As Formula 1’s longest-ever season blasts off this month, our Grid Guru STEWART BELL delivers this year’s biggest talking points…
The wait is over. F1 2020 is locked and loaded, with pre-season testing done for yet another year – and the teams and drivers all jetting into Australia for the milestone 25th edition of the Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. But, in F1’s special 70th anniversary season, the longest ever comprising a record-22 rounds, there’s a lot to look forward to as the pinnacle of motorsport again prepares to blast-off.
The biggest drawcard – the battles on-track, right throughout the field. Mercedes may have secured its record-sixth-straight F1 World Championship double last year, but Ferrari and Red Bull Racing are both boiling with desperation to knock the Silver Arrows off its shiny perch at the pinnacle of the sport. And have one last season to do it in its current guise, before 2021’s sweeping changes (across technical, sporting and financial spheres) take effect.
ALL-OUT WAR AT THE FRONT OF THE GRID
Mercedes’ rivals will absolutely have their work cut out for them with the Silver Arrows a united force – and its lead driver, six-time F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton in the form of his life, and staring down once-untouchable records. Those high water marks belong to the great Michael Schumacher, his seven F1 World Championships and 91 wins an Everest-like benchmark that has stood for more than a dozen years. Incredibly, this year, Hamilton can equal Schumacher’s crowns and surpass his career wins – finishing 2019 with 84 overall. These are the crucial stats that will finally put his reputation as a great beyond question.
Hamilton, heading into his 14th season at the top, is now F1’s most complete driver, having joined up his peaks in the aftermath of his war with former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, who rose to the 2016 F1 World Championship then promptly retired. Hamilton providing recently, via Instagram, insight into the metronomic, next-level assault he’s planning to unleash on the sport this year. “I am at peace when I’m here [at home], [I] can focus and build my mind and body so that I can come back year on year,” he explains. “I’m going to be a machine this year, on another level than ever before!”
Next to Hamilton at Mercedes is his teammate Valtteri Bottas, with the Finn having to again up his game and be more consistent if he’s to keep the champion racer in his sights through to the final round in Abu Dhabi. Bottas did well in 2019, recovering from the previous year’s pain of becoming the first Mercedes driver to have a winless season in the hybrid era, earning four race victories – including Australia, where he proved untouchable. “Lewis has always been there – performing at his top level every single qualifying and race,” Bottas says. “I’ve been there most of the time, but not every single race weekend. I need to find the balance on everything and need to find ways to be at my best more often and I’m sure I can find it, somehow.”
At Ferrari, the pressure is now at fever pitch – with Italy screaming for success and no world titles since 2008. And while the new car was yet to be launched at time of writing, the Scuderia has war breaking out between its drivers: four-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel and young gun Charles Leclerc. The sensational Monégasque, just 22-years-old, now has a long-term contract with Ferrari, having re-signed with the Scuderia until 2024. But Vettel is not giving up. The pair controversially made contact and retired with punctures from last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix, after Vettel tried to pass down the back straight on Lap 66.
Another of the red team’s huge flashpoints last year was Singapore, where the Scuderia went against established practice and gave third-placed Vettel the pit stop preference – despite his teammate leading. This effectively handed Vettel the lead, infuriating Leclerc. “I won’t do anything stupid,” Leclerc said on the radio, while trailing Vettel after the pit stop. “It’s not my goal. I want us to finish one-two. I just think it’s not fair. But this won’t change.” But the Monégasque says he still has a lot to learn from Vettel.
“The way [Vettel is] working with the team and the engineers, I’ve learnt a lot and I’ve still got a lot to learn,” says Leclerc. “[He is] going a lot in the details – and things that I never thought would be helpful to the engineers, he will say anything, and sometimes I’m just there listening for one hour what he has to say about a session and it’s just very, very interesting.” There’s no doubt the road will get even bumpier this season for Ferrari with some predicting it to be Vettel’s last in the sport, his quest to emulate his idol Michael Schumacher’s achievements at Ferrari falling very short so far.
Over at Red Bull Racing, Max Verstappen has his heart set on a title charge with Honda making giant strides on performance – the Japanese car manufacturer powering him to three wins last year in Austria, Germany and Brazil. Verstappen is arguably F1’s most exciting talent, and will be a frenzied focus at his home race this year with the return of the Dutch Grand Prix at seaside circuit Zandvoort, near Amsterdam. “It’s been very promising and I think also we had some good results,” Verstappen says of his 2019 season.
“For me, what was more important was reliability. That has been very strong throughout the whole year and also the progression we made with the engine itself. That has all been going really well. I think it is a good, let’s say, basis for next year as well. We learned a lot throughout the whole year and I feel confident that we can have a positive [start] to next season.”
Alongside the 22-year-old is the impressive Anglo-Thai racer Alexander Albon, who is heading into only his second full season in the sport. Albon proved a revelation at the team last year, with the then-rookie stepping up from Red Bull’s B-team Alpha Tauri (formerly called Toro Rosso, the name change made to promote the brand’s fashion label) from Belgium, swapping with French pilot Pierre Gasly. Albon finished in the top six in eight of the last nine races and was set for a podium in Brazil until Hamilton clumsily tapped him into a spin, where his teammate won. He also matched Verstappen’s Q3 time in Japan, incredibly to the thousandth of a second. Albon returns this year for his first full-season at the top squad, with the inaugural Vietnamese Grand Prix in Hanoi the closest thing he has to a home race at this stage.
