FEATURE BY GUEST AUTHORS
So, here we go again...
After an unexpectedly long hiatus, the first Formula One race of the year is just days away. Finally, life is starting to get back to normal again - we can soon look forward to being confused by the AWS graphics, despairing (or laughing) at Ferrari's hopeless race strategies, and pointlessly bickering with strangers for hours on social media over the latest controversial stewards decisions.
All this should hopefully provide some comfort in a season that is otherwise probably going to follow a similar pattern to the last few - one in which there's great expectation for an exciting championship battle, only for Mercedes not to receive the memo.
Will anybody from the following teams be able to step up to the challenge and save us from having to hear "get in there, Lewis" a depressing number of times? Let's hope so, for all our sakes.
Well, that's got to be awkward.
After only one year into Daniel Ricciardo's big money, blockbuster move to Renault, we already know that he'll be leaving at the end of this season in favour of McLaren. Despite previously stating his desire to '"do a Lewis' and help turn Renault into a championship contender, Ricciardo has clearly already seen enough - and it's hard to think of a more dramatic display of no confidence in the programme. Particularly when the team's previous big signing, Nico Hulkenberg, has already departed.
In future, Ricciardo's Renault stint is likely going to be viewed with a mixture of mirth and confusion, but in the here and now this year is probably going to be a bit of a write-off. It didn't look like Renault had made a significant step forward in pre-season testing, and there's a general feeling that this is a team without a great deal of direction.
Perhaps it was the speculation that Renault could soon be leaving the sport yet again that gave Ricciardo cold feet - indeed, his McLaren move would seemingly offer greater job security long term. Despite the renewed assurances that Renault's future participation is not in doubt, it doesn't make much sense in continuing to spend a huge amount of money if the manufacturer can't actually convince anyone else that it's going to be successful any time soon.
Reports have linked former Renault hero, Fernando Alonso, to the team for next season. But the question is why would a near 40-year-old Alonso want to return to a team that isn't capable of running at the front? Much as many would like to see him back, that hinges on him actually being in competitive machinery. So, at the moment, the Alonso/Renault talk would seem to be a non-starter.
Renault's most realistic option would be to hope that Esteban Ocon develops into the star he's shown the potential of being on a few occasions. The Frenchman ended up out of a drive in 2019 really through not much fault of his own, and he definitely deserves a place on the grid. It's just a shame that his first year back is going to be dominated with talk of who his team mate will be next year - already there's a long list of potential candidates, including the aforementioned Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, and Valtteri Bottas. That's before you even get into the candidates from the Renault academy, which is loaded with more talent than any other rival's young driver programme.
It may be too early in his young career for Ocon to take on the role of de-facto team leader, but how he compares to proven race winner Ricciardo will be one of the most interesting intra-team battles of this season. Ocon showed more strongly at Force India than the record suggests, despite multiple clashes with nemesis Sergio Perez, and he needs to show that Mercedes were wrong to overlook him.
It's going to take a while before Renault is able to return to being a front running team again, but they desperately need to show some progress this season.
McLaren's comeback last year was as impressive as it was surprising. Just as we were preparing to read the last rites to this once great team and witness them floundering with Williams, they had one of their strongest seasons in a very long time.
Sure, on the face of it, one podium finish for a team that was once a regular race winner and perennial championship contender still seems a poor showing, but that ignores the years of struggle the team has endured since 2012 which, at times, seemed like it would never end.
To use an American sports analogy, this is a team that has been through a long and painful rebuild, but is just now starting to emerge as a fringe playoff contender. Good enough to be respectable and cause the occasional upset, but still a long way off being able to think about challenging the very best.
Key to that strong season last year was Carlos Sainz - who we already know will be off to Ferrari next year. Some bemoaned Sainz as being the 'unexciting' choice, compared to some of the other names that had been talked about. But he is a genuine talent and likely race winner in the right machinery, and should not be written off as a 'number two driver'. It will be interesting to see whether the impending move to Maranello will prove to be too much of a distraction, but if McLaren is to take the next step and become a regular podium contender again they'll need Sainz to be at his best again this season.
On the other side of the garage, Twitch streamer and internet personality Lando Norris returns for his sophomore season. Despite frequently having to do battle with a dodgy internet connection, Norris has spent most of the past few months racing in the virtual world - making enemies with last year's Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud, in the process - so is unlikely to show too many signs of race rust.
