Rookies, returns, Ricciardo’s Renault and racier rides. Yes, Formula 1’s 2019 season is set to become a blockbuster from the outset and here’s why…
A massive driver shuffle, and 20 revamped racier cars ensure plenty of promise as the pinnacle of motorsport, Formula 1, prepares for its milestone 70th World Championship season. It’s a reset that could topple Mercedes, despite Lewis Hamilton dominating in the second half of last year on the way to a fifth F1 World Championship, matching the great Juan Manuel Fangio. Hamilton’s pole position lap in Singapore last year, a 1:36.015 under lights at the stunning Marina Bay was one his best-ever – a razor-sharp slice of perfection that wowed the crowds at the fan-favourite event.
It would be a welcome change too. F1’s turbo-hybrid era has been monopolised by the Silver Arrows, having secured all titles since 2014, 84 per cent of the poles and 74 per cent of the races – far stronger than the golden eras of Ferrari (2000 and 2004) and Red Bull Racing (2010-2013).
The catalyst to what could trigger F1’s latest changing of the guard are new technical regulations aimed at creating cars more capable of closer racing. The 2018-spec F1 cars lost around 50 per cent of their total downforce (which pushes the cars onto the track for high cornering speeds) when within two to three lengths of the car in front, making it difficult for one car to chase another. This year’s changes, though, are a step towards F1’s ultimate goal to reduce that loss to around 20 per cent by 2021.
To that end, the new cars have simplified front wings with a larger span, simplified front brake ducts, smaller bargeboards, and a wider, deeper and higher rear wing – a measure the sport hopes will at least ensure there’s no backwards step. “Formula 1 develops at an alarming rate, it’s relentless,” says F1’s chief technical officer of motorsports Pat Symonds. “If we had not done anything, the 2019 cars would have been even harder to follow than the 2018 cars were.”
To further improve things, the rear wing’s DRS opening will also increase by 20 millimetres to boost its passing power by around 25 per cent – while to stop the drivers from holding back to conserve fuel, the total limit will rise from 105 kilograms to 110. In the wet, the new rear wing has been designed to send plumes of water further skyward – with two LED lights on each of the rear wing endplates to assist with visibility in treacherous conditions.
In other changes, the sport has finally seen the light on tyres. Sole supplier Pirelli is simplifying its range to make it easier for fans to understand, bringing just three colours – white (hard), yellow (medium) and red (soft) – to all races. The compounds behind these will change depending on each track, with the range going from C1 for the hardest, to C5 the softest.
To ensure heavier drivers aren’t disadvantaged, their weight will finally be considered separate to the car. Teams are required to use additional ballast in the cockpit for drivers who weigh less than 80 kilograms. Drivers also have to wear biometric gloves with built-in senses that monitor their pulse rate and blood oxygen levels as well as a new, stronger helmet-spec for improved protection. All of which ensures F1 puts its best foot forward for 2019.
2019 DRIVER LINE-UPS
Last year was a nightmare for those trying to make predictions for 2019. Daniel Ricciardo’s news in early August shocked the entire F1 paddock and beyond, with the announcement he would be moving to Renault. And it had huge knock-on effects, as teams and drivers scrambled for the remaining seats – the result: eight of the 10 teams have new driver combinations and four sport completely new line-ups.
Mercedes, like American team Haas, retains its two drivers with Lewis Hamilton now a five-time F1 World Champion, and on the hunt for Michael Schumacher’s benchmark records of seven crowns and 91 Grand Prix wins. Valtteri Bottas, however, returns under pressure after a disappointing 2018 when he became the first Silver Arrows driver to have a winless season in the turbo-hybrid era.
Bottas’ pressure, though, is nothing compared to that on Ferrari. 2018 was a missed opportunity for the Scuderia – the fast car that could’ve won both world championships wasted through a combination of driver errors, bad strategy calls and blind development alleys. Team principal Maurizio Arrivabene took the fall for the failure, and has since been replaced by technical director Mattia Binotto who will cover both roles.
Sebastian Vettel’s reputation needs to be rebuilt following a year of unnecessary crashes and spins, but the four-time F1 World Champion will be held to account all the way by a new teammate – young Monégasque Charles Leclerc, who was undoubtedly 2018’s rookie of the year. Should Leclerc get the upper hand, expect Ferrari to line up behind him.
Over at Red Bull Racing, Ricciardo has been replaced by Red Bull protégé Pierre Gasly – the Frenchman getting the promotion after barely more than a season with B-team Toro Rosso, where he raced the Honda engine the squad has shifted to this year. The Frenchman will have to bring his A-game against teammate Max Verstappen, a man on the rise and fearless competitor.
McLaren, like fellow British squad Williams, has to hope 2019 will be better after a difficult season last year that was plagued with mysterious aerodynamic issues that hampered their campaigns. Both feature all-new driver line-ups for a total refresh with McLaren running Renault refugee Carlos Sainz and young gun Lando Norris. Williams is going for Formula 2 Champion George Russell and former Canadian Grand Prix winner Robert Kubica, with the Pole set to return to the grid after eight years away recovering from his 2011 rally crash.
