Hamilton ready to shine, Vettel vs Leclerc and other talking points ahead of new F1 season

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Lewis Hamilton is bidding to become the second driver in Formula One history to win six world championships.

The 34-year-old, who last season beat Sebastian Vettel to the title with two rounds to spare, will move to within one of Michael Schumacher’s record if he triumphs again this term.

Here, we look at the key talking points ahead of the new season which gets underway in Australia this weekend.

Contrasting times at Mercedes

Hamilton, who will be partnered by Valtteri Bottas again this year, won 11 times in 2018 and looked a class apart from Vettel for large spells of the season.

Ferrari and Vettel may have enjoyed steady progress in pre-season testing, but Hamilton is still the man to beat, especially with his dominance on circuits like Texas, Suzuka, Montreal, Monza, Silverstone and Hungary.

Bottas, meanwhile, was winless last season and is out of contract at the end of 2019. The Finn could only manage fifth in drivers standings last season – in the fastest car – and if he does not secure some race victories this campaign, then expect him to be replaced by Mercedes development driver Esteban Ocon.

Options will be limited for Bottas if he has to relinquish his seat at the end of the year and could even mean a move back to the slow Williams where he’ll just be another passenger in the championship.

Leclerc versus Vettel

The four-time world champion is fighting for his reputation this season, especially given how he crumbled in the title race last year.

And, in new teammate Charles Leclerc, Ferrari possess the most talented young star on the grid. The Monaco man purred with confidence in his first year in F1 with Sauber and has the chance to really put pressure on Vettel.

The 20-year-old said he wants to challenge for the title, but whether he lives up to that in just his second season in the sport, will be fascinating to watch.

With Mattia Binotto replacing Maurizio Arrivabene as the new Ferrari boss, it will be interesting to see how the Italian manages both drivers. Vettel will inevitably be the number one, but will they let Leclerc challenge for race wins? Will he even be good enough in just his second season? Or will the former Sauber man be forced to play a wingman role so Vettel can challenge Hamilton?

Without a constructors championship win since 2008, the pressure is on both drivers to overturn Mercedes’ dominance.

Can Verstappen finally challenge the big two?

The Dutchman has been touted as a future world championship for three years now.

But talent and ambition can only bring you so far. The 21-year-old needs a quick and reliable car to take him to the next level.

In 2017 and 2018 seasons, he was forced to retire four and two times respectively, due to issues with the Renault engine.

After splitting with the French manufacturer, Red Bull looked to have made significant strides with the new Honda engine during pre-season testing and the overall package appears tasty.

Verstappen wants to race at the front, but if Red Bull cannot provide him with a winning car, then expect him to be angling for a move away when his contract expires in 2020. Surely there will be a vacant Mercedes or Ferrari then with both teams hungry for his signature?

If the Red Bull delivers, he should be in the mix for most races against Hamilton and Vettel.

It won’t be plain sailing for Ricciardo

Daniel Ricciardo emerged as one of the sport’s most likeable figures over the past couple of seasons – but he has looked low on confidence since winning the Monaco Grand Prix in May.

At that point of last season, Mercedes and Ferrari were circling for his signature, but he ended up signing a long-term deal with Renault – a team who have not secured a podium since the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2011.

His move from a championship-contending team like Red Bull to Renault means no guarantee of success, especially with his new teammate Nico Hulkenberg producing some solid performances last season and still unable to threaten a top four finish.

Without a podium since May, it’s highly unlikely Ricciardo will end that drought in the Renault. For all his class, he is stepping into a slower machine, and will definitely be challenged, if not toppled, by Hulkenberg.

The German stormed to 11 top-10s in 2018 and will be licking his lips at the opportunity to tackle a driver with Ricciardo’s reputation. Expect this to be a close battle.

Young guns to shine

Lando Norris (19), George Russell (21) and Alexander Albon (22) will be new names on the grid this season.

Norris will be the youngest British driver in F1 history when the new season kicks off this weekend. The Bristol man, who does not turn 20 until November, joins forces with Carlos Sainz at McLaren in what will be an exciting partnership.

