A new Formula One season is upon us, with this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix kicking off the 2019 campaign.
At this stage, it’s hard to know anything for certain, but that’s never stopped people making wild predictions before. F1 editor Laurence Edmondson and deputy Nate Saunders have joined columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker in putting their necks on the line to guess what the new season might bring.
Who are you backing for the 2019 drivers’ championship?
Laurence Edmondson: Lewis Hamilton. I know the Ferrari looks quick, I know we need another name at the top of the sport to keep things interesting, but unless the Mercedes is a long way off the pace, Hamilton is still the man to beat. In 2018 he saw off a strong Ferrari challenge, and the way he is driving at this stage of his career, I would back him to see off an even stronger one this year.
Maurice Hamilton: Lewis Hamilton. The only thing I can see stopping him is outside distractions — and he used those to empower him last year as he raised his game even higher. Even if the Mercedes proves to be a step behind Ferrari, Hamilton has shown he’s capable of making the difference.
Kate Walker: Lewis, because he’s been on a roll. If he can carry his 2018 momentum into this season, he should be hard to beat even if Ferrari have the better car.
Nate Saunders: Sebastian Vettel. That’s the car to win a title and I think Vettel learned a lot about himself last year. The recent changes at Ferrari are significant — I think the light touch of new team boss Mattia Binotto will suit Vettel’s shaky temperament better than the abrasive, confrontational approach of Maurizio Arrivabene. Plus he’ll finally get the priority treatment Ferrari should have been giving him last year.
And for the constructors’ title?
Laurence Edmondson: With two top drivers and greater stability under the leadership of Mattia Binotto, 2019 has to be Ferrari’s year in the constructors’. The combination of Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel working together in a good car has the potential to rack up plenty of points, even if neither individual beats Hamilton in the race for the drivers’ title.
Maurice Hamilton: Ferrari. Signs are good for the revised management structure working and, for once, allowing Ferrari to maintain the small advantage seen during testing. Question mark hangs over Vettel and how he’ll cope with Leclerc’s inevitable speed. They’ll take points off each other but score enough for the constructors’.
Kate Walker: Ferrari. Not only do they have the strongest-looking car, but they’ve got a confidence about them the likes of which I’ve not seen since I started covering the sport in 2010.
Nate Saunders: I’ll round out a perfect four for Ferrari *IF* they can keep the Vettel-Leclerc partnership from going nuclear. It all hinges on that, because that partnership beats the Hamilton-Bottas one hands down.
Can Red Bull score more wins this year with Honda than the four it claimed with Renault in 2018?
Laurence Edmondson: I think they’ll match last year’s effort. Monaco, Hungary, Singapore and Mexico are still the target races for the team and, based on testing, any others will be a surprise. But I do expect them to be closer to the top two in terms of race pace than last year – qualifying is likely to remain the Achilles heel.
Maurice Hamilton: Hopefully, yes. We need them in the mix. Despite the learning process through Toro Rosso, this remains a new partnership — particularly as Honda gets to grips with the needs of Adrian ‘Shrink Wrap’ Newey. Grid penalties may play as big a part in answering this question as a potentially explosive driver pairing.
Kate Walker: No. Ferrari and Mercedes won’t let them get a look in.
Nate Saunders: If Daniel Ricciardo was still there, I would say yes, but I can’t see Pierre Gasly performing at the same level. That means Max Verstappen will do all the heavy lifting and that inevitably leads to more missed opportunities, and unfortunately I’m not sure Red Bull-Honda will have too many of those this year.
Will Valtteri Bottas do enough to keep his Mercedes seat for 2020?
Laurence Edmondson: Based on my answers above, I’m going to have to say no. If Hamilton wins the title and Ferrari wins the constructors’ then the reason Mercedes didn’t get the double is likely to be fairly obvious. However, if either of those predictions are wrong (and they may well be!), I can see Mercedes sticking with Bottas on another one-year contract. Esteban Ocon would likely bring a degree of instability to the team and if he can be slotted in elsewhere, perhaps as a replacement for Nico Hulkenberg at Renault, there is a certain logic to keeping Bottas as Hamilton’s teammate in 2020.
Maurice Hamilton: That will be down to Toto Wolff and whatever priorities he has. It’s a crucial season for Bottas, not having won a race last year. But he’s in the unenviable position of having a driver at the top of his game in the other car. The team will know the exact detail of how good – or otherwise – a job Valtteri is doing.
Kate Walker: No. Lovely though Valtteri is, Esteban is an official Mercedes driver. The team didn’t invest in Ocon to leave him on the sidelines long term.
Nate Saunders: Sorry Valtteri, I don’t think so either.
