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Formula 1 2020: season preview

Can anyone stop Hamilton clinching title number seven?

McLaren finds itself in an unusual position going into 2020. It had its strongest Formula 1 season in years in 2019, scoring a podium at the Brazilian GrandPrix courtesy of Carlos Sainz and finishing fourth overall– or ‘best of the rest’ – in the constructors’ standings.

But those positives hide the fact that there’s a mountain to climb to get on terms with the ‘big three’ of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. McLaren was 272 points off the latter team, and in 2020 faces a greater chance of slipping down the midfield than it does advancing to the front of the field.

“I’m happy with the progress we could make last year; we improved race by race,” said team principal Andreas Seidl, formerly of the Porsche WEC team, at the launch of the McLaren MCL35 in February. “The team is doing a sensational job. We can be optimistic going into the new season, but at the same time we need to be realistic.”

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Former Toro Rosso technical director James Key has also joined in the past 12 months, and says one of the issues all teams face is the balance between developing their 2020 cars and making sure they’re on top of the new 2021 rules.

“We want to maintain the momentum of 2019 while keeping an eye on 2021,” he said. “But we’ve planned for that; we know what we’d like to do and we can adjust that.” According to Seidl, the team will not be sacrificing 2020 to get a better start for 2021. “We need to make the next step with the car and how we operate this year,” he said.

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Another potential headache for F1 team bosses is the relationship between a squad’s two drivers, but that’s not something Seidl and Brown have to worry about. Sainz and Lando Norris’ ‘bromance’ has become the stuff of social-media legend, but away from the practical jokes, the pair are also committed, driven, free of ego, and united in their desire to move the team forwards during 2020.

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“The effort needed to improve in F1 is immense,” Norris said at the launch. “It’s not just spending a day a week in the factory – it’s two or three, whatever’s needed to make it work. What Carlos and I say leads the engineers in a certain direction, so you have to be careful, look at the big picture and be focused on improving the whole package, not just one or another specific element.

“Especially towards the end of last year, I became a lot more confident in asking for what I needed and wanted from the car, so the MCL35 feels a lot more like ‘my’ car.” Norris says he hasn’t been tempted away by the glamour of life in Monaco, and recently moved house to live just a few minutes away from the gates of McLaren’s Woking factory. Sainz also lives locally and spends plenty of time at the factory with the engineers. “I’m very happy here at McLaren and we’ve already started to talk about 2021 and beyond, but there’s no rush,” the Spaniard said. “I’ve a lot of faith in this project.”

Q&A - Toto Wolff

Quick-fire questions for the Mercedes-AMG team boss ahead of the season

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Q  After six world titles, does Mercedes have anything left to prove in the sport? 

A  “We are in this for the long term, because F1 provides a great marketing platform for our brand. F1 is the halo platform for hybrid engineering. We like the platform and we wish to continue our successful journey in F1.”

Q  Will Lewis Hamilton stay with the team beyond the end of this year?

A  “I have great belief in the ability of the team to attract the best drivers, and at the moment Lewis has proved he’s the best. In the medium to long term I would hope that we are able to continue to attract the best.”

Q  Do you agree with the cost cap being brought in to Formula 1 from 2021 on?

A  “I believe it’s a good thing, because it obliges us to operate under greater scrutiny and will turn us into a profitable entity.”

Q  You’ve said the team needs a new objective each year. What is it for 2020?

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A  “The pain of losing is more intense and lasts longer than the joy of winning. Just the thought of losing makes you forget all about your previous achievements.”

2020 grid guide

It’s hard not to look at the 2020 season as a bit of a ‘holding pattern’ for Formula 1, with a radically overhauled 2021 rules package on the horizon and little movement on the driver market over the winter. But there are several points of interest nonetheless. Will Mercedes drop the ball or carry Hamilton to a Schumacher-equalling seventh world title? Can Vettel recover his form at Ferrari after being comprehensively outclassed by new recruit Charles Leclerc in 2019? Is this the year Red Bull and Max Verstappen finally mount a title challenge?

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Further down the pack, Esteban Ocon versus Daniel Ricciardo will be a fascinating intra-team battle at Renault, McLaren has momentum to maintain, and Williams and Haas will be battling furiously to avoid the ‘wooden spoon’.

