After the CODVID-19 pandemic left Formula 1 in a state of limbo for 7 months, the cars will finally take to the track this weekend, in one of the most unique seasons to date, starting with 2 races at the Red Bull Ring in Austria.
The normal winter gap between races has more than doubled this year, resulting in F1 not holding a race in 217 days. Now, on the eve of the first practice session, excitement for the season is starting to reach fever pitch. Yet, 2020 will go down as one of the most unique seasons in F1’s history. There will not only be the challenge of a very cramped and still fully unconfirmed schedule, but the manner in which races will take place has also been significantly altered. Double header races, team bubbles, restricted interviews, a lack of audiences and no podium ceremonies will ensure that this season stands out among others, for better or for worse.
On the grid, however, a tantalising prospect is emerging. The title fight between Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari. Mercedes have dominated the sport since the start of the hybrid era, but after a very strong latter half of 2019, Red Bull will be looking to build on their progress and launch a season long fight against the title holders. Furthermore, the first 3 races may provide a challenge to Mercedes that will leave them fighting to catch up, having not taken a win in Austria since 2017. This is exacerbated further with a race in Hungary, another track that Red Bull has historically been strong at and came incredibly close to winning in 2019. Any minor mistakes or underperformance could find Mercedes on the back foot, a situation they will desperately want to avoid if the season is cut shorter than expected.
But what of Ferrari? After what appeared to be a rather disappointing winter test, the scarlet team dominated news headlines in May after the split with Sebastian Vettel. Many would argue Vettel has underperformed in recent years, but very few expected his departure before a wheel was turned in anger this season. This led to a domino effect down the grid, with one of the earliest ‘silly seasons’ in recent memory. Ultimately Carlos Sainz is set to partner Leclerc next year, but now Ferrari have an out of contract driver, who is now even more unlikely to make way for team orders (see Russian GP 2019…). Will the prancing horse see fireworks between the drivers?
The midfield battle may be one of the most mouth-watering for a long time, with 3 teams looking remarkably close on performance during testing. McLaren, Renault and Racing Point will all be gunning for 4th in the title race and currently, it is impossible to call. McLaren enjoyed ‘best of the rest’ status last year with their highest tabled performance since 2014. An impressive upswing, and one they will certainly wish to maintain, especially before Lando Norris is joined by highly rated driver Daniel Ricciardo for 2021.
Racing Point turned heads in testing with the somewhat cynically named ‘Pink Mercedes’. Journalists were quick to spot the similarities and Racing Point did not shy away from this, instead arguing that it was necessary for good results, especially considering the huge changes originally scheduled for 2021. However, as this has been delayed by a year, Racing Point may have lucked themselves into a fantastic position for the next 2 years, if the car is as good as predicted. Finally, Renault will have spent most of the extended break licking their wounds having lost their star driver to rivals McLaren. Renault have certainly underperformed in recent years, slipping back in the race for best of the rest, but after a strong performance in testing, they will be desperate to climb back up. Joining the French team this year is Esteban Ocon who, having sat out the entire 2019 season, will be hungry to show his quality.
Just behind are the final teams of the grid; Haas, Alfa Romeo, Alpha Tauri and Williams. Haas have stepped backwards since their impressive start in 2016 and after the fiasco of the Rich Energy sponsorship, will be looking to cement themselves as a solid point scorer through 2020. Especially as there have been rumours of Gene Haas pulling the team if results don’t improve. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen remain in the team, which has been a surprise to many, after a fractious relationship has caused issues on track numerous times (see Britain 2019).
For the first time since 2006, Toro Rosso will not be on the grid, having had a name change to Alpha Tauri, Red Bull’s new clothing brand. A relatively unspectacular testing session leaves us unsure of their pace and expectations for the team, but they will of course be hoping to build upon the 2 outstanding podiums they scored last year. Alfa Romeo also seem in a similar purgatory, with an underwhelming testing appearance earlier this year. Antonio Giovinazzi will be looking to build on his relatively small points tally from last year, especially as it must be assumed that a more impressive performance would have put him in the running for the vacant Ferrari seat. While Kimi Raikkonen may break the record for most races started, if the calendar is long enough.
Finally, this leaves us with Williams. After a dire 2019, Williams will be looking for any signs of improvement and testing has suggested that they may finally break free of languishing at the back of the grid. They will need decent results too, as they search for a buyer to save their team. A repeat of 2019 will not look particularly impressive to potential investors. George Russell has not been able to show his ability in F1 yet as the 2019 Williams was frequently over a second slower than their nearest competitor. With Valterri Bottas out of contract with Mercedes at the end of this year, Russell will be desperate to show his ability (as he did in the F1 Esports races) and finally have the chance to battle with the drivers he graduated with at the front of the grid. Williams have also welcomed Nicholas Latifi into the team, the F2 driver being promoted after his best season in the lower formulae saw him finish 2nd to Nyk De Vries.
Currently, it is impossible to predict what shape the season will take, but after an agonisingly long time since the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi, there will be many excited fans tuning in for lights out in Austria.
Feature image credit: Formula1.com