Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton greet fans onstage during an F1 live event to introduce drivers and team principals in Melbourne on March 13, 2019, ahead of the Formula One Australian Grand Prix Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The dust has barely settled on Lewis Hamilton’s and Mercedes’ celebrations in Abu Dhabi in November and Formula One is already back preparing for Sunday’s green light in Australia. The drivers have completed their final preparations for the extended 2019 season, which will see the Australian Grand Prix open proceedings on the 21-race 70th Formula One world championship.

Hamilton will be gunning for a sixth drivers’ championship, but long-time rival Sebastian Vettel, bright young hope Max Verstappen and 17 others — including three rookies and the return of an old face — will be going all out to stop him.

The season ends in Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on December 1, the latest finish since 1963. All the early indications sat Vettel and his new Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc have the early advantage in terms of car performance, but Hamilton welcomes the competition. “We don’t mind the challenge,” said the five-time world champion. “We will fight. It just mean we have to work harder, but I am really proud of what our team has done already.”

Heavy-hitting Hamilton

Hamilton is certainly going to be no pushover as he has significantly bulked up over the winter. The relaxation of drivers’ diets have came as a result of a rule change took away an advantage for being lighter in the cockpit and Hamilton has taken full advantage, looking bigger and more muscly than ever before.

“Over the winter and in the break, I could eat whatever I wanted, so pancakes and Cheetos, all that stuff. But I stayed very active,” he said. “I am not trying to be the Hulk. It takes time to put on muscle in the right way, but it has been great to eat bigger portions.”

The 34-year-old Hamilton said that he had added more than four pounds of muscle through various training regimes.

“I feel stronger than I’ve been in a long time,” said vegan Hamilton. “I worked with different people a few days on and a few days off just to pick up new technique. I worked with a vegan trainer, who has been vegan his whole life and (is) a very ripped individual.”

Vettel

If the German Ferrari driver succumbs to the pressure like he did in the past two seasons, allowing Hamilton to surge to the title despite having a seemingly faster car, Vettel could find his legacy tainted by the near-misses rather than the four consecutive world titles he won with Red Bull.

The Italian marque have been waiting for a drivers’ or constructors’ title since Kimi Raikkonen won them both back in 2007 and their patience may run out with Vettel if he cannot land the title having provided him with what looks like the strongest machine on the grid once again.

Instead they may put their weight behind Vettel’s new teammate and hope for the future Charles Leclerc, who has been tipped to form a great rivalry with Verstappen in years to come.

Ferrari’s failures have already cost team principal Maurizio Arrivabene his job and he was replaced by Mattia Binotto last year, so it’s clear the powers that be are not afraid to pull the plug on even the biggest names.

Rookies

There is a British theme to the debutants as George Russell, Lando Norris and Alexander Albon will all take their F1 bows in Melbourne after fighting it out for the F2 title last year. Russell eventually claimed the title to earn a ride with Williams alongside the returning Robert Kubica, who will have a wealth of experience to pass on to his 21-year-old British protege. Norris, 19, finished second to Russell last year and has been promoted through the ranks to take a seat with the senior McLaren team at Stoffel Vandoorne’s expense. Norris will be driving alongside Spain’s Carlos Sainz Jr, the 24-year-old who inherited Fernando Alonso’s spot on the team, McLaren are taking a risky move backing two young drivers after years of underachievement.

London-born Thai prospect Albon has a shot with Toro Rosso and has a similar aggressive style reminiscent of Verstappen a few years back. He will take no prisoners despite only being 22.

Verstappen

It is staggering to think this will be Verstappen’s fifth season in F1, given he is still only 21. If the Dutchman can cut out erratic mistakes, cool his headline-grabbing temper, just and focus on the sheer talent and pace he clearly possesses, he could turn the title-fight into a three-way race with Hamilton and Vettel. The biggest question mark is over whether his Red Bull team have sorted out the reliability problems that cost him a haul of points through retirements and qualifying positions last season.

Sad start

The season will start under a cloud as F1’s long-serving race director, Charlie Whiting, died on Thursday due to pulmonary embolism.

The Briton, 66, was in Melbourne to officiate the start of the season, and his sudden death has hit the F1 fraternity hard.

“I’ve known Charlie since I started in 2007,” said Hamilton. “What he did for this sport and his commitment, he really was a pillar. He was an iconic figure.”

Vettel added: “It’s difficult to grasp when someone is not there anymore. I’ve known him for a long time and he’s been like our man, the drivers’ man. You could ask him anything anytime.”

Formula one managing director Ross Brawn said he was “devastated”. “We worked as mechanics together, became friends and spent so much time together at race tracks across the world. I was filled with immense sadness when I heard the tragic news. I’m devastated,” he said.

Whiting was a passionate pioneer of safety improvements, the most visible of which is the cockpit protection system — or halo — developed by Whiting after the fatal crash involving Jules Bianchi in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. The device was widely attributed with saving the life of Leclerc at last year’s Belgian Grand Prix.