BIG MARQUE’S BRAWLING OVER F1’S BRUTAL MIDFIELD
For the past few seasons, F1’s midfield has been an unpredictable, writhing mass of squads fighting tooth-and-nail over the “best of the rest” status outside the top teams – with sometimes just a few tenths of a second in qualifying the difference between seventh and 18th place on the grid. In 2018, it was works team Renault generally leading that battle, but last year the French marque dropped back – despite luring Perth-born racer Daniel Ricciardo away from Red Bull. The squad, though, believes it can recover for this year, and the Honey Badger has his heart set on a podium – though he will have to fight for it with new teammate Esteban Ocon.
“Yeah, it’s a stretch, but I do believe that if we do what we believe we can, it’s still there,” Ricciardo says. “This  season hasn’t taken any wind out of our sails. It’s just a bit more fuel for the fire.” Of course, while Renault fell back in 2019, McLaren filled the void at the front of the midfield – finishing fourth in the standings, and with its first podium (Carlos Sainz in Brazil) in five years since Australia in 2014. It’s hoping to maintain that rage this year, and in its final year powered by Renault before re-uniting with its former sparring partner Mercedes into the sport’s new era.
YOUNG BLOOD FUELING THE FIGHT
There’s no doubt that F1 is increasingly being taken over by the new guard. A crop of fresh faces hell-bent on setting the sport on fire over future campaigns. Young guns like Leclerc, Verstappen, Sainz and Lando Norris at McLaren, along with George Russell at Williams who is next in line at Mercedes. But, incredibly, there’s just one rookie driver for this year – Canadian Nicholas Latifi, who will be racing alongside Russell at Williams. And it will be a baptism of fire, according to Norris, who made his debut in Australia last year.
“My feelings on the grid were insane,” Norris says. “There were so many things to think about. You know, communication, strategy, whatever. There were so many things. The whole build-up to the year is just thinking about this one moment. And the lights are coming on. You’re on the rev-limiter a bit. You’re getting ready to do your start procedure. And then the lights go out and you just forget everything. No matter what you thought you knew before, everything you just forget.” He continues, “And then you go into Turn 1, you’re looking at your mirrors and everything. It’s quite an exhilarating time, as well as being so nerve-racking so cautious with everyone around you being tentative of where other people are on-track. It’s indescribable how you feel.”
Needless to say, it’s all on the line as the squads prepare to do battle in F1’s longest-ever season, where anything can happen – and it usually does. Let’s go!
F1 2020 BRIEF
F1 remains constant this year to prepare for sweeping changes ahead in 2021, but here are the most significant tweaks…
NEW NAME: Toro Rosso becomes Alpha Tauri
DRIVER CHANGE: Esteban Ocon at Renault
Nicholas Latifi at Williams
NEW RACE: Vietnam Grand Prix (Hanoi), April 5
Dutch Grand Prix (Zandvoort), May 3
MGU-Ks: Three allowed, one more to cope with more races
RACE STARTS: Drivers to have even more control via clutch paddle(s)
DISCIPLINE: Relaxed weighbridge and jump-start penalties
SHARK FINS: Engine cover plate to feature the driver’s number
F1 CALENDAR HIGHLIGHT
It’s thrilling being trackside for F1, and cheering on our Honey Badger Daniel Ricciardo – but why not take your passion to the next level by partying at the sport’s original night race, the Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix 2020? As a spectacle, there’s nothing like it – being downtown in Singapore’s made-for-Instagram Marina Bay, cold drink in hand, and watching the world’s best racers thread the barriers at up to 320km/h under lights at night.
The event itself is rightly considered one of the world’s biggest sporting events, attended by an average of 250,000 people every year, but its off-track offering – and entertainment line-up – is every bit as impressive. The hype is real with past headliners including Rihanna, Calvin Harris, Ariana Grande, Martin Garrix, Dua Lipa, Maroon 5, Kylie Minogue, The Killers, Pharrell Williams, Robbie Williams and Bon Jovi. Last year’s line-up was a smash hit, with the Red Hot Chili Peppers leading an all-star cast including Gwen Stefani, Swedish House Mafia, Muse, Fatboy Slim, Hans Zimmer, and Toots and the Maytals. And fans are already speculating as to who will be on the 2020 line-up, which will soon be announced.
For an incredible VIP experience – book your place at the Formula 1 Paddock Club, comprising some of the world’s great chefs within the sport’s inner sanctum; or Twenty3, another gastronomic powerhouse but with far more of a nightclub vibe for dancing beyond the chequered flag. Beyond the racing line, Singapore has it all with lots of accommodation, dining, relaxation and sightseeing options and all within reach of the Circuit Park. So a getaway for the whole family, including racing, is within reach. And if you lock things away before May 12, you can take advantage of Early Bird Pricing – and save up to 16 per cent. Now that’s winning!
The FORMULA 1 SINGAPORE AIRLINES SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX 2020 will be held from September 18-20, with more information at singaporegp.sg.
For the full article grab the March 2020 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.