Once basking in the glory of consecutive championship-success, then tasked with reviving Ferrari – as his hero and compatriot Michael Schumacher did – the time for Sebastian Vettel to achieve this could be running out.
When the flag drops the bullshit stops. Finally, with just days until the season-opening 2019 Australian Grand Prix, we’re about to get some concrete answers on just what kind of Formula One season we’re in for.
Teams and pundits alike are predicting one of the closest seasons of the turbo-hybrid era, but not everyone can be a winner. Here’s a best-guess attempt at predicting the 2019 season.
Sebastian Vettel (5), Charles Leclerc (16)
Yes, I’m going out on a limb — Ferrari will finally win the constructor’s championship.
New team principal Mattia Binotto appears to have liberated his team from its siege mentality, and with a car that is both fast and reliable, the Scuderia’s way is clear to finally dethrone Mercedes.
The drivers will make the difference. Around 70 of Ferrari’s 84-point Mercedes deficit last season were down to Kimi Raikkonen, while Sebastian Vettel committed 50 points worth of errors.
Charles Leclerc will push Vettel harder than the Finn, securing the constructors title — and almost beating the German in the process.
Lewis Hamilton (44), Valtteri Bottas (77)
Mercedes’s first championship loss since 2014 will come not just from a sluggish start borne of the technical regulation changes but also from a mismatch among its driver pairing.
But the German marque won’t go down without a fight. Recovery from its preseason niggles will be swift — enough to keep Lewis Hamilton in the drivers championship fight with Vettel and Leclerc, from which he will again emerge victorious.
Valtteri Bottas will endure a difficult though improved season, but the temptation to promote Esteban Ocon following Leclerc’s successful Ferrari debut will prove too strong for 2020.
3. Red Bull Racing
Max Verstappen (33), Pierre Gasly (10)
Red Bull Racing adopted Honda power on the bet it would be no worse than Renault. This much will come to pass, with the Japanese marque indeed improving on last year’s efforts, but not enough to propel the once dominant team into title contention.
The team will continue sniping for wins at favourable circuits, but fascinating will be the battle between Max Verstappen, now the de facto senior driver, and new teammate Pierre Gasly.
Verstappen’s on-track maturity advanced in great strides last year, while Gasly’s consistency will be key to how hard he can push the Dutchman. Max should have him covered.
Daniel Ricciardo (3), Nico Hulkenberg (27)
Nothing less would be acceptable for Renault, now in its fourth year back. The team’s worsening results as last season were down to its focus on 2019 — it didn’t adopt its final-spec motor in 2018, for example, hitherto a key Renault weakness.
Regulation changes and engine improvements will help it reduce the gap to the frontrunners, which is really the aim this season, and superior reliability will have it fend off Haas.
Daniel Ricciardo will cement his place at the team by beating Nico Hulkenberg, but not by as much as some may think in what will be a real contest.
Kevin Magnussen (20), Romain Grosjean (8)
Team and driver error cost Haas what would’ve been a phenomenal fourth place in the 2018 constructors standings. Though the Haas machine looks likely to be quick again this year, unreliability will cost it an early lead to Renault, and the gap between manufacturers and independents will seal the deal thereafter.
Romain Grosjean has some making up to do after a horror start to last season that left him 19 points behind Kevin Magnussen. The Frenchman will improve enough to ensure Haas keeps its head above the rest of the midfield, but not enough to best his street-fighting teammate.
6. Racing Point
Sergio Perez (11), Lance Stroll (18)
The costs of last year’s financial woes impinged on Racing Point’s preseason, making the team look in far more dire straits than it really is. A major upgrade package is due in Melbourne, with updates scheduled regularly thereafter, which will see the team return to frequent points-paying finishes.
Midfield specialist Sergio Perez will easily lead new teammate Lance Stroll, but the Canadian will improve the more time he spends at a high-functioning team to be a credible mid-grid opponent — though not enough to keep Haas within reach.
7. Alfa Romeo
Kimi Raikkonen (7), Antonio Giovinazzi (99)
Alfa Romeo was the most improved team of 2018, ending the season in the mix at the head of the midfield thanks to the best financial situation it’d experience in years. With former Ferrari chief designer Simone Resta moving from the Scuderia last May, the team, already looking punchy, will continue to grow throughout the year.
Kimi Raikkonen is an important part of the plan, both boosting morale and guiding from the cockpit. The move appears to have reinvigorated him, and though he’ll beat teammate Antonio Giovinazzi in his rookie season, the Italian will acquit himself well enough to secure his future.
8. Toro Rosso
Daniil Kvyat (26), Alexander Albon (23)
Toro Rosso is a difficult team to place in tightly contested midfield. The team’s closer ties with Red Bull Racing will pay dividends this season, but Honda will be a weakness against Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo.
In the cockpit are two drivers on effective second chances. Daniil Kvyat is on a mission to redeem himself after thrive being dropped by the Red Bull programme in 2017, while Alex Albon is a former Red Bull Junior Team protege welcomed back to replace Brendon Hartley.
There won’t be much in it, but Kvyat’s F1 experience will deliver for him against his rookie teammate.
Carlos Sainz (55), Lando Norris (4)
Honesty is the new McLaren policy, and in 2019 the aim is to improve as part of a five-year plant to return to competitiveness. The good news is that preseason testing suggested some of the car’s worst problems have been worked out and that the midfield remains close, but the bad news is that the historic English team remains behind the eight ball.
Carlos Sainz’s experience will help improve matters this season and see off rookie Lando Norris, who will benefit from honing his craft out of the spotlight this season. A more peaceful year at a minimum is in store.
George Russell (63), Robert Kubica (88)
No prizes for picking Williams to bring up the rear of the grid in 2019. Late to testing and slowest once it got going, the team has reportedly already shed chief technical officer Paddy Lowe from its staff for the embarrassment in what was supposed to be a recovery year after a dismal 2018.
The car at least looks stable as a platform to build upon, but a likely dearth of points-scoring opportunities makes picking a leading driver difficult. The heart says Robert Kubica, but the head says George Russell — but by a small margin either way.
All that said, predicting a season’s results is a mug’s game, and in what is tipped to be one of the most tightly contested seasons in recent times particularly in the midfield, the task is all the more difficult.
I could easily see Toro Rosso, with its closer technical relationship with Red Bull Racing, jumping up to sixth — or maybe even higher — as the season progresses and the STR14 becomes better understood. Similarly Racing point may take substantially longer to get up to speed with what will essentially be a B-spec car from the start of the season, ultimately costing it a place late on the title table.
At least we have only a few days to find out just how wrong we are.
What’s your tip for the 2019 Formula One season?