New rules, almost unprecedented driver movement and plenty of change means there’s no shortage of talking points for this F1 season.
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Like your sport to have a significant shake-up between seasons? Then Formula One 2019-style is for you. The Australian Grand Prix grid in March will look very different to the one that formed for the final race of 2018 in Abu Dhabi last November, with just two of the 10 teams retaining the same drivers as last year, and the cars set to look strikingly different when they launch in Barcelona for pre-season testing in February.
Will it make any difference to the competitive order? That we don’t know, but what we can say with some assurance is that the picture will look very different in 2019. Other than world champions Mercedes and improving midfielders Haas, there’s at least one new face at every other team, while four squads have jettisoned both drivers from last year’s line-up for myriad reasons.
That, combined with regulation changes relating to the appearance (and effectiveness) of front and rear wings this season, means we have no shortage of storylines to immerse ourselves in for 2019. Who and what can’t we wait to see on track? What has us excited, optimistic, even a little wary? Here’s our top six storylines to watch for the 21-race season ahead.
6. Kubica’s comeback
There’s not a person in F1 who won’t want to see Robert Kubica’s return with Williams enjoy some degree of success in 2019, after the Pole defied the odds to make it back to the grid for the first time since the end of the 2010 season. His devastating right arm injury sustained in a rally in Andorra in early February 2011 looked to have cut short a fledgling career that had him mentioned in the same breath as Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, but Kubica persisted and persisted, eventually finding his way back into the paddock as Williams’ test driver in 2018, and earning a race seat alongside F2 champion George Russell in an all-new line-up for one of the sport’s most famous teams this year. It’ll be tough sledding for Kubica (and Russell) if 2018 is any indication after Williams fell to dead-last in the constructors’ championship and managed just seven points all season, but just making it back to a race seat and bucking the odds is a triumph in itself for the 34-year-old. Is this comeback something more than a feel-good story? Maybe, maybe not. Regardless, Kubica’s progress will be well worth watching.
5. Bottas under the microscope
A seat at Mercedes is the one every driver would openly (or secretively) covet, and 2019 was barely a week old before team principal Toto Wolff verbalised what everyone else already knew; that it’s time for Valtteri Bottas to step up his performances if he’s to stay alongside world champion Hamilton at the sport’s dominant team of the V6 turbo hybrid era. The 2018 stats don’t deliver complete context, but the gap between the two drivers in the same car (Hamilton had 11 wins to Bottas’ zero and outscored the Finn by 161 points) might have been a bigger story if Mercedes had lost the constructors’ championship to Ferrari, which fumbled late in the year as Hamilton surged.
With Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon cast aside by Racing Point Force India at the end of last season for Lance Stroll (after Stroll’s father Lawrence headed a consortium that purchased the team), Mercedes has a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings if Bottas doesn’t raise his game.
“Valtteri knows exactly where he needs to be,” Wolff told Autosport in early January. “He needs to have all the bad luck gone and perform on a level with Lewis. That is what is needed. He knows very well that, and he has that in him.”
Should Bottas get off to a tardy start, expect Wolff’s phone to be running hot with drivers putting their hand up for his seat.
4. The hunt for F1’s next race winner
New F1 race winners don’t come around all that often – Bottas was the 107th and most recent victor in the 69-year history of the sport when he won in Russia two seasons ago, and just six drivers have won their maiden race in the past 10 seasons. Who’s next? With respect to Pierre Gasly and his move from Scuderia Toro Rosso to Red Bull Racing this season, Charles Leclerc would have to be odds-on to be number 108; the 21-year-old Monegasque was mightily impressive in his rookie year for Sauber in 2018, and expectations are high after he was named to replace Ferrari stalwart Kimi Raikkonen at the sport’s most famous team. You’d back him to win a race or two; how will incumbent Ferrari driver and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel cope with a fast young upstart in the sister car if Leclerc can string a series of strong results together in the season’s first half?
This is a pairing that has the feel of Hamilton joining Alonso for his rookie season at McLaren in 2007, or Vettel himself playing second-fiddle to Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull in 2014. The established champion versus the rising star; can Ferrari manage that while challenging Mercedes for the big trophies once more?
3. Ricciardo + Renault = ?
Australian fans will be more interested in this one than most, but the F1 world will be watching to see whether the affable Aussie’s trademark grin dims a little as he moves away from the only F1 family he’s known to Renault, which finished just one place behind Red Bull in the 2018 constructors’ championship, but nearly 300 points adrift.
Ricciardo knows he has to play the long game, and, as he approaches his 30th birthday this July, realises that any world championship aspirations won’t be the work of a moment. What would constitute a good year for the seven-time Grand Prix winner? Defeating teammate Nico Hulkenberg over the course of the season and helping a rebuilding Renault maintain that fourth place in the teams’ chase, while narrowing the gap to F1’s ‘big three’ teams? Neither of them easy tasks, but neither out of reach either. There’ll be a lot of eyes on Ricciardo this season, and not just at his home season-opener at Albert Park.
2. Red Bull’s marriage with Honda
Max Verstappen is fast enough, experienced enough, combative enough and blessed with that ‘it’ factor that leaves few in any doubt that he could win a world championship before too long. He’s won races in each of the past three seasons, and from the mid-point of last year onwards, only Hamilton had his measure as the Dutchman finished six of the final seven races on the podium. Can that translate to a title push in his third full season with Red Bull Racing?
The team’s new partnership with Honda will largely answer that question; there’s huge optimism on both sides after Honda worked with Toro Rosso last year after switching from McLaren, and Red Bull has been making plenty of positive noises about the Japanese manufacturer’s engines in the lead-up to testing.
Lap times in the pre-season won’t tell us everything, but an early display of speed and reliability will have the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari looking over their shoulders, and the rest of us wondering what a championship battle that features Verstappen from the jump will look like.
1. New look, new rules, same results?
More simplified front and rear wings for 2019 will, at a very basic level, make it easier for cars to follow one another and cars behind not being so susceptible to the turbulent air being generated from the one in front, therefore aiding overtaking. The wider, deeper front wings represent, to Williams’ technical boss Paddy Lowe at least, the biggest aerodynamic change to the sport since 2009.
We have three rookies (Lando Norris at McLaren, Alexander Albon at Toro Rosso and Russell at Williams, plus a near-rookie in Sauber’s two-race ‘veteran’ Antonio Giovinazzi), two returnees (Kubica and Daniil Kvyat at STR) and race-winners like Ricciardo (Renault) and Raikkonen (Sauber) switching squads between seasons. There’s a lot of flux, but will any of it matter?
Hamilton and Mercedes will hope not, and the 34-year-old comes into 2019 within sight of two of the sport’s records that were thought to be untouchable – the seven world championships and 91 race wins achieved by Michael Schumacher in his glittering career. Hamilton has five of the former and 73 of the latter; he’s just 18 victories behind the German great, and has won 20 races across the past two seasons. Seeing who, if anyone, steps up to stifle his steamrolling of F1’s record books promises to be THE storyline to follow in 2019.