2019 pre-season Formula 1 testing begins on Monday at the circuit de Catalunya, just outside Barcelona. This test is always a good indicator of how the season is likely to pan out.
So before my hopes and dreams are tethered by boring things like lap times, data and actual evidence (yawn) I thought I’d take this opportunity to jot down the ten things I’m most looking forward to in my utopian view of the 2019 F1 season that lies ahead.
1. The resurgence of Williams Racing
All of the noises coming from Grove are that the problems that afflicted the 2018 season and the disastrous FW41 have been remedied, and with two exciting new drivers on-board: George Russell, an exceptional talent with the potential to be World Champion and Grand Prix winner Robert Kubica, this could be the season that Williams get back to the front of the grid. Or at least the front of the midfield of the grid. (Although the front of the back of the grid would be an improvement!)
2. Russell vs Kubica
How Williams’ two drivers will fare against each other in 2019 gives us an intriguing sub-plot to Williams Racing’s form. Will Russell’s youthful enthusiasm and undoubted potential conquer the experienced head of Robert Kubica? Can the form Kubica showed pre-injury hiatus come back to him, or will his injury be too much of an obstacle? And if George Russell wants to fast-track himself into a Mercedes seat, does he have to convincingly beat Kubica, or start looking for opportunities in Formula E?
3. Leclerc vs Vettel
A lot of fans are predicting that young Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc can usurp Ferrari’s defacto #1 in is first year at the team and only his second in Formula 1, in much the same way as Daniel Ricciardo did when he joined the German at Red Bull.
The first few races are vitally important for each of these two drivers: Vettel has to school Leclerc, otherwise the already jittery Ferrari management (jittery from a less than convincing second half of 2018 by Vettel) could choose to lump all of their eggs in Leclerc’s basket.
A strong start by Vettel could cement his place as lead driver and consign Leclerc to a season in the Kimi Raikkonen role, playing second fiddle.
4. Red Bull Honda
In the five years since Honda’s return to Formula 1 they have fallen short of their own lofty targets by pretty much every measurable objective. Reliability has been poor, power output has been disappointing, and development has been slow.
This led to McLaren ditching a contract that was worth tens of millions of pounds to them in order to secure themselves a customer deal with Renault rather than be compromised by Honda’s ICU any longer.
A season of fiddling about with Toro Rosso in 2018 hinted at improvement at times, but any progress (or lack of) was masked by both the team and Honda effectively using the year as a dress rehearsal for 2019 where Honda will supply engines to Toro Rosso’s parent team Red Bull Racing.
Red Bull and Renault’s ignominious parting of ways at the end of 2018 failed to stop their war of words, and Honda have been drawn into that, with Horner, Marko and co. bigging them up so much in order to belittle Renault that anything less than a potential World Championship winning PU from the get-go is going to be a complete disaster.
5. Verstappen vs Gasly
Max Verstappen is the hottest property in Formula 1, there’s very little doubt about that. And he knows it. He likes to have things his own way, and when he doesn’t, he can be prone to the odd temper tantrum.
In Red Bull, Pierre Gasly has joined what Edd Straw of Autosport has called ‘Team Verstappen’. But the Frenchman isn’t averse to disobeying team orders, and also likes to get things his own way.
He also believes that he has the potential to be World Champion, and he isn’t likely to get there by devoting his time to helping Verstappen in his crusade to do likewise.
There could be fireworks here.
6. The end to Mercedes dominance
Ferrari showed in 2018 that Mercedes can be beaten and enjoyed the upper hand for the first half of the season before fate, questionable strategy calls and some poor judgement by its drivers allowed Lewis Hamilton in to do what he does best, and beat Ferrari into submission with relentless, will-crushing, spirit beating near-perfect driving.
In the Red Bull/Honda/Verstappen combo we have another potential challenger for the championship if (and it’s a big if) all three parties can hit their stride at the right time.
So for the first time in the turbo era we could have ourselves a three way fight for the Championship.
7. The new aero regulations
Formula 1 introduced a raft of changes to the aerodynamic devices on cars for the 2019 season designed to promote closer racing between cars and overtaking (the theory being that less complicated aero on the leading car will create less dirty air for the car behind and so its aerodynamics will suffer less allowing it to follow more closely) after a turgid start to the 2018 season.
Some insiders have commented that the teams will have recovered all of the downforce they lost due to the regulation change by the time they arrive in Australia for the first Grand Prix of the season, and that it was a costly exercise for the teams with little difference in the outcome.
Other teams have seen it as an opportunity to shake up the established order, as a similar regulation change did in 2009.
How effective the changes have been will be revealed in Australia on March 17th.
Renault are the poorest performing of the manufacturer teams (albeit with the lowest budget), and have received some decidedly negative press in the past couple of years as a result of their relationship with the always outspoken Red Bull team.
This season they’ve splashed out on Daniel Ricciardo, a driver who many people place in the very top group of Formula 1 drivers along with Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen, and he cost mega bucks.
He’s a Grand Prix winner and is unlikely to be content with the ‘best of the rest’ title that Renault secured in 2018.
Is 2019 the year that Renault can regularly trouble the top three teams and score themselves a place on a Grand Prix podium they’ve not seen since 2011?
They need to justify their extra outlay somehow and so they need to show progress at the very least.
9. The independent teams vs B-Teams
There has been much debate about how B-Teams in Formula 1 – ie those who have a relationship with a manufacturer/works team, and from whom they receive parts and IP – have a sizeable advantage over the true independent teams who’ve chosen to operate completely autonomously, such as Williams and McLaren.
Formula 1 have sought to level the playing field for 2021 by limiting the type and number of parts that a team must make themselves, but until then the likes of Haas, Sauber and Toro Rosso should have a distinct advantage, being that they’re able to use parts designed and built by Ferrari/Red Bull.
Can McLaren and Williams get on terms with these teams, or can they expect two seasons bringing up the rear before they can compete again?
10. Three British debutants
As a British Formula 1 fan it’s great to see a new generation of Formula 1 drivers coming through after a season and a half where Lewis Hamilton was our sole (driver) representative.
This season will give us a real indicator of whether or not George Russell, Lando Norris and/or Alexander Albon have what it takes to become World Champion and assume Lewis Hamilton’s mantle once he retires from the sport to take up kite surfing, or record an album or whatever it is he plans on doing next.
A bond exists between fans and sportsmen with the same nationality that’s just not there when you’re from different parts of the world, and it’s certainly going to make this year’s British Grand Prix more interesting!