With the distractions of Christmas food and failed New Year’s resolutions, it may feel like the chequered flag at Yas Marina fell just a couple of weekends ago, yet it was way back on December 1st. The off-season has given a handful of stories. Verstappen is staying put until 2023, Vettel has two Leclerc’s to worry about, and the sport will be carbon neutral by 2030. Any real news is behind lock and key at ten factories around Europe and the United States. It’s all speculation and gossip as Melbourne approaches. A lot can change in the sport from season to season, but with only one rookie contesting 2020, we have a good idea what to expect from the drivers.
It would be premature to call this season the most important of Hamilton’s career. The Hamilton-Mercedes dominance may well continue into 2021 and beyond for all we know. But if the Brit is to match the record seven championships of Michael Schumacher, 2020 must be the best year to do so. Five of the last six championships and the most recent three in a row belong to Hamilton. The momentum is unquestionably with him.
With Hamilton’s contract up at the end of 2020, the rumours of a move to Ferrari provide fun material for Photoshop hobbyists. But I subscribe to the thought process that it’s a seventh Mercedes-Benz powered championship that will dictate whether his overalls will be red next year. If he clinches the record, then there is little else for Hamilton to prove. What could challenge him next within the sport? Success at the most prestigious team in Formula 1 would surely be an attractive prize. To claim it, the 2020 title is a milestone that must be completed en route.
Notwithstanding any unexpected shake-up this year, this is Hamilton’s championship to lose. He and Mercedes are simply at the top of their game, and I can’t see anyone changing this.
Predicted finish — 1st
2020 will be the fourth season that Bottas will have spent with Mercedes. By the end of the year, he would’ve driven over 80 Grand Prix with a race-winning car. Unless Bottas 3.0 turns up and dominates this year, Bottas’ most frequent finishing position will be second place. I was delighted when it became clear the Finn was to replace the retiring Rosberg. Here was a chance for an overlooked talent to show what is possible when he has the correct machinery. Redemption for the Heidfeld’s, Trulli’s, and Hulkenberg’s of the sport who didn’t get that top seat. Disappointingly, it appears Bottas will join Webber, Fisichella, Coulthard, and Barrichello as a number two driver to a prolific teammate.
2019 was a much better season than the winless 2018 for Bottas. Four victories and fifteen podiums on Sundays. He even matched his teammate for pole positions (five) on Saturdays. Yet his consistency wasn’t there. Weaker performances got masked by the superior car he piloted. If, as many hope, the frontrunners run closer this year, Valtteri needs to equal his teammate, or he’ll be out of the championship fight by the mid-season break.
Predicted finish — 4th
The flying Dutchman has turned Red Bull into his team. He is entering his fifth season with the team and his second as number one driver. 2019 showed that the Ricciardo challenge from across the garage was not the sole fuel that was driving Verstappen to fight so hard. Max had been unfazed by whatever else was going on within the team and the Red Bull driver selection. He has nothing to prove there now, and any teammate will be ancillary whether they like it or not. With his new contract, Red Bull is betting big on Verstappen.
Unlike his rivals in red, Max has the benefit of a team that continually makes the correct strategy calls when needed. The car has always been capable of race wins when the conditions favour it. If the Honda power unit continues to stride forward with their new-found harmonious constructor relationship, Verstappen could pose the biggest threat to Mercedes. The odd mistakes from his early years seem to have stopped. He seems to have more patience on-track than ever before. And he’s finally broken his one lingering obstacle — qualifying. Expect more than two pole positions this season. At just 22, Verstappen looks to be a mature and experienced driver at a top team. He’s seen something at the Austrian outfit that makes him sure it’s the place to be, and we may see what that is this year.
Predicted finish — 2nd
Many people hoped yet everyone was surprised at just how quick Leclerc was upon arrival at Ferrari. He didn’t have to be. A season or two growing into the coveted seat would’ve been perfectly acceptable and expected. As quickly as the second race in Bahrain, it became clear this wasn’t to be the case. Qualifying on pole was impressive in itself; still, Leclerc went further and did so by 3-tenths against his teammate. After losing positions on the first lap, it was only 64-laps into his Ferrari tenure that he overtook his 4-time champion teammate. It was to be a pass that figuratively stuck for the rest of the season.
Leclerc reminds me of Verstappen in his early Red Bull years. He is ever so hungry for success that the desire can crack through in frustration. His weekend at Monaco is a case in point. The talent is there, and all it needs is more experience to go along with it. The racecraft and speed are why Ferrari have bucked tradition and gambled on a youngster. What both parties want are titles and lots of them. They may well get them too, but Ferrari needs to learn from their all too frequent mistakes while Leclerc continues to rise. It feels like Ferrari and Leclerc are destined for a championship in the future. One wonders if that championship would come sooner for Leclerc if it were a Red Bull or Mercedes underneath him for 2020.
Predicted finish — 3rd
How long ago 2013 must feel now for Vettel. The nine consecutive wins to crown his fourth successive title is a distant memory for fans too. His move to Ferrari looked inspired at the time with Ricciardo showing him up at what was his Red Bull team. He was going to emulate his hero Schumacher and be a German driver winning titles at the Scuderia. When the German-Italian national anthem pairing played at his first Ferrari win, it felt like history was going to repeat itself. Why hasn’t it? Of course, no one knew how durable the Hamilton-Mercedes partnership was going to be back then. But Vettel should’ve been the man to stop it. After 2019’s rewriting of what young blood can do, Vettel looked like an old man who is struggling to play catch up.
Perhaps the difference does come down to hunger and purpose. Hamilton, for all his off-track pursuits and celebrity lifestyle, driving fast cars is part of his persona. Verstappen and Leclerc are desperate to be the names in Formula One.
Vettel doesn’t need them. He is already regarded as a modern great. Four titles place him alongside Prost and above Senna, Lauda, Stewart, and practically every other driver. He has a family and is happy to be out of the spotlight. There’s nothing to prove. If Vettel can make fewer mistakes than the last few seasons, and perhaps pick up a win or two, then retirement must be an attractive thought. The Ferrari team is already moving more attention towards Leclerc. There’d be no reason to stick around and tarnish that reputation. I won’t be surprised if Vettel takes his foot further off the gas and lets Leclerc soak up even more pressure this year.
Predicted finish — 5th
Originally published at https://www.fortloc.com where you can find more motoring news and reviews.