By Neil Leverett
- 2019 Formula 1 season gets under way this weekend with the Australian Grand Prix
- Lewis Hamilton defends World Drivers’ Championship looking for third consecutive title
- Chasing pack eye Briton, as new-look paddock lines up for lights out on Sunday
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – After a four-month hiatus, the 2019 Formula 1 season gets under way with lights out for Round One in Australia this weekend.
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Lights out in Melbourne
Just a short 15 weeks after Britain’s Lewis Hamilton claimed his fifth World Drivers Championship and entered sporting immortality, Formula 1 awakens from its’ winter slumber this weekend in Australia, as Round One of the 2019 season takes place at the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit.
Whilst Hamilton now beyond the magic number five and towards the mountain of Michael Schumacher‘s two-greater tally of wins, the Stevenage drive will be followed in hot pursuit by an ever-changing paddock, bent on wresting the his status from his tightly-clenched hands.
As memories of last November’s swansong in Dubai fades, the F1 juggernaut rolls into action once again, with a decidedly fresher look in not only personnel and names, but of re-molded and re-branded manufacturers.
Melbourne then, as the seasons change in both hemispheres represents the perfect opportunity to right the wrongs of 2018, and lay down a marker for the next eight months of racing. So what can we expect?
Ferrari winter progress
On the back of another promising yet ultimately frustrating 2018 of playing second fiddle to McLaren Mercedes – as they did the season before – The Prancing Horse have again thrown all their winter efforts into improving Ferrari’s reliability and above all driver performance.
Two pre-season tests in Barcelona in the weeks leading up to the Australian Grand Prix had Ferrari topping both tests. The team managed to complete 598 laps in the first test and 401 laps in the second. Sebastian Vettel posted the quickest time of testing with 1m.16.221s which was just 0.003s ahead of Hamilton’s fastest lap in his McLaren Mercedes.
Charles Leclerc’s arrival as number two in the wake of Kimi Raikkonen‘s departure looks to be a shrewd acquisition and provided track and the engine reliability remain for both drivers, the Italian manufacturer may now be set for a season where all the pieces come together.
Ferrari have won in Victoria for the last two seasons and all signs again point to early domination, with Leclerc’s undoubted talents set to fit like a glove into the cockpit alongside Vettel. Perhaps though the bigger questions will be asked after the early races of the season? Time will tell.
It’s not only Ferrari that will take on a new look this season. Almost the paddock has a fresher, evolved look about it with almost every team with new personnel or in some cases, new teams adorning the pits.
No less than four new names will be bled this season, with the returning Robert Kubica driving for Williams after his near career-ending rally accident over five years ago. There will be three Britons on the grid in 2019; With Hamilton looking to win a third-straight world title, both Lando Norris and George Russell will compete for McLaren-Renault – with the latter Kubica’s team mate at Williams. Russell steps up to the top table of motor racing after winning last season’s F2 title, whilst Bristolian Norris also switches from F2, having won Formula 3 in 2017.
In the cockpit for newly named Alfa Romeo – formerly Sauber – Raikonnen steps in after leaving Ferrari, with Antonio Giovinazzi making the grade as a two-term test driver to earn the number two drive for the Swiss manufacturer. Elsewhere, Alex Albon joins Toro Rosso with Daniil Kvyat.
Daniel Ricciardo meanwhile, having left the angst of Red Bull behind after a turbulent season with team-mate Max Verstappen may also now have a better shot at consistent podium places with the new spec of the French manufacturer. Should that come to pass, then the Perth driver may finally be able to achieve his goal of being a legitimate candidate for a title tilt.
F1 set for Whiting tribute
One the eve of the dropping of the first chequered flag however, the sport will pay its respects this weekend after the sudden death of race director Charlie Whiting at the age of 66.
A man that was trusted, respected and loved across the entire F1 community, his death comes at a time of further transition for the sport that again strives to return itself to its’ former glory days. Whiting was central to that.
Quoted in the Evening Standard, FIA President Jean Todt stated:
“It is with immense sadness that I learned of Charlie’s sudden passing.
“I have known Charlie Whiting for many years and he has been a great Race Director, a central and inimitable figure in Formula One who embodied the ethics and spirit of this fantastic sport.”
Ricciardo seeks history
Whilst Ricciardo may be eyeing a place in the title race, his goal in the short term this weekend will be to finally become the first Australian to podium on a home race for the first time.
The Antipodean wait almost came to end 12 months ago with Ricciardo in second with just 13 laps to go but after things did not got the Australian’s way, the former Red Bull man was forced to finish less than a second behind Raikkonen in an agonising fourth spot.
His hopes took an early hit after a disrupted second practice after a delay to his drivers seat saw the Perth driver finish eight behind teammate Nico Hulkenberg, but just like the Ferrari that were usurped by the Hamilton and co, Renault may be leaving something in reserve.
In what will be the 84th running of the Australian GP this weekend, the 58 laps of the 3.295 length circuit has yet to throw up a winner from down under. But as the stands pack out once more in the late summer sunshine in Melbourne, could Ricciardo finally end the long wait for an F1 podium place?
The Australian Grand Prix takes place this weekend at the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit, with race day on Sunday morning at 5.10am UK time
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