2020 F1 Australian Grand Prix preview: Dark horses or Bulls on parade?

F1

The 2020 Formula 1 season is set to get underway in Melbourne and Mercedes looks to be the team to beat once more: our team-by-team preview of the Australian Grand Prix

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The worldwide coronavirus outbreak continues to evolve, but Formula 1’s traditional season-opener at Albert Park in Melbourne is still on, kicking off what has the potential to be an explosive season of racing.

The ingredients are all there: records to be broken, redemption to be won, and reputations to be enhanced, all potentially headlined by a titanic battle for the world championship between the reigning and defending world champion Lewis Hamilton, and youthful challengers to the throne in the forms of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc.

That’s not to say that Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas can’t force their way into the title fight. In fact, both will have even more reason to do so, with questions hanging over their futures at respective teams.

There is also considerable uncertainty over just how many more races will be postponed or cancelled, making the early rounds ever more vital.

And after a shortened winter break and pre-season testing in Barcelona in the books, the midfield fight has once again closed up, if tentative testing analysis is applied.

As to how the field truly stacks up, we won’t know until the chequered flag falls on Sunday, but the signs are that 2020 has the makings of a brilliant year.

Mercedes

Mercedes

Hamilton could extend his incredible run of pole positions at Albert Park

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Six straight double world championships lay the foundation for what could be Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes’ most impressive year to date, and the champions show no signs of easing off with new regulations looming.

The team captured the attention of the entire F1 world on day two of winter testing as its DAS steering system was unveiled and left rivals scratching their heads in disbelief.

No team has accomplished what Mercedes has in terms of back-to-back titles, and Hamilton can go level with Michael Schumacher on seven Formula 1 drivers’ championships this year.

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Melbourne is not a bad place to start for the Silver Arrows, with the 35-year-old having secured seven of the last eight pole positions at Albert Park in a run dating back to 2012.

Success on Saturday, though, has rarely translated to the top step on Sunday. Hamilton has achieved race victory on just one of those occasions, back in 2015.

Team-mate Valtteri Bottas was the latest to deny Hamilton a win from pole in Australia, as he led home a Mercedes one-two last year.

There may never be a better time for ‘Bottas 3.0’ to arrive, with the beginning of the F1 schedule looking so uncertain.

If there is a weakness for Mercedes, it might be unreliability. Hamilton came to a halt during testing and all Mercedes-powered cars ran the final two days with engines turned down.

Team principal Toto Wolff, however, maintained that the team is fully prepared for round one of the season.

“We managed to get through most of our programme as planned at the winter tests; however, we faced some reliability issues that we needed to resolve,” he said.

“We’re glad that we encountered these issues in testing rather than at a race weekend as we could work on fixing them without any penalties.”

Ferrari

Ferrari

Charles Leclerc will have equal treatment with Sebastian Vettel in 2020

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An FIA investigation that led seven teams to threaten legal action against the governing body and Italy’s coronavirus lockdown is hardly the way Ferrari would have planned to begin its 2020 campaign.

Acrimony between its drivers towards the end of last season won’t have been easy to smooth over either but both will have equal treatment this year, according to team principal, Mattia Binotto.

In 2019, the team headed into the first round of the season confident after appearing to be comfortably fastest during winter testing.

Come Sunday evening in Australia though, the picture was entirely different, and faces left as red as the matte of the SF90.

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This season Binotto has not been shy in downplaying hopes, heading into the first round of the year after testing sessions where it did not appear to show its hand.

Early analysis shows that the car is not too far off that of the pace-setting Mercedes, with long-run speed seemingly its strongest asset.

Sebastian Vettel will be hoping to improve on a fourth place finish 12 months ago, and believes a truer reflection of Ferrari pace will be on show.

“Say Melbourne and three things come to mind: sunshine, a buzzing atmosphere and bumps,” he said.

“Every year we know that the Albert Park track is going to be very bumpy. In fact, it’s that characteristic which makes this track a real technical challenge and that’s probably the reason we drivers like it so much.

“The first race of the season is always special and I think it will allow us to get a better idea than we had in testing as to what the hierarchy is between the teams.”

Does Ferrari really have a car incapable of winning, or does it have a dark horse ready to steal a march on its rivals?

Red Bull

RedBull

Can Max Verstappen challenge for the title?

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Red Bull has not shied away from admitting that it has to provide Max Verstappen with championship-winning machinery this year.

The RB16’s performance in testing might have hinted that the team finally has a car capable of fighting for a title it hasn’t really challenged for in over half a decade.

The potential to be the bull in a championship china shop may undersell the team, as this year it left Barcelona quietly confident of its chances in 2020.

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In 2019, Verstappen showed just how ready he was to be in a title fight with Lewis Hamilton, and the war of words between the two has heightened the prospect of the pair going at it hammer and tongs on track.

Alexander Albon impressed during his nine races with the team in the second half of last year and was unlucky not to achieve his first podium at the Brazilian Grand Prix after contact with Hamilton’s Mercedes on the penultimate lap.

Getting a full test with a new car rather than being dropped into it mid-season puts him in a much better position going into Melbourne, with both feet firmly under the table now at the team.

 

McLaren

McLaren

Lando Norris can build on a promising rookie year if McLaren continue its progress

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McLaren’s 2019 was finally a sign of progress: both drivers shone and the team surpassed power unit provider Renault to finish as best of the rest in the constructors’ championship behind the top three.

