Magnussen is to be believed). With one less thing to worry about, Haas could be Renault’s nemesis once the season gets underway.
The return of Alfa RomeoEmbed from Getty Images
If winter testing was anything to go by, Alfa Romeo is expected to be the midfield surprise with a radical front wing design taking the entire paddock by storm. From almost dropping out of the grid at the start of 2018 to being the 4th or 5th best car on the grid by the end of the 2018 season, Alfa have made steady progress under the leadership of Team Principal Frederic Vasseur and with the experience of Kimi Raikkonen for 2019, Alfa could be the surprise challengers to Renault and Haas.
The other challengers in the midfield are Sportpesa Racing Point (Formerly Force India). With a significant increase in budget in comparison to the previous years, the team could spring a surprise and challenge the above-mentioned teams but, they had a disappointing winter testing and a lot of what they can deliver is unknown which is why a prediction with respect to their position is difficult to make.
Where are Mclaren?Embed from Getty Images
Mclaren have witnessed a spectacular fall from grace in the last decade with each year getting progressively worse. There was a point in the 2018 season when they were actually competing hard with Williams to not finish last. Many fans expected them to go downhill with Fernando Alonso leaving the team at the end of 2018. But they have a brand-new line up in Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, both drivers have a lot of promise. They did manage to surprise a lot of people at winter testing by topping the time charts more than once which led to many experts asking the whether they should be taken more seriously.
When Sainz was asked about the pace of the car after he topped the time charts on one of the days in testing, he just said “We are not going to be on pole in Australia if that’s what you are asking. Everyone calm down, this is just testing,” This led to speculation rising again about their true pace and they seem to be an unknown entity akin to Racing Point.
Daniel Ricciardo enters his ninth season in formula one looking to improve on a season of what ifs.
Ricciardo’s switchEmbed from Getty Images
After making the shock switch from Red Bull to Renault before Spa in August last year Ricciardo will be eager to impress in front of his home crowd in Melbourne.
Ricciardo accumulated the most DNF’s with Red Bull, with a total of eight, last season. The mechanical issues that Red Bull faced with their Renault engine were frequently highlighted in public spats between the two teams.
Last year’s two race victories in China and Monaco – the latter of which he held on despite engine issues – gave fans a glimpse of what Ricciardo is capable of doing.
With Renault’s ambitions to be one of the big three teams by 2021 the package on offer is one of long term goals rather than immediate results. Team mate Nico Hulkenberg could prove to be the factor that Ricciardo has been missing in recent seasons. Having Hulkenberg as his team mate may allow him more space to develop and concentrate on his own racing.
A crucial season for VettelEmbed from Getty Images
Sebastian Vettel is now a veteran of the sport going into his twelfth season but it has been six years since Vettel’s last championship.
Mercedes drivers have won the past five Championships and for the last two seasons Vettel and Ferrari have narrowly missed out to Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes.
In exchange for Kimi Raikkonen – who left Ferrari for the rebranded Alfa Romeo team – the Prancing Horses bought in the exciting prospect of 21-year-old Charles Leclerc from Sauber.
A perfect storm of yet more Mercedes success and Leclerc snatching the spotlight from Vettel could bring about the end to his glittering career.
The fastest times recorded in testing came from Ferrari, however, Vettel finished second and fifth in the free practices ahead of Melbourne. It appears the foot has been taken off the gas a little though.
Qualifying and the first race of the season will provide a better understanding of Ferrari’s power this season. If testing reads true then nobody should discount Vettel just yet.
Feature image credit: WILLIAM WEST