New boy Leclerc can usurp Hamilton and bring glory days back to Ferrari
The collective roar of 20 Formula One V6 engines will be heard next weekend at the Albert Park in Melbourne for the first race of the 2019 season. There will be a superb carnival atmosphere bursting with expectation. Ferrari fans will be out in force resplendent in flaming red, which will contrast nicely with the green of St Patrick's Day revellers.
Drivers will be champing at the bit to get on track. Winter testing has concluded, they've honed their fitness in gyms, tweeted their diets, spent hours on simulators, sharpened their reactions, and done anything they can to give them the minutest of advantages. They're all raring to go, particularly the three young neophytes who join the F1 circus.
This may not be the year Lewis Hamilton delivers a sixth title. Even though he has proved he can out-drive competitors he may find this season is especially difficult to position himself closer to Michael Schumacher's all-time record of seven titles. So what's different?
Well despite having the best car in 2018, Ferrari sleep-walked its way to failure. This season that is set to change. They've made two strategic decisions which should impact greatly on their prospects: first they've finally replaced 40-year-old Kimi Raikkonen with the massively-talented 21-year-old former Sauber driver Charles Leclerc. I'm not being biased here because Leclerc drove for my Theodore-Prema team in F2 and won the title, but because I believe the Monaco man has the speed and smarts to be a future world champion. He is the real deal.
The second major change is that they've replaced ineffectual team principal Maurizio Arrivabene with the slick Mattia Binotto, who was at Ferrari when Schumacher was winning championships and he was technical officer when Ferrari rose like a phoenix from the ashes in the last two years. He will bring Swiss precision to the job and a finesse that's been lacking during Arrivabene's tenure. In addition, they have a superb car in the SF90. So all roads lead to Rome, or rather from Maranello.
Sebastian Vettel, in the last year of his Ferrari contract, has his work cut out with Leclerc as a team-mate. I predict the new kid on the block will surpass the four-time world champion once he gets his feet under the table. Vettel won the opening couple of races in 2018 (he had five wins in total), while Hamilton was winless until the fourth race but finished with 11 victories. So however brilliant the start of a season goes for one driver, it isn't always an accurate precursor.
F1 desperately needs more than two contenders for the title and Red Bull - now with Honda power - may step up to the plate, judging by pre-season testing. The downside is that Daniel Ricciardo, twice race winner in 2018, has departed for Renault. In his place is Pierre Gasly, who has his work cut out matching the pace of his team-mate Max Verstappen, another double race winner last season. Verstappen is always knocking on the door of greatness but he needs to hone the self-discipline a bit if he's to avoid being an ex-wonderkid.
Red Bull's loss is Renault's gain and they will be upping their efforts thanks to the arrival of Ricciardo, who will be the star attraction in his home race. He'll be hoping for some of Hamilton's Midas touch by changing teams at the right time. Nico Hulkenberg may not be so thrilled at the Australian's arrival, however, since he dominated Carlos Sainz when they were together.
Haas is to Ferrari what Toro Rossa is to Red Bull. Newish to F1, they did well to finish fifth in the constructors' championship last season. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are pretty evenly matched with an average of 0.009secs between them, which makes for a more balanced, harmonious team.
McLaren went from second-last in the constructors title to sixth last year. However, Fernando Alonso is no longer around to weave his magic. Replacing him is another Spaniard, Sainz. Another new signing is Lando Norris, who finished second in the F2 championship last year to George Russell, Williams' new recruit.
Racing Point is Force India reincarnated. The team went bust in the middle of last season, and Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll snapped it up. He was a Williams shareholder and his son Lance - another former Theodore-Racing driver - drove for the British team. Now the new team principal gets to call all the shots and although he's come in for criticism for favouring his son, Sergio Perez will prove a formidable team-mate and is unlikely to settle for being the underdog.
Alfa Romeo bring an exotic name back to F1; it is actually Sauber rebadged. Back in 1951 Alfa Romeo won the world championship with Juan Manuel Fangio, who won five titles. It's hard to imagine their new signing Kimi Raikkonen mustering up enthusiasm when he struggled to do so at Ferrari. His team-mate Antonio Giovinazzi finished third for Theodore-Prema in the 2016 GP2 series. He's been test driver for Sauber, Haas and Ferrari and now the Italian gets his big break with a full-time drive for an Italian team.
Toro Rosso appear to have a 'back to the future' plan. They rehired the talented Daniel Kvyak after they parted company in 2017. The Russian spent last year as test driver for Ferrari. His team-mate is British-born Thai national Alex Albon, who is a natural fit given that the team is owned by Red Bull, whose majority shareholder is Thai. Albon finished second in 2016 in the GP3 series behind Leclerc.
Williams missed part of pre-season testing, which they put down to late 2019 regulations hampering the readiness of the FW42. These new bodywork regs include wider and higher front wings, with a simpler design to reduce turbulence; wider and deeper rear wings should help downforce, airflow and slipstreaming.
Williams has just lost their chief technical officer, Paddy Lowe, which is a severe blow. The team has an interesting line-up of drivers. Robert Kubica was an F1 champion-in-waiting when he had an horrendous crash in a rally car in 2011 which partially severed his right arm. Since then he has shown the courage of a lion and has inched his way back to F1. Everyone would love him to realise the potential he once had, but in reality he will struggle. One of the most talented newcomers is George Russell. He won the F2 title last year and he is the next great British hope.
The driver with the fastest lap will get a point under new regulations and that could potentially determine the title. Who will prevail in 2019? I'm going out on a wing: no, not Red Bull, but Charles Leclerc. If he doesn't do it then Hamilton will surely step up to the plate. Enjoy the season.
Sunday Indo Sport