Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix marks the start of a new Formula One season.
Here we round up the most pressing issues ahead of the opening race, look at the pecking order going into the opening race and what else there is to keep an eye on during the 2020 campaign.
Major talking points
There are two major issues dominating the headlines ahead of the opening race on March 15.
How has coronavirus affected the start of the season?
F1 is unique to many sports in that it has several events operating in different ways with regards to the coronavirus outbreak. The fourth race of the season was due to take place in China, where coronavirus originated – the April 19 has been postponed on the request of the event organisers.
Coronavirus: List of sporting cancellations so far
The status of the three preceding F1 events is as follows:
Australian Grand Prix (March 15) – Going ahead as planned at Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit, with no restrictions on spectators.
Bahrain Grand Prix (March 22) – Going ahead behind closed doors, without any spectators at Bahrain’s Sakhir International Circuit.
Vietnam Grand Prix (April 5) – Going ahead as planned for now, but questions still linger about the ease of travel for visitors from European countries such as Italy.
Season preview: Bold predictions for F1 2020
Alexis Nunes returns as Nate Saunders and Laurence Edmondson look ahead to the new season of F1 and put their necks on the lines with some sensible, and some outrageous, predictions for the year.
Listen to the latest episode.
Next episode on March 15
F1’s 2020 season was supposed to feature a record 22 races. The congested nature of the calendar has made rearranging the Chinese Grand Prix a tricky proposition, although F1 seems determined to hold the Shanghai event at the tail-end of the season.
It remains to be seen what impact coronavirus has on the rest of the scheduled season. Motor racing’s governing body, the FIA, has set up a Crisis Cell to monitor the evolving situation and its potential impact on the racing calendar.
What’s the controversy over Ferrari’s engine?
Rivals were suspicious about Ferrari’s engine during the 2019 season. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images
A cryptic FIA statement released in the closing minutes of the final preseason test prompted seven of the grid’s 10 teams to unite together in protest. The statement revealed the FIA had reached a private settlement with Ferrari following an investigation into its contentious engine, which several rivals suspected to be illegal last year.
The seven said they are considering legal action in a bid to “pursue full and proper disclosure” into the FIA-Ferrari settlement, arguing greater transparency is needed into the findings of the investigation and the nature of the settlement. The three teams not part of the protest group were Ferrari and its two engine customers, Haas and Alfa Romeo.
The FIA followed up with a statement of its own to clarify, saying it had not been satisfied by Ferrari’s defence of its engine’s legality, but was not convinced it would reach a conclusive outcome by taking the issue further. Some have questioned why the FIA did not release that clarification initially, although it still might not be enough to satisfy the seven teams who protested.
The issue is likely to rumble on into the Australian Grand Prix.
The race for the championship
David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images
Who is the favourite for the 2020 title?
It would be brave to bet against Lewis Hamilton. The reigning champion will match Michael Schumacher’s record of seven if he reclaims his crown. There was little from the six days of preseason testing to suggest Hamilton’s Mercedes team is not the benchmark of performance once again, although engine reliability could be this great team’s Achilles Heel in 2020.
Were Mercedes to win the other championship it would also be making history – no team has won the constructors’ title seven times in a row.
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Can anyone challenge Hamilton?
On the basis of what we saw during preseason testing at Barcelona’s Circuit de Catalunya, Max Verstappen’s Red Bull team appears to have overtaken Ferrari as the team most likely to threaten Hamilton’s bid for a seventh title. Ferrari has slipped down the order amidst controversy around its engine and looks to be comfortably third heading to the Australian Grand Prix.
In Verstappen, Red Bull has arguably the most exciting talent of his generation — a championship fight between Hamilton and the Dutchman would be box office, but would require Red Bull to be competitive across a whole year, rather than just a handful of races. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc excelled last year, although his first task this year will be to continue his good streak of form over under-pressure teammate Sebastian Vettel.
The biggest issue facing every team in 2020
Who’s likely to be best of the rest?
In recent years F1 has effectively been split into two classes — the midfield fight, sometimes called Formula 1.5, is arguably more competitive than the battle for the championship. McLaren won the midfield scrap last year and looks likely to be strong again, but faces the threat of its engine supplier, Renault, and the resurgent Racing Point team. Racing Point’s 2020 car, dubbed the ‘pink Mercedes’ was a major talking point during preseason given its striking resemblance to the Mercedes which won last year’s title.
What else is there to watch out for?
The 2021 driver market
Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are the biggest F1 names out of a contract at the end of 2020. Mark Thompson/Getty Images
New deals for Verstappen and Leclerc at the start of the year limited the possibility of unexpected driver movement between the top teams for next year, although Lewis Hamilton is still yet to pledge his future to Mercedes beyond 2020. Suggestions of a move to Ferrari have lingered since he spoke openly about the prospect at last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, although the Italian team insists it is committed to retaining Vettel, who is also entering a contract year. Hamilton also seems very relaxed about his future and the prospect of starting negotiations with Mercedes boss Toto Wolff.
Hamilton’s teammate, Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas, is on another one-year deal with Mercedes and will have one eye on the progress of the team’s junior driver, George Russell, who is in his final year with the Williams team. Wolff is keen to promote Russell to the competitive end of the grid as soon as possible.
Daniel Ricciardo is another top name to keep an eye on — the Australian is in the final year of his existing Renault deal. While he says he is committed to the Renault project he joined in 2019 he is keeping his options open for 2021, mindful of being available should Mercedes or Ferrari come calling for his services.
The rise of a new generation
F1 is blessed with an abundance of young talent at the moment. The new generation does not stop with just Verstappen and Leclerc.
Last year’s rookie class was one of the strongest of all time — Alex Albon (Red Bull), Lando Norris (McLaren) and George Russell (Williams) all look set for long careers in the championship. Norris’ Mclaren teammate Carlos Sainz enjoyed his breakthrough year in 2019 and will look to continue building his reputation this year. Sainz might well be a left-field candidate for a big driver market move for 2021.
Renault has arguably the best driver pairing on the grid. Ricciardo is a proven race winner from his time at Red Bull and he is joined by highly-rated French driver Esteban Ocon, who spent a year out of F1. Ocon was part of the Mercedes driver academy but has joined Renault on a two-year deal.
There is just one rookie this season, Canadian driver Nicholas Latifi, who replaces Robert Kubica at Williams. Latifi finished second in last year’s F2 championship and completed a handful of Friday appearances for the British team.