After months of waiting, isolating, planning and negotiation, Formula 1 is set to restart the 2020 season next month with a double-header in Austria.
A total of eight races have been announced so far, planned to take place within a 10-week window, and more are set to be announced in the ensuing weeks as F1 tries to get its season back on track.
Following winter testing, conclusions point to the top three teams looking familiar, though it was Red Bull and not Ferrari that was the biggest threat to Mercedes. There has also been talk of a reverse grid qualifying race being trialled at some stage, which could further mix things up should that proposal go ahead.
But back on the track, who will have the advantage? With the usual calendar torn up and a new one formulated, will the unfamiliar shake-up the order? A two-race stint in Austria in the July heat will likely be music to Red Bull ears and may even have Mercedes wincing at the prospect.
Looking back at recent seasons, who does the new schedule suit and who has the most to lose during the opening eight race gambit?
Rounds 1 and 2: Austrian and Styrian Grands Prix
Red Bull begins on home soil in Austria, and it couldn’t have hoped for a better opening to the season. In recent years, by the time F1 has arrived in the Styrian mountains Mercedes has long since established a lead in both championships.
This time, the field will be even, until it rises up the hill and into Turn One at the Red Bull Ring.
Mercedes has been afforded the off weekends it has experienced in Austria in 2018 and ‘19 by virtue of its points tally heading into the weekend. That won’t be the case this year.
If, when teams unload and hit the track, the W11 struggles like its predecessor in the summer heat, the door is wide open for rivals. The penalty would be two-fold with a second race at the circuit to kick the year off.
Undefeated at the Red Bull Ring for the past two seasons, Verstappen’s home from home could be the perfect place to begin a title charge in 2020 as teams head into this relative unknown following the pause after pre-season testing.
He might be missing out on a Dutch Grand Prix in 2020, and the seas of orange-clad fans who arrive in Austria are likely to be absent this year, but it’s a start to the season that at least favours Verstappen, and perhaps makes him the favourite.
Round 3: Hungarian Grand Prix
Last season, the Hungaroring played host to one of the most exciting races of the season as Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton went head to head for the win.
No other driver has won more at the Hungaroring than Hamilton, who has won seven times there. Verstappen’s qualifying lap to deprive Mercedes of pole was a sign of just how fast Red Bull is there in his hands. Three wins out of three for the Dutchman is not inconceivable.
Where do Ferrari figure into this? The pace on display last season during the Hungarian Grand Prix will suggest not fighting it out for the race win – the fastest car finished a full minute behind the winner.
Times from testing also suggest that Mercedes has maintained a gap over its rivals at the top, with Ferrari possibly losing the crown of second-fastest team in F1 to Red Bull. Rewind to 2017 though and despite a damaged car, Sebastian Vettel was able to take the win in a Ferrari one-two, such is the difficulty of passing around this track.
Rounds 4 and 5: British and 70th Anniversary Grands Prix
Hamilton has been almost unstoppable on home soil in past seasons, and also holds the record for most British Grand Prix wins with six.
His dominance last season was underlined with a fastest lap on his final tour of the circuit and showed just how at home the Mercedes was at Silverstone.
This could be the point where Mercedes stretches its legs in the 2020 season as the calendar moves to venues that have historically suited Mercedes far more than others.
Round 6: Spanish Grand Prix
This is where the championship could divert away from the status quo. Known to already be brutal for tyre wear, the Circuit de Catalunya is a punishing track and with its rescheduling putting the Spanish Grand Prix at peak of the European summer, Pirelli’s tyre selection could play a pivotal role.
Typically, when F1 visits Barcelona in its usual slot in May, temperatures are around 18-22deg C on average. When F1 arrives this year in August, temperatures can be touching 30deg C. Tyre degradation will be a factor, and Red Bull might be best placed of the top teams when it comes to conserving rubber.
Whether we see extreme four-stop strategies will depend on what compound of Pirelli tyres are brought to the race, but should similar tyres be brought as was used in 2019, a three-stopper isn’t out of the question and could open the door to some strategic manoeuvring.
Round 7: Belgian Grand Prix
Ferrari’s strongest race of the 2019 season came at the Belgian Grand Prix, with Charles Leclerc scoring his first Formula 1 win.
Roll on a year though and the outlook is certainly different when looking at the Prancing Horse’s prospects of Spa victory. While Spa essentially retains the same slot it did 12 months ago, the landscape at the top looks dramatically different, especially in the case of one team in particular.
Last season saw a Ferrari resurgence, thanks to impressive straight-line speed that left rivals Mercedes and Red Bull questioning the legality of the Ferrari power unit.
The exact details surrounding the FIA-Ferrari settlement agreed to earlier this year remain shrouded in mystery, but the speed on straights that the team enjoyed last season has seemingly vanished on evidence from pre-season testing. Should this continue as the revised 2020 season progresses, Spa will not be a welcome weekend for Ferrari.
Looking back over the past few years, Mercedes’ power unit strengths show with a significant margin over Red Bull in qualifying trim, but questions will remain unanswered as to Honda’s improvements on its engine over the winter.
Alex Albon’s performance last season showed Red Bull promise. Having started at the back of the grid due to a power unit penalty, his charge through to fifth on Red Bull debut was impressive. Does the RB16 have what it takes to challenge Mercedes from the front this year though?
Round 8: Italian Grand Prix
Leclerc announced his arrival as the next-big-thing at Ferrari last season, defying qualifying team orders as well as a Mercedes onslaught to take victory in front of the Tifosi as Vettel faultered. But as with Spa, the team’s prospects on paper look slim at best.
The power-hungry ‘Temple of Speed’ plays into Mercedes hands, though with the gains Honda has reportedly made over the winter, Red Bull could pose the closest threat to the Silver Arrows.
Mercedes has otherwise dominated the Italian Grand Prix since the beginning of the hybrid era in 2014 to 2018. Monza has not been a favourite for Red Bull, who’s power deficit to the Merc and Ferrari power units has prevented a significant threat in recent races.
Once more, the race date at Monza is similar to the 2019 slot, meaning conditions will be familiar to those experienced last season.