Cast your mind back to March last year and Mercedes’ one-two in Melbourne. As we all know, it became a familiar sight. Valtteri Bottas may have eventually ceded the throne to Lewis Hamilton, but the Finn’s win in Australia was perhaps the only surprise in a F1 season threatening to become painfully predictable. Indeed, five races on, same result. The only thing left to ponder was which Mercedes driver would make the podium first.
But then we had the Austrian Grand Prix in June. Finally, as Hamilton finished a wayward fifth and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull beat Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari, the competition felt alive again. It’s this result – one of a handful in which Hamilton’s dominance was fleetingly checked – that makes us optimistically ponder what’s to come in 2020.
A Three-Horse Race
Could we see Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull drivers all fighting for the championship in 2020? We know the Ferraris have got the straight-line speed, Red Bull has got the driver and an updated Honda engine, and Mercedes have got the confidence of another successful year and a driver hungry to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of seven championships.
The biggest questions aren’t about whether Mercedes will come back just as strong in 2020 but rather if its chief rivals can find the consistency to mount a title challenge. Perhaps Red Bull flattered to deceive last year, but it found extra pace in Austria and subsequently saw Verstappen score three victories.
Helmut Marko, a Red Bull advisor who has been watching the Milton Keynes-based team in pre-season development, says Honda has successfully increased the power of its engine, so attention is on the chassis and how Red Bull’s designers can unlock the car’s full potential. We know, given reliability and speed, Verstappen has the talent to win Grand Prix.
Ferrari Has No Excuses
Ex-F1 star Mark Webber isn’t the only former driver turned pundit to think Ferrari will at least challenge for the constructor’s championship in 2020. In fact, he says the Scuderia are going to win it. Lawrence Barretto, a senior writer at formula1.com, even went as far as to say “Ferrari will win the most races”.
It’s telling that former team boss Stefano Domenicali recognised in October last year that Ferrari weren’t far away from being genuine title challengers. His comments to PlanetF1.com might have come only a few weeks after the Scuderia enjoyed a one-two in Singapore, but with Hamilton having all but secured the championship with a win in the following race, Domenicali saw many positives.
He noted Leclerc was showing a maturity beyond his years, putting him in the same bracket as Hamilton at the same stage of his career, and lauded the development of the car. “I believe they will have a fantastic chance in 2020,” he enthused.
And Ferrari is showing all the signs that it’s prepared to put the investment in to make it happen. It has built a new simulator to help with the design of the 2020 car, hoping it can harness its superior power and straight-line speed with better time efficiency in medium-speed corners. Overhauling both the engine and aerodynamics of last year’s SF90, Mattia Binotto conceded the 2020 edition won’t “be as fast on the straight as we have been,” but that through significant improvements to the power unit, this year’s car will be quicker overall.
Mercedes Still Rightly Confident
In sport, nothing is certain. But what we do know is Lewis Hamilton will be fighting as if his life depends on it to win a seventh world title. His dominance in recent years – only really challenged by Nico Rosberg in 2016 – has not tempered his competitive spirit. His New Year’s message to his team via Instagram was to thank them for their efforts adding that it was a time to “celebrate the end of 2019 and come back fighting for 2020”. Not even the throes of a New Year’s party can stop the Brit icon from contemplating his next race.
There’s no reason not to feel that sense of positivity running throughout Mercedes. Hamilton’s favourite to win outright with the bookies, and this is, after all, a team that saw its drivers win 15 out of 21 Grand Prix on its way to a record-equalling sixth constructors’ championship in a row. And with Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world titles in sight, the incentive is there for Hamilton to cement his legacy as one of F1’s greatest drivers.
And having two elite drivers on its books means Mercedes can be confident of keeping the Ferrari and Red Bull threat at bay. Certainly, Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas will be out to prove his strong showing in 2019 was not a flash in the pan.
A Lot To Look Forward To
Unless you’re the most devoted Lewis Hamilton fan, a competitive, close-run championship race is what everyone wants. With an eye on radical new changes coming into play in 2021, this season will not only prove to be more tightly contested than last season, but it may be the last time we see this set of drivers racing for this set of teams.
Amidst the midfield battles (and a potential fiery powerplay between new Renault driver Esteban Ocon and teammate Daniel Ricciardo), sophomore season for talented young drivers (Alex Albon, Lando Norris and George Russell), and the addition of two new tracks (a return to Zandvoort in Holland with its superfast banked corners and F1’s first outing in Vietnam at the Hanoi Circuit), 2020 is gearing up to be an exciting year.
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