F1 2019 preview - is this Hamilton's toughest Mercedes title defence?

Lewis Hamilton
will be looking to make it six of the best as he prepares to defend his drivers' championship ahead of the new Formula One season.
The five-time world champion is again favourite to leave his rivals for dust over the 21-race campaign that starts at this weekend's Australian Grand Prix and ends in the Abu Dhabi desert in December.
But there are stories all over the 10-team, 20-driver grid and ahead of another season Sportsmail's reporters look at the key questions. 
Will Hamilton be facing his toughest fight yet at Mercedes to defend his title?
From outside the team, yes, but there will be no repeat of the internal battle with Nico Rosberg that needled him so much. Ferrari seem strong and Red Bull will develop well under design guru Adrian Newey's hand. It should be a good fight. 
 Yes, because for the first time his best may not be good enough. Ferrari have the quicker car again, but will have learned from last year's strategy and development blunders and appear more united under Mattia Binotto.
 The last couple of seasons have seen Ferrari end the Mercedes front row monopoly, and now they may now even have the edge. Hamilton is in for his toughest campaign since his first season at Mercedes but he will still be at the front.
Every winter we suggest the rest of the field are catching up with Mercedes, and every season the German steamroller carries on regardless. Hamilton has his ruthless eye on history and, as much as the fan in me wants to see a tight title battle, championship No 6 looks to be on the cards. 
I don't think so. While Ferrari have been smart in recruiting Charles Leclerc, he lacks experience competing at the front of the grid. Sebastian Vettel remains his biggest threat but errors appear to be creeping into the German's drives if last season is anything to go by. 
How under threat is Bottas at Mercedes given how much of a team player he is?
 Bottas should not be there now. He clearly failed last year. But he suits Lewis and makes for an easy life. Even allowing for that I think he needs to buck up if he is to survive the cut again. 
 He insists he can beat Lewis. He can't. One-year rolling deal proves he's simply keeping the second seat warm and they're queuing up to take it. Esteban Ocon is first in line.
Mar 17:
Australia (Melbourne)
Mar 31:
Bahrain (Sakhir)
Apr 14:
China (Shanghai)
Apr 28:
Azerbaijan (Baku)
May 12:
Spain (Catalunya)
May 26:
Monaco (Monte Carlo)
Jun 9:
Canada (Montreal)
Jun 23:
France (Paul Ricard)
Jun 30:
Austria (Spielberg)
Jul 14:
Great Britain (Silverstone)
Jul 28:
Germany (Hockenheim)
Aug 4:
Hungary (Budapest)
Sep 1:
Belgium (Spa)
Sep 8:
Italy (Monza)
Sep 22:
Singapore (Marina Bay)
Sep 29:
Russia (Sochi)
Oct 13:
Japan (Suzuka)
Oct 27:
Mexico (Mexico City)
Nov 3:
United States (Texas)
Nov 17:
Brazil (Sao Paulo)
Dec 1:
Abu Dhabi (Yas Marina)
Strangely I consider his role close to perfect. Quick enough to bag points but passive enough to never rock the boat and hurt Hamilton's season the way Nico Rosberg used to. Why would Mercedes risk losing that dynamic by drafting in Ocon for instance, who loves a squabble with a fellow driver (ask Perez or Verstappen)?
 Bottas is in an odd situation – he's in this race seat for what he brings to his team-mate, rather than what he can provide as a driver in his own right. I feel Mercedes will want to bring Esteban Ocon into the No 2 seat next season, unless the Finn produces a marked improvement on last season. 
In short: not much. Hamilton must love having a 'wingman' like Bottas with him at Mercedes. The Finn took issue with Toto Wolff's use of that word in Hungary last season but it is true. Unlike predecessor Nico Rosberg, Hamilton can rest easy knowing Bottas will never put himself above the team. Bring back Nico.
How much of a 'pest' could Charles Leclerc be to Sebastian Vettel's title challenge?