Carlos Sainz’s sixth-place finish in the championship last year is further evidence of the progress McLaren has made since switching from Honda power, though this year the team faces tough competition as the midfield closes up further.

“We head to Australia ready and excited for another season to start. Following a successful pre-season testing, we feel prepared for the challenge of 2020 but conscious of where we need to focus,” team principal Andreas Seidl said.

“The Australian Grand Prix is where we first see how competitive all the teams are without the usual caveats of testing, so there is plenty to learn.

“Building our understanding of the MCL35 early in the year is crucial to our positive development.”

Renault

Renault

Renault’s performance in 2020 could well decide the future of Daniel Ricciardo

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Esteban Ocon’s assessment of the R.S.20 will have put many smiles on the faces of those at Viry and Enstone, with the Frenchman saying he has never been as quick through corners as in the 2020 car.

“We are as best prepared as we can be for the start of the year thanks to the hard work across Enstone and Viry over the winter months,” Renault team boss Cyril Abiteboul said ahead of the opening round.

“These efforts were exemplified in pre-season testing with solid engine reliability and a performance level, which fitted with what we expected to see.

“Now we aim to see the benefits of our preparation come to fruition at a race weekend.”

 

Racing Point

RacingPoint

Could Racing Point’s copy of the Mercedes W10 net them fourth in 2020?

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Racing Point’s RP20/Pink Mercedes W10 certainly caught the attention of midfield teams during winter testing, and the team is feeling very confident ahead of the curtain-raising Australian Grand Prix.

Sergio Perez believes the team can get off to a flying start at Albert Park, saying that the new car is the best he has driven in the entirety of his F1 career.

“I think this can be the most solid package I’ve had in my career to start the season,” he said after time in the car during winter testing.

“I hope in Melbourne that proves to be right, but at the moment the car is working well.”

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Racing Point has maintained that its copy of the Mercedes W10 is well within the rules, and the team showed signs that its gamble to copy the 2019 championship-winning car looks to be paying off, with impressive pace on show throughout testing.

Technical director Andrew Green defended the team’s position and said that rivals had dropped the ball in comparison.

“I think [complaints from other teams] boil down to the fact that some of the teams may not have done as good a job as they should have done, and I think we’re probably seeing that,

“For people to think, to take a team like that and inject money and resources in it, and it wasn’t going to improve, was just naive. And I think they just haven’t stepped up to the plate.”

 

AlphaTauri

AlphaTauri

Toro Rosso is no more as AlphaTauri becomes the Red Bull junior team

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Team Principal Franz Tost was happy with the new team gear as Toro Rosso became AlphaTauri over the winter break but will be more eager to know where the team sits in the F1 hierarchy.

“We will get a slightly clearer idea in Australia, because testing is just testing, and the Albert Park track is very different to Barcelona,” Pierre Gasly said ahead of the race.

“It’s a street track, very bumpy with very low grip levels, so we might see another picture to the one that came out of winter testing.

“What is clear is that it is again going to be very tight in the midfield, even a bit closer than last year.”

Daniil Kvyat was also upbeat about the teams chances at the opening race of the season.

“The car feels like it has good potential, it’s just down to us now to unlock it.”

 Alfa Romeo

AlfaRomeo

Alfa Romeo was one of the teams not to reveal much long run pace during winter testing

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Another of the midfield teams to conceal its pace during the six days in Barcelona, Alfa Romeo is under no illusions that the opening race of the season will be a closely run race in the midfield, says team principal Fred Vasseur.

“We come to Melbourne eager to find out how we compare to our rivals: whatever the outcome, we will not rest on our laurels or despair.

“This first round is the start of a new chapter, one in which we aim to make progress week after week: the goalposts move every new race as we, as well as our rivals, develop our car, so we will need to be delivering our best from here to Abu Dhabi.”

Vasseur was sceptical that the midfield teams would be able to close the gap to the front running trio and, despite a decent testing performance, the challenge awaits in Melbourne.

“We can look back at the last two weeks with satisfaction for a job well done, although we are fully aware that the real task is still ahead of us,” technical director Jan Monchaux said after the final day in Barcelona.

 

Haas

Haas

Haas is looking to recover from a woeful 2019 season

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Haas, along with Alfa Romeo, seemed to run during testing with its engine turned down compared to some of its rivals.

Team principal Guenther Steiner believes that 2020 could be even tougher for the midfield teams after strong testing times from multiple rivals.

“One thing is sure this year, in terms of what we can see after testing, is that the midfield is very tight. I can’t say where we stack up in the midfield, maybe somebody else can, but it’s very difficult to predict. We’ll just find out when we go qualifying in Melbourne.”

The team has run well at Albert Park in the past, and could use some luck with the torrid 2019 season a not too distant memory.

 

Williams

Williams

The FW43 appears to be a real improvement for Williams

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Not only did Williams make it to winter testing on time this year but the FW43 looked to be a marked step forward for the Grove-based team hoping to bounce back from a miserable 2019 campaign.

George Russell indicated that he felt far more at home at the wheel of the new car than its difficult predecessor, and the lap times show it too.

While it would be unfair and unrealistic to predict Williams to be challenging for the upper echelons of the midfield all of a sudden, fighting for position regularly would be a welcome eventuality for a team looking to restore its pride.