Dubai: The Formula One season begins this weekend with an unfamiliar, yet distinct air of trepidation and concern surrounding events off the track.
Yes, there are the usual debates over who will win the title, which young driver will make his mark and who will be fighting for a drive if they struggle this campaign, but two large clouds have cast a gloomy shadow over the traditional curtain-raiser in Melbourne.
First and foremost is the coronavirus outbreak, which has dominated the pre-season headlines instead of the usual ‘Will Lewis Hamilton defend his crown’ conversations.
The virus has sent shockwaves across the globe and in the world of sport, leading organisers to postpone the season’s forth race in China and hold the second event in Bahrain behind closed doors. As the lights go out on the first race of the season on Sunday, the drivers and teams will still be uncertain quite how the year will pan out before we get to Abu Dhabi, given the frequency with which sporting events are dropping off the global calendar almost daily at the moment.
There is also a sense of dissatisfaction and distrust over the whole saga regarding the legality of Ferrari’s 2019 engine and how it was handled by the ruling body, the FIA.
Several teams have united to demand answers from the sport’s bosses as to why they did not come down hard on Ferrari after admitting they suspected their engines were not legal - with many hinting that if it were a smaller team it would have been a different story. All of which has created a distinct ‘us and them’ division in the ranks of an already feisty situation, which the FIA will need to be very careful with, so as not to cause a revolt in the ranks while also keeping superpower and money-makers Ferrari onside.
Hopefully, this weekend we can finally, for a short while at least, focus on the action on the track.
As mentioned, we should be focusing on a potential landmark season for Mercedes’ Hamilton, who is on the brink of equalling Michael Schumacher’s seemingly untouchable seven world drivers’ titles.
Also, this could be the time we see the fastest Formula One cars of all time, as strict regulations coming in next term for environmental, safety and field-levelling reasons will mean the cars will be decidedly slower than they have been for a long time.
Pre-season testing in Spain has shown very little between the top teams, but Hamilton looks very much like the man to stop, with Ferrari still struggling to come up with solutions as to how to even keep up with the Briton and his flying Mercedes machine (despite their alleged questionable practises last year).
Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas had a significantly improved season in 2019 from the year before, with four GP wins compared to zero, but with Lewis on the brink of history, he will need to play second fiddle once again to the defending champion.
Ferrari’s No. 1 driver Sebastian Vettel seems to have more error-prone races than clean ones these days and his best days look to be behind him. The Italian marque’s No. 2 man Charles Leclerc has great potential to be a future champion but he is still to raw and inexperienced, and without the support of his team to race as a lead driver he will never take the title.
Over at Red Bull, they certainly have the talent to give Mercedes a run for their money, with Max Verstappen arguably the most talented driven on the grid, alongside impressive 2019 rookie Alex Albon. However, the Honda-powered car still has reliability issues - and a fair amount of pitlane human error - that always seems to have them playing catch-up. Verstappen perhaps hinted as much when last month he said: “If you gave me the same car as Hamilton, I would win every time. He is not God.”
Bullish words indeed, but also an admission that his Red Bull is still inferior to the Mercedes.
They matched Ferrari for race wins last season (three each), but with Mercedes accounting for the other 15, the gap between the teams is apparent.
The cool and calm Hamilton is taking the season and its added pressures as he goes for history in his usual stride.
“It’s not something I think about,” Hamilton said in Spain. “I always say that numbers are not really a massive thing for me. I plan to be here a little bit longer so hopefully I’ll get there. We shall see.”
He is also unflustered at the both Leclerc and Verstappen have an eye on usurping him as the No. 1 man on the track.
“If I was to look at it this way, then I’ve had a target on my back since the day I won my first championship when I was 10 years old,” Hamilton said. “So it’s nothing new to me. I was the only black driver there and I’ve always generally been at the front of championships so it’s no different in the last 20 years of driving. I’m quite comfortable in that space.”
The rest of the teams will be fighting for the usual scraps from the big boys’ table, and while fallen giants McLaren look to be getting their house in order, one team who are turning heads are Renault. Esteban Ocon - back in place of Nico Hulkenberg - and Daniel Ricciardo both impressed during testing in Catalunya and - crucially - both insisting they can go much faster in the new-look Renault R.S. 20, which has only had limited track time due to its late arrival off the production line.
If things click, they could be the ones to split the big three’s stranglehold on top spot of the podium and pick up a few wins of their own.
What ever happens over the next nine months, the only guarantee is there are no guarantees in F1.