His rookie season was impressive, despite finishing some distance off Sainz's points haul. But expect him to take another step forward and don't be surprised if he's in contention for podiums from the start, particularly if Ferrari is vulnerable through a lack of pace. Even though he's only in his second season, Lando already boasts a large fan base courtesy of his online profile. Whilst his happy-go-lucky persona is not to everyone's taste, you can expect to hear and see a lot more of him this year.
It's not all good news for McLaren though - having to make a quarter of their employees redundant, and securing an emergency loan from the National Bank of Bahrain, speaks of the financial challenges the pandemic has caused, even to some of the bigger names. In addition, with the 2021 regulation change now postponed, it's hard to see how they can take a sufficiently big step to bridge the gap that exists to the top three in the short-term. More podiums and cementing themselves as the fourth best team should therefore be a realistic target this year.
The last few years for Red Bull have followed a very similar pattern - false promises, false dawns and only occasional victories. This is the year when that needs to change.
They have everything they want. They've got Max Verstappen signed for another few years. They've got their preferred engine supplier in Honda. The regulations are unchanged. If they can't get the job done this year, the question becomes: when will they?
The honeymoon period will be over for Honda by now, and if their engine is only the third or fourth best, it'll inevitably lead to some tension. But, on the flipside, if the engine is good and Red Bull still isn't able to win consistently, the blame will have to be shifted somewhere else - and in an altogether more painful direction. After all, as we've seen with McLaren, it's not unheard of for a championship winning team to lose its way.
It scarce seems believable that Verstappen is now entering his sixth season in F1. Time is still on his side for him to become the sport's youngest champion, but there's a definite sense of urgency about this season.
The clever money is on them being Merc's closest rivals, but whether they're able to mount a consistent challenge still very much remains to be seen. Some suggest the calendar changes may actually play to Red Bull's strengths, but they need to come out the gates strongly if they're to have any hope of toppling Mercedes from its plinth.
Alex Albon did enough to retain his seat in the second car this year, but like Pierre Gasly before him, he faces an unenviable task. Just being able to back Verstappen up and score the occasional podium would seem achievable, and you can imagine that Red Bull may well be more patient than they've previously been given their lack of options.
From what we've seen of him so far, Albon has the potential to be here for a while - how he compared to Verstappen, in only his first season after a sudden promotion from Toro Rosso, earned plaudits. How he progresses in a car more familiar to him for this year will be interesting to see.
But don't forget that this is still very much 'Team Verstappen', just as it was once 'Team Vettel', now more than ever given the freshly signed contract extension. You only have to see Christian Horner's comments over the winter as evidence of that. When questioned about Carlos Sainz's season - who they previously let go, in what now has to be considered Red Bull's biggest error when it comes to drivers - he was quoted as saying that the Spaniard was "no Verstappen".
This is Red Bull's problem. While they have Verstappen driving one of their cars, nobody else will do - as Albon will no doubt discover for himself this year. They may well have a shot at the drivers' title - which is perhaps all they really care about - but Mercedes will likely still prevail in the constructors' championship.
Everyone's favourite Italian sitcom returns for another inevitably chaotic season, with their new car, the F1000 - named, no doubt, after the number of opportunities Ferrari has wasted in recent years.
Ferrari's 2019 season should have ended with a "to be continued..." message. Their year started poorly, never got much better, and ended on a sour note with continued signs that Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc just can't get on. This season doesn't look like being much better.
A quick recap of their 2020 so far - the team has reached a "settlement" with the FIA following an investigation into its engine last year, they'd previously talked about turning their attention to next year's car (always an encouraging sign, before the first race!), and, oh yes, Sebastian Vettel will be leaving the team at the end of the season.
Perhaps we should be thanking him for giving us some much needed news to discuss during this long delay. With little to talk about in recent months other than who crashed into whom on an online video game, Vettel thankfully reminded us that there's an actual real sport to report on as well.
After last year it seemed inevitable that he would soon be leaving Ferrari, but very few thought it would be quite as soon as this. Just like Daniel Ricciardo at Renault, knowing before the first race of the season that you'll be leaving the team in the very near future has got to lead to some awkwardness.
Regardless, this union is unlikely to end happily. Vettel will perhaps be even more motivated to put his young upstart of a team mate in his place, and salvage some personal pride before departing the team, whilst conventional wisdom dictates that Ferrari will prioritise Leclerc, given they won't want the driver who wins the championship to be the one who then immediately leaves the team.
