No major surprises are expected when Formula 1 returns to action this weekend at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.
With a comprehensive rules rethink on the way for the 2021 season, teams are playing it safe, refining their existing designs and not embarking on radical rethinks that could be made irrelevant in less than two years’ time.
So the signs are looking very good for Lewis Hamilton, who sets off in pursuit of a sixth world title this season. There is reason to believe he could come under more pressure from Ferrari than in previous years, however.
The Italian squad fired its polarising team principal Maurizio Arrivabene in January, promoting former technical director Mattia Binotto to replace him. It also has a very fast new driver in the form of Charles Leclerc, fresh from an impressive debut season with Sauber and ready to push Sebastian Vettel much harder than Kimi Raikkonen ever did.
Elsewhere, there’s the possibility of a title challenge from a more mature and focused Max Verstappen at Red Bull, and the question of what his former team-mate Daniel Ricciardo can do at the well-resourced Renault squad.
If you want to follow the action live, a Sky Sports subscription is a must, with Channel 4 having only highlights this year – save for the British Grand Prix in July, which it’ll show live.
McLaren’s road to recovery
The 2018 season was supposed to be a fresh start for McLaren, with the Woking team having switched to Renault engines instead of the Hondas that had proven so troublesome since that partnership began in 2015.
A promising start in Australia saw Fernando Alonso finish fifth, but it became clear the new engine was not a ‘silver bullet’ fix, and a management restructure was announced.
Out went racing director Eric Boullier and several other senior figures. In came former IndyCar driver Gil de Ferran as sporting director to work alongside CEO Zak Brown. And towards the end of 2018, two other big-name signings were made: ex-Porsche Le Mans boss Andreas Seidl and highly rated former Toro Rosso technical director James Key.
It’s all change in the cockpit for 2019, too. With Fernando Alonso focusing on the World Endurance Championship and Indianapolis 500 and Stoffel Vandoorne departing for Mercedes’ Formula E project, Formula 2 ace Lando Norris and rising star Carlos Sainz Jr have been recruited.
Expectations are high, then, but management struck a note of humility and realism at the season launch event.
“We’ve tried to come together as a team, collaborate better and meet every challenge,” said de Ferran. “The key thing is to stay humble and focus on the job at hand.”
Brown rejected suggestions that 2019 is a ‘now or never’ year for McLaren, stating: “The racing team is going to be around a long time. But this is a very important year for us to show a big step forward. When we changed engine, we were a bit overexcited about how quick we’d return to the front. We got that wrong, so we looked in the mirror to understand why, and made a lot of changes, structural and operational. This is an important year to show progress.”
One of the biggest issues facing McLaren is that it’s under pressure from two directions. It faces a struggle to match the huge spending power of the Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull ‘Big Three’, while also coming under pressure from smaller teams like Haas and Toro Rosso, which under current F1 rules can partner with big teams and benefit hugely from their resources and technical development.
This is a situation Brown thinks needs to change when F1’s next rules revamp, due in 2021, is laid down. “I feel teams like McLaren and Williams are staying truer to the sport,” he explained. “But everyone is playing by the rules, which allow this dynamic that’s not healthy for the sport. In 2021 a lot of what happens today won’t be allowed, but for the next two years, it’ll remain hard to catch the top three.”
The team is nonetheless optimistic it can show strongly in the midfield this year. “We’ve always found Renault to be honest, even about their power deficit last year, so it’s encouraging they’re as positive as they are about this year,” said Brown. “We know the power unit better; we made the decision to switch last year late, so some of the reliability issues were about packaging. Last year was disappointing; we didn’t produce a fast car or one that responded well to development. The desire now is for a quality car from the word go, with development during the year.”
It’s a challenging environment for rookie Lando Norris to make his F1 debut in, but the Bristol-born teenager, who’ll become the youngest-ever British grand prix driver when he lines up in Melbourne this weekend, is unfazed. “I do feel the team is in a better position than two years ago, but a lot of development and improvement has to be done to get to the front again,” he said. “Any driver wants to win, but I see this as a long-term project. My biggest aim is to progress and become a better driver. I need to learn from Carlos; he has a lot of experience, will know more and better than I do what to do in different situations.
“We have to improve as a team first, so the important thing is that we work together to improve the car. My aim is simply to end the year a better driver than I started.”
Both Norris and Sainz live close to McLaren’s factory and have been putting in long hours with the engineers in order to ensure the team starts the season in the best shape.
Formula 1 2019: the calendar
The 2019 Formula One season consists of 21 races, although there will be no repeat of last year’s back-to-back races in France, Austria and Britain. The action kicks off in Melbourne this weekend.
|17-Mar||Australia||Melbourne||1:24.125 – M Schumacher, 2004|
|31-Mar||Bahrain||Sakhir||1:31.447 – P de la Rosa, 2005|
|14-Apr||China||Shanghai||1:32.238 – M Schumacher, 2004|
|28-Apr||Azerbaijan||Baku||1:43.441 – S Vettel, 2017|
|12-May||Spain||Barcelona||1:21.670 – K Raikkonen, 2008|
|26-May||Monaco||Monaco||1:14.820 – S Perez, 2017|
|09-Jun||Canada||Montreal||1:13.622 – R Barrichello, 2004|
|23-Jun||France||Paul Ricard||1:39.914 – K Rosberg, 1985|
|30-Jun||Austria||Red Bull Ring||1:07.411 – L Hamilton, 2017|
|14-Jul||Britain||Silverstone||1:30.621 – L Hamilton, 2017|
|28-Jul||Germany||Hockenheim||1:13.780 – K Raikkonen, 2004|
|04-Aug||Hungary||Budapest||1:19.071 – M Schumacher, 2004|
|01-Sep||Belgium||Spa-Francorchamps||1:46.577 – S Vettel, 2017|
|08-Sep||Itlay||Monza||1:21.046 – R Barrichello, 2004|
|22-Sep||Singapore||Marina Bay||1:45.008 – L Hamilton, 2017|
|29-Sep||Russia||Sochi||1:36.844 – K Raikkonen, 2017|
|13-Oct||Japan||Suzuka||1:31.540 – K Raikkonen, 2005|
|27-Oct||Mexico||Mexico City||1:18.785 – S Vettel, 2017|
|03-Nov||USA||Austin||1:37.766 – S Vettel, 2017|
|17-Nov||Brazil||Sao Paulo||1:11.044 – M Verstappen, 2017|
|01-Dec||Abu Dhabi||Yas Marina||1:40.279 – S Vettel, 2009|
Formula 1 2019: the grid
What are your hopes for the 2019 F1 season? Leave us a comment below…