Force India fans rejoiced in August last year, when the minnow squad was rescued from administration by a Lawrence Stroll-led consortium. The team was temporarily rebranded Racing Point, with a new name expected to break cover this year at its launch in Toronto on February 13. Stroll has plucked his son from Williams to race alongside Mexican Sergio Pérez, in effect buying his son a more competitive drive after two largely disappointing years with Williams – his high points coming in 2017, including a Baku podium and Monza front row start.
Sauber had a brilliant season last year, finishing eighth in the constructors’ standings and Monégasque rookie Charles Leclerc was standout – with 39 points scored on 10 occasions, beating Marcus Ericsson 17-4 in qualifying and 6-3 in races when they could be compared. He also scored 30 more points. This year, the squad has upped the ante with 2007 F1 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen joining former Ferrari reserve driver Antonio Giovinazzi. Completing the grid at Toro Rosso is two Red Bull recycled talents in Daniil Kvyat, who returns to the team for the third time since 2014 and Formula 2 race winner Alexander Albon.
KUBICA: INCREDIBLE COMEBACK
Robert Kubica’s return to F1 this year, after eight years away, has to be one of the greatest comebacks in all of sport. “This period has been very long. It has been exhausting, not only because I have been working with Williams, but the  season has been very long,” he says. “And  will be even harder as I will be driving. And there were a lot of emotions, but for sure it has always been positive emotions.”
The 34-year-old driver last raced an F1 car for Renault at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and had signed a contract to drive for Ferrari in 2012. Yes, he was that good. But a horrific crash at the 2011 Ronde di Andora rally left him critically injured and partially severed his right arm.
“For a couple of years, it was more about fighting about health, trying to recover as much as you can,” Kubica says. “Nobody really knew how my body would react, and what would be my final, let’s say, limitations. I suffered a lot of injuries, a lot of fractures, some very complicated. I went through nearly 20 months of continuing surgeries. It was a life changing period for me.”
Incredibly, in 2013, the Pole returned to racing via the European and World Rally Championship, where his reduced dexterity was less of an issue. He won that year’s World Rally Championship 2, before stepping up to the main game. He moved into endurance racing in 2016, with the goal of F1 in mind, and the following year, he had a handful of tests with Renault and Williams.
Kubica missed out on a Williams race drive for 2018, instead settling for a reserve and development role, but took that final step for this year – and the world awaits the results.
DANIEL RICCIARDO: ONTO RENAULT
Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo is finally an F1 team-leading driver at Renault, a squad that is no stranger to the F1 World Championship. But it’s a lateral move for the Perth-born racer, who will move from a race winning team to one unable to reach the podium in the short term.
“I’m certainly aware of the current position of Renault, and where they’re at but I believe I’ve already come to terms with that. Obviously that was part of the process,” Ricciardo says. And it was a tough decision for the Australian, after a roller coaster ride with Red Bull – 2018 arguably his toughest year with eight race retirements, more than any other driver on the grid.
“I think the thing with Red Bull, I came here after four world titles so naturally the expectation every year has been, at least in my mind, it’s like we’re going to win this year or we’re going to try and win. So you seem to be more disappointed because you’re always trying to achieve something which up until now we haven’t achieved.”
Certainly a reported annual pay packet of AUD$35 million will help ease his worries, but Ricciardo sees this as an exciting new challenge and one where he can lead the team on-track and in development – though his new teammate Nico Hülkenberg is much underrated, and a dark horse in that match-up.
But Renault’s top brass are convinced he will lift the squad to the next level. “We know that he is capable of driving not just a car, but a team for a while,” says Renault Sport Racing managing director Cyril Abiteboul. “He is fantastic for providing feedback to the engineers. But he has also got this ability which is very Australian, a little bit laid back, fun, not arrogant, but extremely talented, extremely motivated. And that’s exactly our style, that’s our philosophy. We don’t want to take us too seriously, but I can tell you that we are very serious about our ambitions, and we are very serious when it comes to the racing. And I think we share that philosophy (with Daniel). Work hard, and play hard to a certain degree. I like that, I like that style, and I think it’s an image that works extremely well with the team.”
F1 CALENDAR HIGHLIGHT:
FORMULA 1 SINGAPORE AIRLINES SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX 2019
F1 2019 kicks-off this year in Melbourne on March 17, but why not follow the action north in September for the sport’s original night race, the Formula 1 Singapore Grand Prix? For the sports fan, racing under lights through the streets of Marina Bay is a thrilling prospect with the World Championship battle heating up and Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing likely locked in a furious three-way battle for glory. For the family, Singapore has it all with lots of accommodation, dining, relaxation and sightseeing options and all within reach of the Circuit Park.
The event itself is rightly considered one of the world’s biggest sporting events, attended by an average of 250,000 people every year. Under the stunning night lights, the circuit transforms into an unrivalled carnival-like atmosphere, complete with an epic off-track programme.
The first wave of their blockbuster line-up features rock trio Muse, renowned British DJ and producer Fatboy Slim, reggae icons Toots And The Maytals and American roots outfit Larkin Poe. More acts are expected to be announced soon, including the Sunday night act that will close out the weekend, after the chequered flag falls.
BY STEWART BELL
The Formula 1 Singapore Airlines Singapore Grand Prix will be held from September 20-22. For more information go to singaporegp.sg.