At Williams, Formula 2 champion Russell will link up with Robert Kubica, who returns to the sport after an eight-year absence following his crash at a rally event in Andorra in 2011.

Albon, who was born in London but races under the Thai flag, finished third in the Formula 2 standings last season, behind Norris and Russell, and will partner Daniel Kvyat at Toro Rosso.

Out of the young guns, Norris looks set to make the biggest impact in the McLaren, while Russell, for all his talents, will be hoping to use his opportunity in the Williams to gain experience and put himself in the shop window for an improved switch in the future.

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Lewis Hamilton believes Ferrari are in control ahead of new season

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Lewis Hamilton believes rivals Ferrari hold all the aces as Britain’s five-time Formula One world champion gears up for the biggest battle of his career.

The 34-year-old Mercedes star will head to Melbourne a week on Sunday to begin his quest for a remarkable sixth world championship, and move to within just one title triumph of Michael Schumacher’s record haul.

Hamilton, who is now earning a staggering £40million-a-season, delivered a superb campaign in 2018 to close out his fourth championship in five years and see off Sebastian Vettel’s error-prone challenge with two rounds to spare.

Yet Vettel’s Ferrari team have emerged from Formula One’s winter hibernation boasting the fastest car.

Indeed, Hamilton fears the Prancing Horse could gallop out of the starting gates at Albert Park on March 17 with an advantage of up to half-a-second a lap. A fast mile in motor racing terminology.

Last year, Hamilton won 11 of the 21 rounds, excelling in a Mercedes car which was not always the cream of the crop.

And the Stevenage-born driver knows all too well that he will have to dip into the top drawer if he is to write another chapter of grand prix history in 2019.

“Last season, there were many occasions where we were behind on performance so we had to overachieve with our delivery,” said Hamilton.

“Now we have to reach even further than we’ve done before.

“You have to be careful in that scenario because it could push you over the edge and you can make faults but we don’t mind a challenge. We love a fight and it just means that we have to work harder.

“When you start two or three steps ahead it is easier to keep at least one step in front.

“But I am not worried or disappointed. We have a hill to climb. We know how to do it, so it is just about being diligent, taking no shortcuts and bringing even more performance. There is no reward for going quick in testing. What matters is that we are fast in Melbourne.”

Hamilton’s pragmatic approach is evidence of his ease on track – leading a Mercedes team this year bidding to create history with a sixth consecutive team-and-driver double – and his ease away from the circuit, too, as he navigates his way around the globe promoting his Tommy Hilfiger clothing range.

Yet, there will be cause for concern at Mercedes, for they can no longer draw on a huge performance advantage which has enabled them to reign supreme in F1’s recent engine-dominated era.

Ferrari have caught up and they had the machinery to win both championships last year, but driver errors by Vettel and strategic mistakes by his team proved their downfall.

Now there is new management at Maranello and with it renewed hope. Maurizio Arrivabene was sacked as team principal and replaced by Mattia Binotto.

Vettel has a fresh, exuberant team-mate in the highly-regarded Charles Leclerc, aged only 21 but thought of by the Italians as a world champion in the making.

Kimi Raikkonen remains the last driver to win a title for Ferrari, 12 years ago, while it has been more than a decade since the famous team last lifted the constructors’ trophy.

But will the Scuderia finally end their silverware drought in 2019?

“We have all the ingredients,” said Vettel, the four-time world champion.

“In previous years, maybe we didn’t put everything 100 per cent together. So, there’s always room for improvement.

“We know what it needs to succeed, but it only really matters when we find ourselves in that position again, and that’s what we are working towards.”

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How Ferrari, Mercedes and other teams fared during F1 pre-season testing

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Ferrari backed up its early promise in pre-season testing by ending the second week at Barcelona a comfortable favourite for the start of the new Formula One season.

With teams packing up and heading home before the opening race in Australia on March 17, the evidence from eight days at Circuit de Catulunya suggested the Prancing Horse boast superior pace to champions Mercedes.