Mercedes - @MercedesAMGF1

  • Engine Mercedes
  • Races 210
  • Wins 102
  • Titles 6
  • Last year 1st

The 2019 season showed that Mercedes is beatable – but only on occasion. Yes, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc were able to steal poles and wins here and there, but still no-one could get close to the crushing consistency of the two Silver Arrows.

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It’s hard to look past a record-equalling seventh title for Hamilton come the end of the season (or even sooner). While Valtteri Bottas had a much stronger 2019 than 2018, the conclusion must be that the Finn is probably never going to mount a genuine season-long challenge, unless Hamilton has a major dip in form for some unforeseen reason.

Drivers

Valtteri Bottas - @ValtteriBottas

  • Races 140
  • Wins 7
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 2nd
  • Age 30

Did you know? After a winless 2018, Bottas topped the podium four times during 2019

Lewis Hamilton - @LewisHamilton

  • Races 250
  • Wins 84
  • Titles 6
  • Last year 1st
  • Age 35

Did you know? Hamilton has won at least one race every year he has competed in Formula 1

Our verdict

Observers have seized on Merc’s reliability woes in testing as evidence that the Brackley outfit may not have things all its own way this year. But if any team has the resourcefulness needed to quickly bounce back from such a setback, it’s Mercedes.

Ferrari - @ScuderiaFerrari

  • Engine Ferrari
  • Races 993
  • Wins 237
  • Titles 16
  • Last year 2nd
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Talk of Ferrari’s performance in testing was swiftly overtaken by the furore over the FIA’s investigation into the legality of its 2019 engine. But even before that bombshell dropped, the Italian squad wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence about its new car’s potential on track.

Rivals and onlookers have claimed this is all a bluff, but team principal Mattia Binotto insists the car is not as fast as he wanted or expected it to be. The other big question mark is Sebastian Vettel. The four-time champion was a shadow of his former self in 2019 and the team needs him back to his best.

Drivers

Sebastian Vettel

  • Races 241
  • Wins 53
  • Titles 4
  • Last year 5th
  • Age 32

Did you know? Vettel welcomed his third child, his first son, with wife Hanna in November

Charles Leclerc - @Charles_Leclerc

  • Races 42
  • Wins 2
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 4th
  • Age 22

Did you know? Leclerc has a 19-year-old brother, Arthur, who currently races in Formula 4

Our verdict

Strong qualifying pace and some superb drives from Leclerc were undone too often during 2019 by  ‘classic’ Ferrari strategic and tactical slip-ups. But the team may not have sufficient pace to even be in that awkward position this year.

Red Bull Racing - @redbullracing

  • Engine Honda
  • Races 287
  • Wins 62
  • Titles 4
  • Last year 3rd
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Could they have finally cracked it? With a combination of apparent pace and reliability in testing, and a strong sense of confidence coming from lead driver Max Verstappen and team boss Christian Horner, the signs are looking very positive for Red Bull heading into the 2020 season. No, it’s not going to leave Mercedes for dust, but all the pieces look to be in place for more hard-charging wins from Verstappen and possibly some podiums from the very impressive Albon.

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Drivers

Alex Albon - @alex_albon

  • Races 21
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 8th
  • Age 23

Did you know? Albon was promoted to Red Bull from Toro Rosso for the second half of the 2019 season

Max Verstappen - @Max33Verstappen

  • Races 102
  • Wins 8
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 3rd
  • Age 22

Did you know? Verstappen is one of a number of F1 drivers who regularly participate in sim racing

Our verdict

This could be the year that Red Bull’s gamble switching to Honda power pays off. In Max Verstappen it has a driver at the peak of his powers, and a promising but not disruptively fast Alex Albon in the second seat is a recipe for a string of solid results.

McLaren - @McLarenF1

  • Engine Renault
  • Races 867
  • Wins 182
  • Titles 8
  • Last year 4th
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McLaren has completed a remarkable turnaround since ditching Honda engines at the end of 2017, and the new senior management line-up of team principal Andreas Seidl and technical director James Key now have their feet under the table.

