Formula One mixes it up with lots of newbies on the block and some oldies wanting to prove they still have it.
With Formula One preseason testing now well and truly out of the way, attention shifts to this year’s first grand prix at the Albert Park Street Circuit in Melbourne, Australia, this weekend.
The 5.303km track has played host to the opening round of the championship since 1996, with the exception of just two seasons. A street circuit by nature, the track shares many characteristics with purpose-built venues – notably the large number of run-off areas around the track.
This season heralds a changing of the guard for Formula One, with the rise of the next generation of racing drivers in full swing. Charles Leclerc (21) makes the step up to Ferrari after a standout campaign with Sauber last year, and Pierre Gasly (23) has been promoted to the senior Red Bull team to replace Daniel Ricciardo.
Thai-British driver Alex Albon (22) joins Toro Rosso and two new UK drivers, Lando Norris (18) and George Russell (21), make their debuts for McLaren and Williams, respectively.
New aerodynamic regulations also come into effect this year. Simplified front-wing structures and wider rear-wings have been implemented as a way to aid the ability to overtake.
The rule changes were pushed through after widespread criticism of the state of racing from fans and teams alike, who claimed cars could no longer follow one another and overtake because of the complex designs of the machines.
The rule changes could increase the competitiveness of the grid. Preseason testing suggests the gap between Mercedes and Ferrari has all but vanished, and defending champion Lewis Hamilton believes Ferrari has caught up with his Mercedes team.
“I think they have the fastest car at the moment. It will be our biggest battle and it is a huge challenge to make up the gap,” he said.
In one of the last sessions of testing in Barcelona, Ferrari’s four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel ploughed into the barrier after having an issue with the front left corner, forcing his team to fix the car and so losing out on several hours of testing.
But it is not only Hamilton who the German should fear as he could be challenged by Leclerc, who is considered to be a rising star.
“Charles will be very fast. I have no doubt about that. I expect him to learn very fast,” said Vettel.
Leclerc, who Vettel described as a “nice kid”, said: “I prepared as well as I could over this past winter. Physically and mentally, it is a huge challenge. I have much to learn.”
Behind Ferrari and Mercedes, teams look more closely bunched together than ever before.
One team that is likely to struggle though is Williams. Its torrid season last year meant it finished 10th – and last – in the Constructors’ Championship for the first time.
Early form suggests this year will be no better. Issues at its Oxfordshire factory meant its car wasn’t ready in time for the start of preseason testing. It missed the first two and a half days and was on the back foot before it even got going, with debutant Russell managing just 48 laps in week one.
One story to watch out for is the return of Robert Kubica, who is back in Formula One after eight years. A horrific injury sustained during a rallying crash in early 2011 seemingly ended his motor racing career, but he’s making his comeback with the Williams team.
As the teams begin their preparations for Australia, excitement naturally builds for the new season to finally get under way.
As much as the preseason can shed some light on the pecking order, and who’s looking hot and who’s not, the first race of the season gives a true glimpse of what the season holds.
The Albert Park track, while fast and flowing, is notoriously difficult to overtake on, so the rule changes should lend themselves nicely to the quality of racing on offer.
Last year’s race saw just five overtakes completed throughout the 58 laps. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen described the grand prix as “worthless” in an interview with Autosport.
It is hoped, and expected, that this year’s running will see an increase in those numbers.
The fight at the front of the grid looks set to be the closest on offer for several years.
At the end of testing in Barcelona, Ferrari’s Vettel edged the Mercedes of reigning champion Hamilton by just 0.003s on the time sheets.
With Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas looking for redemption after a dismal season last year, and Leclerc looking to upset his four-time champion team-mate, expect a closely fought battle for the win.