 Vettel has been given a public indication he is No 1. It remains to be seen how Leclerc operates in the more rarefied air of Ferrari - a different proposition from Sauber. I think Vettel, refreshed, will win the internal battle.
 This will determine the championship. Ferrari have set their stall out early, insisting they will favour Vettel. The early races suit Ferrari and so, if Leclerc makes the better start, Binotto will have an almighty headache. The 21-year-old is a future world champion and subservience does not a champion make. Just ask Seb.
I'm convinced he has been brought in to replace Vettel and not Raikkonen, with the German instead taking Kimi's No 2 spot in the long run. Not that Ferrari will admit that. To me,  Ferrari lost faith with Vettel and his endless mistakes last term and have already made their move to start building the team around the Monegasque.
I think this could be the story of the season. Leclerc was electrifying at times in a poor Sauber car last season. If he hits the ground running, I can't see how Ferrari can force him to play second fiddle to Vettel, especially if the German does not pick up from his 2018 slump. Don't rule out a Leclerc title bid. 
A real pest. You would be hard pressed to find an F1 fan who was not impressed why Leclerc's rookie season with Sauber. He regularly exceeded expectations in qualifying and with a far more competitive car at his disposal this season.
Will Max Verstappen finally have the machinery to launch a bid for the title?
 We'll soon find out. But from testing they look third-quickest. The Honda engine is three per cent down on the Mercedes. 
 No. He's better placed without Ricciardo and Renault but, while Honda power should see them close the gap, boss Christian Horner admits reliability is a big unknown in the first year of their partnership. Like last year, expect the odd win and the odd blow up (from car and driver).
Status quo I'm afraid for Max. Another great Red Bull chassis which just lacks the power unit punch behind it to trouble Mercedes and Ferrari on a regular basis. Still, it's good to see Honda looking like they have caught up a bit. F1 needs them to succeed.
 If engine suppliers Honda go from their embarrassment with McLaren to title winners at Red Bull, that would be among the greatest turnarounds in F1 history. Verstappen seems to finally have his attitude in the right place (the Ocon confrontation was the exception rather than the rule). He is ready but are Red Bull?
Verstappen went on record last August pinpointing 2020 as his best chance of a maiden world title but he is not a character happy to watch his rivals coast to the world championship. He's managed to weed out some silly errors from his drives and I just hope he is provided with a competitive - and ultimately reliable - car.
What chance do McLaren have of ending a five-year podium drought?
 McLaren may luck into a podium but that is their only chance, I fear. They will be better than last season but that's not saying much. 
Unless there's another crazy race in Baku, no chance. They're finally turning the corner, but just scoring points is tough given how tightly packed the midfield is.
McLaren are heading in the right direction at long last but they look only capable of marginal gains this term. They could benefit from a Wacky Races type GP to land a podium but they should focus more on beating Renault for now.
 Unless they've been holding back in testing, regular top-10 finishes are more likely to be the aim unless they get a lucky break in a one-off race. Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz are both quick, but making the top three is a huge ask. 
Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull possess such an advantage over their rivals it looks increasingly difficult for McLaren to bridge the gap after such a poor season. I expect a much-improved season but it is too soon for an end to the podium drought.
Which new Brit on the block is best set for his rookie year?
 George Russell - a bit older and wiser than Lando Norris, perhaps. 
Norris has the best car and will score most points, but George Russell will emerge with most credit. So terrible is his Williams that, to a large extent, the pressure is off. Expect him to outperform team-mate Robert Kubica. 
Norris could end up getting beat by Sainz and still have the possibility of claiming a productive first year. For Russell, he sadly has no measure. Beat Kubica, or even thrash him, and he has only seen off a severely hampered team-mate. No-win situation really for George, and that's before we mention the mess Williams are in!