With the first race of the season set to get under way in two weeks, we take a look at how each team fared in Spain.

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc

Laps completed: 997

The speed of the Scuderia was impressive over the past two weeks and the Italian marque look to have made a considerable jump again from this time 12 months ago. They have no issue clocking up the laps, with Vettel setting a new lap record on the final day – a stunning 1:16:221. But whether they can continue to carry this form into Melbourne and beyond remains to be seen. With Vettel determined to atone for last season’s errors and Leclerc eager to prove his class, the foundations are built for a fantastic championship battle.

Drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas
Laps completed: 1,190

Victims of their own high standards at times. The Silver Arrow completed 1,190 laps over the two weeks – a total of 18 grand prix distances – and introduced a heavily revised aerodynamic package for week two. In terms of performance, they are not too far behind Ferrari, but finished firmly second. Hamilton was just 0:00:003 seconds off Vettel’s fastest lap and believes he’ll make more progress by sifting through the data and seeing what improvements are needed before March 17. Ferrari look to have gained strong understanding of their machines, but the Mercedes technical team have shown before how well they can respond to challenges.

Drivers: Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly
Laps completed: 833

One of the enigmas of testing. With Verstappen restricted to just 29 laps on the final day due to gearbox failure and Gasly crashing out, they were unable to push the new Renault engine to the absolute limit. Small errors that cost the team valuable track time to collect data and information. And despite Verstappen finishing fifth slowest, he should still be threatening for a podium finish come Australia. Overall, Red Bull have made significant strides with the new engine and the package looks tasty. A positive start.

Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg
Laps completed: 961

The French manufacturer made promising gains on the engine side, but need to be more consistent on speed. If Renault can prioritise its power unit development then they could push for a first podium since the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2011. Hulkenberg himself finished fifth fastest for the entire test, just behind Mercedes and Ferrari drivers. And in Ricciardo, they possess a driver with buckets of experience at the front of the grid from his halcyon days at Red Bull. An exciting partnership who can bring glory back to Oxfordshire.

Drivers: Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen
Laps completed: 871

Very impressive package and flying below the radar ahead of the new campaign. In terms of pace, the car looked really sharp, with only a few tenths separating them from their other midfield rivals. The American outfit finished seventh in the standings for laps completed. They produced positive performance on the final day, which saw them amass 167 laps, and Magnussen set a personal best time of 1:17:565. Should challenge at the top of the midfield.

Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi 
Laps completed: 922

Hit their potential in week one, extracting more from the package, but levelled off as the days progressed. The car doesn’t look perfect on track, but the drivers are positive, with Raikkonen’s time of 1:17:239 ranked 13th best across the two weeks. There is good development potential and should aim to be best of the rest this year.

Drivers: Daniil Kvyat and Alexander Albon
Laps completed: 935

A lot of changes behind the scenes for Toro Rosso with technical director James Key leaving for McLaren. Should start reasonable well despite rear end limitations. Albon and Kvyat impressed with sixth and seventh fastest times respectively.

Drivers: Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll
Laps completed: 625

A vanilla car. It wasn’t a convincing showing in Spain and not a huge amount of pace was recorded either. But then again if it is just about learning the ropes first, then they should be encouraged. They have an excellent technical team so there should be plenty to build on as the season wears on.

Drivers: Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz
Laps completed: 873

The car looks a little unstable, but the Woking team completed more laps over the two weeks in Barcelona than they ever managed before. In fact, they even topped the time-sheets on two of the eight days with Sainz finishing seventh quickest overall.

Drivers: George Russell and Robert Kubica
Laps completed: 567

Appear to be struggling after missing the first two days of testing. They were slow to get going and were missing car parts – completing just 567 laps – half the number recorded by Mercedes. To highlight how far behind they are, Russell’s best lap was three tenths of a second slower than Lance Stroll’s 1:17:556 at Racing Point. Kubica also admitted he knows only 20 per cent of the things he should know about the car ahead of Melbourne Grand Prix. It’s a long road ahead.

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