But there’s still a way to go before thoughts at Woking can turn to race wins and titles once more. Although the team was ‘best of the rest’ in 2019, there was still a yawning 272-point gap to third-place Red Bull. Drivers Norris and Sainz will need to keep their heads down and focus on doing the development work that’ll keep them ahead of their midfield rivals.

Drivers

Lando Norris - @LandoNorris

  • Races 21
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 11th
  • Age 20
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Did you know? Norris recently moved to live just a few minutes away from McLaren’s factory in Woking

Carlos Sainz Jr - @Carlossainz55

  • Races 102
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 6th
  • Age 25

Did you know? Sainz’s father, the two-time WRC champion, won the 2020 Dakar Rally in Saudi Arabia

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Our verdict

It may be a case of running to stand still for McLaren this year. There’s little point making huge efforts to bridge the still-considerable gap to the top three with the 2021 rule change on the way; the focus will be on staying top of the midfield.

Renault - @RenaultF1Team

  • Engine Renault
  • Races 386
  • Wins 35
  • Titles 2
  • Last year 5th

High-level boardroom drama at corporate level, as well as talk of ‘nothing off the table’ spending reviews, sent shivers of uncertainty through Renault’s Formula 1 team in 2019. There’s no escaping the fact that it has underperformed on track; according to its own five-year plan (set out on its return to the sport in 2016), it should have been winning races in 2019 and readying a title challenge in 2020.

That’s clearly not the case: instead, 2020 has the feeling of a make-or-break campaign for the Enstone squad. At least there are no question marks over the driver line-up: Ocon and Ricciardo are two of the best in the game.

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Drivers

Esteban Ocon - @OconEsteban

  • Races 50
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year NA
  • Age 23 

Did you know? Ocon comes back to racing after a year as Mercedes’ test and development driver

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Daniel Ricciardo - @danielricciardo

  • Races 171
  • Wins 7
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 9th
  • Age 30

Did you know? 2019 was Ricciardo’s lowest finish in the standings since racing with Toro Rosso in 2013

Our verdict

Renault has failed to deliver on targets that it set itself when returning to F1 as a team in 2016. Unless there’s a big upturn in form, Ricciardo won’t be renewing his deal at the end of the year and Ocon’s prodigious driving talent will be wasted here.

AlphaTauri - @AlphaTauriF1

  • Engine Honda
  • Races 268
  • Wins 1
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 6th

Alpha what? Don’t panic, this seemingly all-new outfit is simply a renamed Toro Rosso, now wearing the moniker of Red Bull’s fashion label and guaranteed to cause confusion among commentators when either of its drivers are battling Alfa Romeos on track.

This team is supposed to be a ‘feeder’ squad, readying talented youngsters for a career with the main Red Bull outfit, but in 2020 it finds itself in the odd position of running two drivers who’ve been sent back down from that position. Gasly did bounce back well from his 2019 demotion, while Kvyat remains fast but inconsistent.

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Drivers

Pierre Gasly - @PierreGASLY

  • Races 47
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 7th
  • Age 24

Did you know? Gasly was demoted from Red Bull halfway through 2019, but finished second in Brazil

Daniil Kvyat - @kvyatofficial

  • Races 95
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 13th
  • Age 25

Did you know? Kvyat’s partner is Kelly Piquet, daughter of three-time F1 champion Nelson

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Our verdict

The archetypal midfield team, but that only makes its occasional podium visits all the more gratifying. It’s just a shame that the strange workings of the Red Bull junior programme have resulted in known quantities driving, rather than exciting new talent.

Racing Point - @RacingPointF1

  • Engine Mercedes
  • Races 21
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 7th

Turmoil and cashflow problems associated with a change in ownership in 2018 had a knock-on effect in 2019 for the team formerly known as Force India, and usually known for punching well above its weight in F1.

Things are looking a lot better now, with a future as the works Aston Martin team on the horizon for 2021 and a 2020 car that looked pretty quick in testing – even if it was hard to ignore the fact that it leans very heavily on the design of last year’s title-winning Mercedes.

