Nico Rosberg has tipped former Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton to scoop a sixth Formula One world title this year – although he believes some subtle regulation changes could lead to a few surprises.
Hamilton won eight of the final 11 races as he collected his fifth world crown last year, equalling Juan Manuel Fangio’s haul and moving to within two of Michael Schumacher’s record.
Rosberg, the last driver to get the better of Hamilton in 2016 before promptly retiring, expects the likes of Sebastian Vettel and new Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen to be strong contenders.
But speaking ahead of the Laureus World Sports Awards, the German suspects his old rival, who begins pre-season testing at Barcelona on Monday, will reign supreme once more.
“Lewis is the absolute favourite again because he’s driving incredibly lately and his team does an incredible job,” Rosberg said.
“He’s one of the most successful F1 drivers of all time, one of the most successful sportsmen of all time.
“I think the odds are in his favour then Sebastian is the obvious challenger. But I would also, if I was a betting man, say Leclerc or Verstappen because I think both of them can be a big, big surprise this year.”
There have been some technical tweaks in the off-season, which includes teams having a new front wing design that F1 bosses hope will lead to tighter races.
Rosberg said: “There’s a huge opportunity for things to switch around this year. Maybe suddenly Red Bull is the team to beat, that’s possible.
“It’s really put everything back in time and everybody has to start from scratch again, it’s really exciting because nobody knows where the teams are going to be.”
Rosberg thinks the pressure may be on compatriot Vettel this season after finishing runner-up to Hamilton for a second successive year.
Vettel has been the undisputed main man at Ferrari since switching to the Italian marque four years ago but he has failed to add to the four world titles he won at Red Bull.
A series of uncharacteristic errors undermined his efforts last year and, with highly-rated Leclerc now his team-mate, Rosberg believes his former rival needs to deliver.
Rosberg added: “The Mercedes car was the best car in all those years, except maybe for the last time where it might have been equal.
“In all the years, Sebastian is still one of the best drivers out there, he just had a poor season last year and made a lot of mistakes but the team also made a lot of mistakes.
“It was a joint effort and they all did bad, that can happen, but they need to turn it around this year.
“If Sebastian does a season like last year then Leclerc will end up in front of him at the end of the year. Sebastian needs to nail it this year.”
The Laureus World Sports Awards celebrate the most remarkable men and women from the world of sport along with their achievements from the previous calendar year. The Awards also showcase the work of Laureus Sport for Good, a charity which uses the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage.
On Monday morning, Alfa Romeo became the last of Formula One‘s 10 teams to roll out their new challenger for the forthcoming season.
As the opening running of the winter gets under way at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, Press Association Sport takes a closer look at the machines that will be on track in 2019.
Lewis Hamilton will be bidding to move to within one world championship of Michael Schumacher’s record haul of seven this year. The 34-year-old British star will again be partnered by Valtteri Bottas for a third straight season.
Mercedes, the reigning five-time constructors’ champions, teased an all-new camo look on social media ahead of their launch, but they will continue to run their car in traditional silver, complimented by flicks of aqua.
Under new management for 2019 after Maurizio Arrivabene was sacked, with Mattia Binotto hired as team principal, Ferrari are aiming to win their first drivers’ title since 2007.
Kimi Raikkonen was the last man to win the championship for the Scuderia, but he has been assigned to Sauber, as the highly-rated Charles Leclerc moves in the opposite direction to join Sebastian Vettel.
The Italian team will sport a new matte paint job on the car they have called the SF90, to reflect their 90th anniversary this year.
Max Verstappen will take lead of Red Bull this year following Daniel Ricciardo’s surprise switch to Renault. Young Frenchman Pierre Gasly is promoted from Toro Rosso to join the Dutchman.
Red Bull unveiled a striking limited-edition livery last week, featuring more red than usual. But, the former world champions have reverted to their customary dark blue livery, with flicks of yellow and red, for the start of testing.
Ricciardo has taken the gamble to join Renault this year, and teams up with German Nico Hulkenberg.
The French manufacturer have moved steadily up the grid since they returned as a standalone constructor in 2016, but are yet to secure a podium finish. The outfit will continue to race in yellow and black this season.
The American team have taken on a new title sponsor – teaming up with the British fizzy drinks manufacturer Rich Energy – and have adapted their livery accordingly.
Racing in black and gold this year, Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will extend their partnership into a third season.
Teenager Lando Norris will become the youngest British driver in F1 history when he makes his debut at the season-opening race in Melbourne next month.
The 19-year-old joins forces with Spaniard Carlos Sainz in a new-look partnership for a McLaren team bidding to reverse their recent poor fortunes.
The British-based team have a new name for 2019 following last summer’s takeover. Force India is out, and Racing Point is in.
Canadian fashion billionaire, Lawrence Stroll, led the buyout and his son, Lance, has followed him from Williams. Stroll will race alongside Mexican Sergio Perez as the team continue with their predominantly pink paint job.
Alfa Romeo is the second fresh name on the grid this season after their Sauber takeover.
Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion, and Antonio Giovinazzi will race for the re-branded outfit this year.
Giuseppe Farina won F1’s first world championship driving an Alfa Romeo in 1950, before Juan Manuel Fangio claimed the first of his five titles racing for the Italian car manufacturer a season later.
Alexander Albon, who was raised in London but races under the Thailand flag, joins the returning Russian Daniil Kvyat for Red Bull’s junior outfit, Toro Rosso, this year.
Albon finished third, behind British drivers George Russell and Norris, in last season’s Formula Two series, the feeder championship to F1.
The British team have dropped their traditional navy-blue colours for a fresh paint job in a move deputy team principal Claire Williams hopes will usher in a new era for the struggling outfit.
The Williams cars will run a sky-blue-and-white colour scheme with English rookie Russell and Pole Robert Kubica, back in F1 for the first time since 2010 following his horror rally crash, at the wheel.
Williams have been forced to withdraw from the opening day of Formula One pre-season testing because their car is not ready.
The British team were due to be among the sport’s 10 outfits to hit the track at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya on Monday for the opening winter running.
But in a blow to the team, which last year finished rooted to the foot of the constructors’ championship, Claire Williams has revealed they will only be watching from the sidelines.
The Williams deputy team principal said: “Unfortunately, we have had to delay the start of our pre-season Barcelona test to Tuesday morning.
“We have had an incredibly busy winter at Grove getting the FW42 prepared for the season ahead and, despite everyone’s best efforts, we need some more time before it will be ready to run.
“Our absolute priority is to always ensure we bring a car to the track that is the best that it can be and sometimes that takes longer than you’d anticipate or like. It’s clearly not ideal, but equally it’s not the end of the world.
“We will obviously have our work cut out to recover the time lost but we still have seven days of testing left and we will be maximising that time to prepare the car for the first race.”
British rookie George Russell, who celebrated his 21st birthday on Friday, and the returning Robert Kubica will now be playing catch-up for a team bidding to bounce back from last season’s miserable campaign.
The first pre-season takes place over four days before a second four-day test the following week. The new campaign starts in Melbourne on March 17.