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The new Formula One season will zoom off the line on Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, the first of 21 races this season.
Before the lights go out, it’s time for me to offer some bold predictions for the 2019 season. My skills of clairvoyance are infamously shocking, so expect none of the below to actually happen … but it’s nice to have some fun, right?
With redesigned front wings to enable closer racing, the biggest grid shake-up in a decade and talented rookies around to challenge the established veterans, 2019 is all set to be thrilling from green light to chequered flag.
Let’s get the big prediction out of the way first.
It could have happened in 2017. It arguably should have been achieved in 2018. But in 2019 it will finally happen.
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari will get it together and win the respective drivers’ and constructors’ championships.
Ferrari were arguably the faster package for much of 2018. Yet a mixture of errors from both team and lead driver, bad luck and an inspired opponent in Mercedes world champion Lewis Hamilton all conspired to see them denied.
Ferrari have looked quick throughout winter testing, even despite the obvious asterisks which accompany such times, and so Vettel, last year’s grand prix winner in Bahrain, should have the machinery to be at least challenging consistently at the front. Add in the fact that the Italian team have upgraded their driver line-up with Charles Leclerc replacing Kimi Raikkonen, and you have a recipe for success.
Leclerc was mightily-impressive in his rookie season at Sauber and then so far in testing, and he should push Vettel hard. But, importantly, Leclerc will also take points away from world champion Hamilton, something Raikkonen rarely did.
Ferrari have the pace advantage to win their first constructors’ crown since 2008 and it will be a deserved reward for continuing to improve, having being well behind Mercedes in 2014 when the current engine regulations came into play.
The greater experience of Vettel should see him just edge out Leclerc to give his employers their first world champion since 2007 and allow him to join Hamilton on five drivers’ titles.
I am a huge Hamilton fan and hope I am wrong, but I think this is the year that the podium will be painted red.
As for Mercedes, I believe they will win races but it won’t be enough. In fact, I expect Valtteri Bottas to be dropped by the German marque for 2020.
In fairness to the Finn, his 2018 season does not do him justice when simply looked at as results on a sheet of paper.
With better luck the Mercedes driver would have won China and Azerbaijan, and he was on to be the victor in Russia before team orders forced him to move aside for Hamilton.
But, the fact remains, no wins in the championship winning car is not a good look regardless.
There were lots of weekends when he was way off Hamilton’s pace, essentially a non-factor, and Mercedes will need more from him this year given Ferrari’s apparent improvements. If this year ends up being a repeat of 2017/18, occasional flashes of brilliance surrounded by regular doses of mediocrity, then Mercedes are going to think about a change.
With Esteban Ocon, who drove for Force India the past two seasons, on the side-lines, the Frenchman is the obvious man to be given the chance to replace Bottas and partner Hamilton in 2020.
Next, I fancy Max Verstappen to give Honda their first race success since 2006 after a less than stellar return to the sport.
Japanese engines will be in the back of the Red Bull Racing car this season. The three years with McLaren was an awful experience for both sides, and 2018 with Toro Rosso had moments of encouragement but also concern.
It is a risk for Red Bull, given the reliability issues of the Honda in the past. But given they had a multitude of issues with Renault, who had been their previous supplier, with the relationship becoming increasingly toxic, it is not hard to see why the Austrian team have made the move.
It is unlikely the Red Bull-Honda combo will be an instant championship winning one.
But they still should be a factor on the slow-speed tracks and Verstappen should be a strong contender to prevail at the likes of Monaco, Hungary and Singapore.
Verstappen established himself as the main man at Red Bull in 2018 with an excellent second half of the season and he can be the man to spearhead the team’s challenge and claim at least one win.
That would be a success for Honda, whose last victory of any kind came when they were their own team in 2006 and Jenson Button won in Hungary.
This is a big season for Daniel Ricciardo. He has taken an enormous risk by leaving an established top team in Red Bull for Renault.
The French marque have been back in the sport as a team since 2016 but have yet to finish on the podium.
They were best of the rest behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull and Ricciardo, a proven race winner, can help push them on.
Ricciardo faces a tough task being the leading force in the team with Nico Hulkenberg as his teammate. But the Australian has always had an innate ability for making the most of opportunities that comes his way.
He is one of the best over-takers in F1 and he will be the man to get a top-three finish for his new employers if and when the chance comes his way.
As for the bottom end of the grid, I’m sorry to say that this could well prove to be the nadir for Williams. They have been regressing in previous years with last year being pretty dire as they only had three point-scoring finishes and mustered a meagre seven points.
But the worst could still be to come. The FW42 chassis arrived late to testing and ominously was very slow compared to the rest of the grid.
Then there are the drivers who both face tough tasks heading into the season. You have a rookie in George Russell who will have the challenge of adapting to the series and being back at the rear of the field after winning GP2 in 2018. Then there is Robert Kubica who returns to the series as a racer for the first time since the horrific rallying crash in February 2011 that almost saw him lose an arm.
It is hard to see on pure performance where Williams will score points this season, and the only way they will do is with a very chaotic race with most of their rivals crashing. Given you cannot really legislate for that, this is looking like Williams ending the year pointless.
We may have a little more idea, however, when the F1 bandwagon rolls into Bahrain for the race weekend at the end of this month. I can’t wait.
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