 George Russell beat Lando Norris to the F2 title last year and is just as talented as the more heralded 18-year-old, perhaps because he is a more reserved character. However he may be let down by being in a poor Williams. I'd back Norris as the more likely at this stage. 
I just cannot bring myself to go on record and put Williams as the best in anything right now - apologies George Russell. The only way appears to be up for McLaren and Norris has shown his qualities in F2 - he's ready to make the step up.
Whose 'make or break' year is bigger at Renault - Ricciardo or Hulkenberg?
 Both are mid-tablers. Neither, for their commendable talents, is in demand by a top team. I think Ricciardo will see out his Renault contract and then walk away. He is building a property portfolio in America and that may grow into a preoccupation. 
Ricciardo. Must pounce whenever the big three teams falter and finish best of the rest - seventh - in drivers' standings to prove Renault's project is on track and his move from Red Bull was shrewd not stupid. 
This is it now for Hulkenberg. The chance to prove he can take on the big names in F1 - and maybe, just maybe land that overdue podium and finally catch the eye of a big team. Ricciardo has at least two years to get it right at Renault but time is running out for Nico.
Ricciardo. The risk the Australian has taken is career defining. If he can drag Renault onto the podium then he deserves to be regarded as one of the great drivers of the 21st century. If not, then he is set for obscurity. 
 I am not convinced F1 fans are expecting much more from Hulkenberg. He's been competent and has out-qualified both Jolyon Palmer and Carlos Sainz in his last two seasons. Ricciardo was in the conversation for a Ferrari or Mercedes spot at one time and he will be expected to carve himself out as the side's undisputed No 1.
How does Kubica make a success of his comeback at a struggling Williams?
 Just being on the grid is a victory. What a fabulous recovery. Beating his Williams team-mate Russell would do. 
 Needs a miracle, but that's his business. Beating Russell and a double-figure points haul would represent a stellar comeback season. Don't think he will do either. 
I just want Kubica to be competitive, and that means keeping Russell honest and bagging a few points over the season. I'm not expecting much given he has to effectively drive one handed.
 Growing up, Kubica was my favourite driver. I loved his attacking skill, his bravery, the underdog edge that came with driving for BMW rather than a more fashionable team. But the numbers do not lie – he is well off the pace. He needs time, reliability and consistency – and in a troubled team, I really fear this could turn into a nightmare. 
 Much depends on the car he is provided with. Williams have been dismal at best recently and have been certainties to prop up the grid. Out performing rookie team-mate George Russell will be the minimum he will expect of himself.
What are you tipping for a big surprise this season?
 I don't know what it will be but it may come this weekend in Melbourne. This place can throw up strange results. 
 Alfa Romeo. Closer partnership with Ferrari, aggressive car design which looked quick through the corners in testing and the Kimi factor. A dangerous unknown quantity - how very Alfa.
It's been rubbish for far too many years now, but we are long overdue a decent Monaco Grand Prix. Whether it comes in the form of a sprinkling of rain of some tyre-related shenanigans I don't know but it would certainly be a surprise wouldn't it? 
 Leclerc will finish above Vettel in the overall drivers points, Raikkonen will earn at least one podium for Alfa Romeo, and Alexander Albon – effectively an emergency choice for Toro Rosso – will be in and around the top 10 on a regular basis. 
 I will go with Pierre Gasly. This one could come back to bite me but I expect Red Bull to make a real go of it this year and Gasly showed enough in spells in the Toro Rosso last year to suggest he can rise to the challenge.
Where are the championships heading?
 Drivers title: Hamilton. Constructors: Ferrari. 
 I'm sold. Vettel and Ferrari.
Hamilton to win the drivers' crown in a final race Abu Dhabi showdown but Ferrari to pinch the constructors' title.
 Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. Where else? 
 Mercedes. Hamilton is still the man and if I was a betting man that is where my money would go. As a pairing I prefer the Ferrari pair - Bottas' unselfishness infuriates me - but I fully expect Mercedes to be toasting another double. 

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