For anyone who isn't a Ferrari fan, it should be bloody entertaining. For anyone who is...umm, perhaps your best bet is to write this year off and hope for better next season?
Vettel's immediate future will be one of the talking points of the season. His options look scant, with the best bet probably being a drive at Renault if he wishes to remain in the sport at all. Mercedes won't want to upset the applecart and place him alongside Hamilton, Red Bull will likely politely decline - and it makes little sense for Vettel to go there anyway - and anything else relies on Seb being happy to drive for a less competitive team.
With Ferrari still appearing to be all at sea, you shouldn't hold out too much hope their championship drought will be ending any time soon - a statement that feels like it gets more applicable with every passing season.
In the first draft of this piece, prior to Melbourne, I wrote about a hypothetical situation in which global civilization collapses into chaos, but Mercedes still manages to keep on winning. All things considered, this seems to be rather prophetic on my behalf.
Yes, I know there haven't actually been any races yet, but forget anything you've heard about concerns over reliability, or even Lewis Hamilton's future at the team. Who can forget, prior to last year, when Toto Wolff was on record as saying that "even Williams" could be capable of challenging them, due to the changes in front wing regulations?
In case you've already erased this depressing memory from your mind: Mercedes promptly went on to have their most successful start to a season so far. So, forgive me if I'm somewhat cynical about any prophecies of doom surrounding this team just yet. They are cockroach-like in their ability to withstand, and succeed, in any scenario imaginable.
Whilst Ferrari amazes in its ability to lose races it ought to have won, Mercedes does the same by winning races and championships they ought to have lost. Even if you're so weary of their domination that you'd rather watch the 2004 season on repeat viewing, you have to begrudgingly respect what they've achieved.
The most noticeable change at the team this year is the livery - no longer are they the Silver Arrows, courtesy of a new predominantly black scheme which was launched with great fanfare and considerable corporate spiel about improving diversity. Yes, really. It's an April Fools' Day story come true. Somehow, I can't imagine Ferrari ditching their red in favour of a rainbow livery any time soon though.
With any great team, the question becomes just how long it can last. We're hopefully closer to the end of the 'Mercedes era' than the start, but given the delay of the new regulations now to 2022, it's a safe bet to say that Mercedes begin this year - and next (if they're still here) - as the heavy favourites. Of course, the flip side of that argument is that with the regulations being stable, it gives the likes of Ferrari and Red Bull more of a chance to close up and challenge. But since we've been waiting for this to happen for what feels like half a decade or more, it's not guaranteed.
Even Lewis Hamilton's future looks more certain here than it did just a few months ago. Thanks to the effects that the coronavirus has had, there's now little incentive to switch teams after this season, and the only credible alternative he did have - Ferrari - is no longer available.
The only thing capable of stopping this run would seem to be Mercedes themselves, should they elect to make this "The Last Dance", to reference one of sport's other great dynasties recently immortalised by Netflix. In that case, it was the Chicago Bulls' management deciding to rebuild the team that ended their run of successive titles. Unlike the Bulls, Merc and Hamilton get a shot at going for their seventh titles. But despite repeated denials, there are still suggestions that Mercedes could soon be looking to sell the team - either in part, or in full - in the near future.
Combined with Andy Cowell's departure from the engine side, and questions over Toto Wolff's future - particularly after his investment in Aston Martin - it is perhaps no surprise that Lewis may be starting to consider life after F1. In recent weeks, he has turned internet activist and political commentator, weighing in on subjects ranging from Black Lives Matter to the UK government's handling of the pandemic, and a lack of diversity in the sport. He's definitely been more credible than when he was lecturing us about climate change and veganism last year, so perhaps a career in politics awaits once he's become bored of dominating F1?
That's a discussion for another time, but as for the present, it's likely to be a sense of déjà vu all over again, I'm afraid. For those hoping that this year might be different - I offer my apologies. In a year where both life and sport has changed drastically for so many, the only thing unlikely to be any different is the outcome of this year's World Championship. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Oops... I totally neglected to mention Valtteri Bottas in this section. He's still here, which is all you really need to know, and you can expect more of the same speculation about his future this year. Although if he did somehow manage to shock the world and win the championship, it honestly wouldn't surprise me, given the way this year has been going...