Changes tend to happen slowly in Formula One’s modern era, but one thing for certain is that Lewis Hamilton should clinch a sixth world title this season.
The Briton is operating in a class of his own at the top of the championship in recent years, as proven by his stunning 2018 campaign, when he won 11 times.
It can be argued that Sebastian Vettel’s errors effectively gifted him his the last two crowns, but then another side of it is, pressure was on both drivers, and Hamilton just purred with dominance, whereas Vettel buckled under the intensity of it.
It may not be until he retires that the Formula One public fully appreciate Hamilton as a driver. He’s different. He keeps to himself, rarely mixes with other competitors, has different interests, and enjoys the limelight more than any other person on the grid.
Whether that’s what people like about him or not, it doesn’t take away from his searing abilities on the track.
At 34, he has already cemented his status as one of the all-time greats after landing a fifth world championship in October – becoming just the third driver in history to do so – and should remain at the pinnacle of the sport until he chooses to retire.
He looked like a Gulliver in a field of Lilliputians at races in Germany, Hungary, Italy and Singapore last season – sometimes capitalising on Vettel’s mistakes and generally just driving the maximum out of a sizzling Mercedes car.
In the final drivers standings in 2018, the Stevenage native finished a staggering 161 points ahead of his teammate Valtteri Bottas. Another key point to underline how strong of a campaign he had, especially when his teammate drives the same machine.
The Finn will play second fiddle to Hamilton yet again, but will be expected to improve on his disappointing 2018 season or risk losing his seat at the end of 2019.
A new season beckons this weekend in Melbourne. In 2018, Vettel took advantage of the virtual safety car to beat Hamilton in the opening race.
And with Ferrari backing up its early season promise in pre-season testing, it is set up to be a thrilling season opener.
It is certain we will see signs of that Scuderia pace early on, but whether the Italian marque can carry it through the entire season remains to be seen. With Vettel determined to atone for last season’s errors and Charles Leclerc eager to prove his vast talents, the foundations are built for a fantastic championship battle.
Hamilton is at the peak of his powers and knows he is inching towards further history, but Vettel will be relishing the prospect of a more consistent title challenge in what looks like a pacy and well-balanced SF90 machine.
But the car can only count for so much, and this is where the confidence and composure to deal with pressure situations comes into the mix. It’s a long, gruelling season of 21 races, and like 2017 and 2018, the championship pendulum will swing in different directions for various spells of the year.
The second half of the season tends to suit Hamilton better, so Vettel needs to build up a commanding lead early on or try match him in races where he has previously been unsuccessful. On tracks like Russia, Austria and France, the German is yet to win.
It will be a season that captures our attention and imagination for many months ahead, but Hamilton is that once in a generation driver, and should have enough brilliance to scoop a coveted sixth crown that will see him move within one of the legendary Michael Schumacher’s record.
It all starts in Melbourne this weekend.
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.
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.”