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Drivers

Lance Stroll - @lance_stroll

  • Races 62
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 15th
  • Age 21

Did you know? Stroll’s mother is Belgian and he has dual Canadian and Belgian citizenship

Sergio Perez - @SChecoPerez

  • Races 179
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 10th
  • Age 30

Did you know? Perez has two children, a boy and a girl, with wife Carola, whom he married in 2018

Our verdict

Onlookers may scoff at how close the 2020 Racing Point is to the 2019 Mercedes, but AlphaTauri and Haas take a similar approach and it’s within the rules. A slightly uninspiring driver line-up could be the weak point here, but Perez may still surprise.

Alfa Romeo - @alfaromeoracing

  • Engine Ferrari
  • Races 131
  • Wins 10
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 8th
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The first year of the former Sauber team’s rebirth as an Alfa Romeo works outfit was a relatively low-key affair, although there was a big haul of points for finishing fourth and fifth in the chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix.

Right now, Alfa doesn’t seem to have the strength in depth to compete with upper-midfield teams such as McLaren, Racing Point and Renault. It also remains to be seen what the long-term future of the team is in the context of parent company Fiat Chrysler’s merger with the PSA Group.

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Drivers

Antonio Giovinazzi - @Anto_Giovinazzi

  • Races 23
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 17th
  • Age 26

Did you know? Giovinazzi had a roundabout route to F1; he’s raced sportscars and DTM, as well as single-seaters

Kimi Raikkonen

  • Races 315
  • Wins 21
  • Titles 1
  • Last year 12th
  • Age 40

Did you know? Raikkonen featured on a postage stamp in his native Finland after his 2007 title win

Our verdict

There’s a lot of goodwill for the former Sauber team, but it needs to shake things up to move forward. Giovinazzi is solid but not a future champion, while Raikkonen is in the twilight of a career that should have delivered more than one title.

Haas - @HaasF1Team

  • Engine Ferrari
  • Races 83
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 9th

After three years of solid progress in F1, Haas endured a torrid 2019, culminating in the farcical breakdown of its relationship with title sponsor Rich Energy over the weekend of the British Grand Prix.

Uneven performances from both drivers suggested one or both might be replaced for this season, so the announcement that both Grosjean and Magnussen were being retained for 2020 raised a few eyebrows. What’s more, Haas set the slowest single lap of all the teams in pre-season testing, as well as completing the fewest number of laps overall. This could be another trying year.

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Drivers

Romain Grosjean - @RGrosjean

  • Races 166
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 18th
  • Age 33

Did you know? 2019’s 18th-place finish was Grosjean’s worst-ever full-season F1 result

Kevin Magnussen - @KevinMagnussen

  • Races 103
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 16th
  • Age 27

Did you know? When sponsorship ran out early in his career, Magnussen briefly worked as a welder

Our verdict

While another year battling in the lower half of the midfield seems inevitable for Haas, it’ll be interesting to see how its ‘Ferrari B-team’ set-up works in Formula 1’s new era from the start of 2021. Until then, it’ll be about keeping up.

Williams - @WilliamsRacing

  • Engine Mercedes
  • Races 731
  • Wins 114
  • Titles 9
  • Last year 10th

It’s not much in the big scheme of things, but Williams is already leaps and bounds ahead of where it was at this point in 2019, when its car failed FIA crash tests and wasn’t ready in time for the start of pre-season testing.

That said, in 2020 testing it suffered from some of the same Mercedes engine reliability issues as the works squad, so it’s not out of the woods yet. On the driver front, the highly impressive George Russell will be hoping a seat opens up at one of the bigger teams before he gets forgotten about, while the presence of Nicholas Latifi is largely down to sponsorship money and not raw talent.

Drivers

George Russell - @GeorgeRussell63

  • Races 21
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year 20th
  • Age 22

Did you know? Russell was born in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, and went to school in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire

Nicholas Latifi - @NicholasLatifi

  • Races 0
  • Wins 0
  • Titles 0
  • Last year NA
  • Age 24

Did you know? Latifi is Formula 1’s only rookie driver in 2020, replacing Robert Kubica at Williams

Our verdict

Things cannot get any worse than Williams’ 2019 annus horribilis and there were some encouraging signs in testing that the Grove squad has at least closed up the gap to the field. Unfortunately, it can’t really hope for much more.

What are your hopes for the 2020 F1 season? Leave us a comment below...

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