Red Bulls Max Verstappen leads hopes at the Australian Grand Prix, Formula Ones first race of the season, for a serious challenger to Lewis Hamiltons reign as champion
Formula One fires up in anger for the first time this year in Melbourne on Friday but there will still be few givens for the forthcoming season. Yet of one central player in the forthcoming drama there can be absolute certitude. Lewis Hamilton enters his 14th year in F1 motivated, focused and in the form of his career.
Extraordinary records are within Hamiltons grasp and his determination to prove himself the best is beyond doubt. Yet what he and every fan wants is a real fight. F1 needs it and, if the British driver is to match Michael Schumachers achievements, how much sweeter would it be to do so after a blow-for-blow battle.
Hamilton has won six world championships since his debut in 2007, five in the last six years with Mercedes. This week at the Australian Grand Prix he begins his tilt to equal Schumachers record of seven a tally once considered unreachable. As were the Germans 91 race wins. Yet Hamilton now trails him by just seven and has averaged 10 victories a year since 2014.
Hamilton is an elder statesman of the sport at 35 and is surely aware of the long-term import of what he is achieving. He insists he does not chase records but last season did acknowledge what a feat it would be to match Schumacher. Were there any doubts as to his motivation, Hamilton has dismissed them. Ive really been trying to focus on how can I take it to another level as a driver, he said. How can I extract more from myself and from the team and trying to deliver something really great this year.
He will have to go some to top 2019 when he took 11 wins on the way to sealing the title with two races remaining. Yet it is easily feasible. In the paddock he appears calmer, more relaxed than ever with his position at Mercedes, where he is comfortable, respected and given the freedom to pursue his lifestyle as he sees fit.
Tellingly he was upbeat even at testing in Barcelona. He has made no secret in the past of how little he enjoys pre-season pounding round the track but so buoyant was he this year in Barcelona he said that for the first time he felt he wanted simply to keep going, grinding out more laps.
The team, already operationally second to none on the grid, are similarly enthused. At testing they revealed their innovative dual-axis steering system, with which the driver can manually alter the toe angle of the front tyres. It will be banned from 2021 and it is yet to be clear if it offers a real advantage but it is indicative of Mercedes relentless pursuit of every edge.
Might there be any distraction to this focus? Well, Hamiltons contract concludes this year and he will face endless questions about his intent, including a potential move to Ferrari. But Toto Wolff has insisted that keeping him is their priority, acknowledging that he is an asset like no other. He feels that he is at the peak of his abilities, the team principal said. The most important factor is that he loves the challenge. He loves the challenge of trying to beat the next generation of potential superstars. The tougher the challenge, the happier he is.
It is, then, the challenge that stirs him, which means it must be hoped his rivals can offer the said fight. Last year Hamilton left his teammate Valtteri Bottas trailing in his wake. The Finn needs to step up if he is to feature, as do Ferrari, but the more tantalising prospect is the potential battle with Max Verstappen and Red Bull, who were closest to Mercedes in testing.
The prospect of a real head-to-head between Hamiltons finely honed skill, racecraft and experience and the 22-year-old Verstappens verve and youthful exuberance is mouth-watering. Verstappens enthusiasm for the scrap mirrors that of the world champion. I dont see it as work, jumping in a car. Its my life, the Dutchman said. When I think of work it is sitting behind a desk and I never want that. This is my hobby turned into a profession. Its as enjoyable now as its ever been. Its what I always wanted to achieve, to be in F1 and fight for victories.
Verstappen has eight wins but goes into 2020 with the real prospect of more. He was hugely pleased with his car in testing and it surely has more to come, with Hondas engine described as a major improvement on 2019. Mercedes were strong in testing but Hamilton expressed concern about the reliability of their engine after they had some problems. This is not something that has bothered them in recent years of metronomic performance.
For Sebastian Vettel and the 22-year-old Charles Leclerc at Ferrari, joining the fight is the target. They have been circumspect, maintaining they were down on the pace of their two main rivals. The team principal, Mattia Binotto, insisted they had not been sandbagging running deliberately at less than full pace but it is expected they will have more in Melbourne. If they remain behind, however, to play a part in a season likely driven by the Hamilton narrative, coming up to speed quickly is imperative.
Time will tell, of course, but nothing will be decided this week: Albert Park is an atypical circuit and anyway drawing too many conclusions from the opener would be premature. There are no certainties but, with the phoney war over, it is hoped Melbourne will at least reveal the promise of a season-long engagement.