Which team will be best of the rest behind the front three?
Laurence Edmondson: Over the course of the season, Renault. Anything less for the French manufacturer would be a disaster and a serious backwards step for a team that has seen its budget and factory strengthen significantly in the past 12 months.
Maurice Hamilton: Renault. Gradually been getting their act together over the past few seasons. The arrival of Ricciardo is a huge boost at just the right moment. Apart from bringing his input and confidence as a race winner, Daniel will also help Hulkenberg raise his game, which can only be a good thing for everyone. Racing Point also worth watching now that they’ve finally got development money.
Kate Walker: Red Bull. Now I bet you’re wondering who I think will complete the top three…
Nate Saunders: It’s got to be Renault. I’d love Haas or Alfa Romeo to push them close, but it would be inexplicable for a team with that financial backing to finish any lower.
Red Bull-Honda: Happy marriage or tumultuous first year?
Laurence Edmondson: I think it will be a happy marriage for the first 12 months. Part of the problem with Renault was that the engine was designed without Red Bull’s input and had to be wedged into one of the most uncompromising chassis in the sport. The Honda relationship is based around a much more closely integrated relationship and, in the first year at least, that should weather the storm of a few bad results or mechanical issues.
Maurice Hamilton: It will be somewhere inbetween during, as mentioned above, a difficult first year. Certainly, it will be more productive and less toxic than the final seasons with Renault. An important factor when answering this question will be preventing Christian Horner from making comments on TV if things don’t work put as he — or Verstappen — expect.
Kate Walker: Tumultuous first year. Even if it starts off happy, Red Bull’s expectations are so high that they’ll almost inevitably be disappointed. And when Red Bull get disappointed, sparks tend to fly.
Nate Saunders: I think we’ll still get the occasional outburst from Christian Horner and Max Verstappen, but that team knows it has to look at the bigger picture now. There’s literally no other option if it wants to keep having an engine inside its Formula One cars so it has to play nice and stay patient.
Who will be this year’s breakout star?
Laurence Edmondson: I think Alexander Albon is in the best place to impress among F1’s rookies this year. George Russell won’t have a car capable of exhibiting his skills, Lando Norris has the extra pressure of racing for McLaren, but Albon is likely to have a strong car to start the year and, in Daniil Kvyat, a teammate who is beatable.
Maurice Hamilton: Charles Leclerc. The signs are that this guy is very special. If the Ferrari is as good as we hope it is, he’ll have the equipment to prove it, particularly when drawing comparison with his team-mate. There will be huge pressure but Leclerc seems very capable of dealing with it. Can’t wait to see how he goes…
Kate Walker: Lance Stroll. He’s got every possible tool to do the job and show us all just what the youngest podium sitter in F1 history is made of.
Nate Saunders: I think Charles Leclerc will have a great year, even if I’m not backing him to win the title. If he’s smart he’ll play the team game and not rock the boat at a team he could be driving for for another 10 years or so, but there will be plenty of chances for him to shine.
Who will be the flop of the season?
Laurence Edmondson: I hate to say it, but I don’t see Kimi Raikkonen setting the world alight for Alfa Romeo. In an incredibly tight midfield battle, his off days are going to show up even more than when he was driving for Ferrari, and even then they were pretty obvious. I fear it could bring about an ignominious end to a brilliant career.
Maurice Hamilton: Stroll, now that he is in a potentially good car and up against such an established and quick team-mate. There’s nowhere to hide.
Kate Walker: This could also be Stroll…
Nate Saunders: I’ll go with the returning Daniil Kvyat completing an illustrious triple flop, or Daniel Ricciardo’s replacement at Red Bull, Pierre Gasly — I think the Frenchman has been promoted too early and can see his confidence being absolutely crushed by Max Verstappen.
Will Williams’ 2019 season be as bad as pre-season suggested it could be?
Laurence Edmondson: No, because it would have to be absolutely awful to match that. I’m not expecting them to score many points, but if they can finish the year in touch with the midfield that would represent progress on testing.
Maurice Hamilton: Sadly, it’s very hard to argue otherwise. You can’t miss two days of testing in such fast company and hope to catch up. Add the unsettled feeling that must come with the eleventh-hour removal of a technical director who, by all accounts, wasn’t allowed to do the job he’s more than capable of. You have to feel for Russell – and particularly Kubica.
Kate Walker: Yes. Messes that big take a very long time to clean up.
Nate Saunders: Yes, I think so. That team is in an awful position and already starting the season a long way behind its midfield rivals — overhauling gaps that big are incredibly difficult in F1 even when your team is in a healthy state, which Williams certainly is not right now.