After years of the technical side of Formula 1 dominating headlines in the build-up to a new season, this coming year it is all about the drivers as only two of the 10 teams retain this year’s line-up.
Although it was another season of Lewis Hamilton versus Sebastian Vettel, which, let’s be honest, was always and only a two-driver race, Formula 1 is expecting new players involved in next year’s title fight.
Two could become four as next year heralds the arrival of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc to the championship battle as F1’s young guns prepare to overthrow the old guard.
Honda to boost F1’s title race
F1’s switch to V6 engines in 2013 signalled the beginning of the Mercedes era, with five championship doubles on the trot.
First it was Mercedes versus Mercedes as Hamilton and Nico Rosberg raced wheel-to-wheel, and then it was Mercedes versus Ferrari as Vettel became a genuine contender.
The German, though, was not able to stop the Mercedes juggernaut as Hamilton put in a stellar second half this year to race away with the world title, while Vettel and Ferrari imploded.
It has raised the question: Can anyone stop Mercedes?
The answer, or at least the hope, is that Verstappen can.
Red Bull’s switch to Honda power, having opted to drop Renault after 12 years of success and disappointment, is being touted as the best thing since sliced bread, at least for Red Bull.
The Milton Keynes squad is adamant it will be the difference in next year’s title quest, which Helmut Marko has said must end with a title.
“We have been planning for the title,” said the Red Bull adviser. “The Honda engine already has more horsepower than the Renault. And what’s coming should be enough so that we can be on our own in the front.”
It is what fans, even Hamilton fans, want to see and what Formula 1 desperately needs to ignite the passion in a new generation of spectators.
Verstappen versus Hamilton versus Ferrari. It could be the stuff of legends – if Honda delivers.
New partnerships, new battles
Next year will bring some of the most hotly anticipated team-mate tussles as Leclerc takes on Vettel, Verstappen is up against Pierre Gasly and three Formula 2 drivers step up.
Although Mercedes have retained Hamilton and his “wingman” Valtteri Bottas, Ferrari have taken the gamble of putting young upstart Leclerc in the car. The Monegasque driver, at 21, will be the youngest driver in more than three decades to race for Ferrari.
Leclerc dominated the experienced Marcus Ericsson in his debut campaign with Sauber, scoring more points than any Sauber debutant has managed in a decade, and wasn’t afraid to race wheel-to-wheel with the legends of the sport, even taking on Fernando Alonso on several occasions.
His pure pace was again clear for everyone to see in the post-season Abu Dhabi test, where Leclerc made his debut as an official Ferrari driver. While Vettel set the pace on day one, last year’s GP2 champion bettered that by four-tenths on day two.
But he wasn’t the only newbie to get the better of his team-mate, with Gasly edging Verstappen.
All the talk in the preseason may be about Leclerc versus Vettel, but Gasly against Verstappen is also one to watch. The Frenchman made it clear this year that he’s not willing to roll over for a team-mate, even in the face of team orders, much to the dismay of the now axed Brendon Hartley.
The New Zealander was angered when Gasly blatantly told Toro Rosso he wasn’t willing to adhere to orders to move over for his team-mate in Brazil.
If that’s any indication of what is to come, it promises to be a feisty season at Red Bull as Verstappen isn’t one to back down either – just ask Esteban Ocon.
Daniel Ricciardo’s move to Renault, although not expected to yield race wins, will be the placing of yet more building blocks for the French manufacturer, similar to that of Carlos Sainz’s switch to McLaren.
Lance Stroll has joined Force India (thanks, Dad) and Kimi Räikkönen is returning to Sauber, where he will partner rookie driver Antonio Giovinazzi.
Formula 2 promotions
Then there is the arrival of three Formula 2 drivers on to this year’s grid – George Russell, Lando Norris and Alexander Albon. All three have shown their class in the junior series and were the top three in this year’s F2 championship, taking 12 wins between them.
The trio will have a hard time to even reach the podium, though, as Russell has joined the struggling Williams team, Norris is racing for the recovering McLaren outfit and Albon is with Toro Rosso.
The return of Robert Kubica
Robert Kubica is one of two drivers returning to the Formula 1 grid, but, while Daniil Kvyat has only been out of the sport for a year, Kubica has not raced since 2010, months before suffering life-threatening injuries in a rally crash.
Cleared by Renault to contest the Ronde di Andora rally, the Pole lost control of his Škoda and crashed into a guard rail. Having suffered a partial amputation of his right forearm, he spent months in recovery, adjusting to the limitations of his arm injury.
While his first foray back into racing was in rallying, Kubica tested a Renault F1 car last year before more tests. A trial with Williams landed him their reserve drive role this year. A year later and he is returning to the grid, racing for Williams.
But while the Grove team, who know a lot more than the rest of us, insist they have no doubts about Kubica’s ability to contest all 21 grands prix, perhaps the most coveted test driver seat is that of Nicholas Latifi’s at Williams.
Either way, come 4.10pm local time in Melbourne on March 17, one of the most heart-warming sporting stories in history will unfold.
Minor technical changes, big impact?
The sport’s technical side hasn’t been left completely untouched as new wings come into play next season.
Wider, simpler front wings, as well as deeper and wider rear wings, will be introduced to make it easier for cars to follow and, the hope is, easier to pass.
Added to that, the front brake duct has also been simplified with winglets banned.
Ross Brawn and the rest of Liberty Media are hoping it will produce a better show, but F1’s technical bosses aren’t too sure.
“Driving behind a car will not be any easier,” Force India technical boss Andy Green told Auto Motor und Sport.
And Toro Rosso chief Franz Tost said his team’s brains trust “do not believe overtaking will become much easier.” – TEAMtalk Media