Melbourne’s Albert Park grand prix, the traditional Formula One curtain raiser, has been pushed back to April 10 in a record-breaking 23-event calendar for 2022.
Even in their ultra-dominant 2014–16 championship run, Mercedes didn’t have as strong a start to a season as this.
Four consecutive one-two finishes in the first four rounds — a new F1 record — has already earnt it a healthy 74-point buffer to Ferrari in second place, while Valtteri Bottas leads Lewis Hamilton 87-86 by virtue of his point for fastest lap at the Australian Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel already trails by 35 points, more than a clear race win, with Charles Leclerc a further five in arrears.
“It takes 100 per cent to deliver throughout the weekend,” Hamilton said. “They’re going to have to pick it up if they want to fight us.”
Indeed the SF90 looks quick enough to contend for wins, but difficult setup and poor operation have let Ferrari down, and though the season is still relatively young, we’re rapidly approaching the quarter-way mark.
And the increasing risk of a Ferrari flop means Bottas may be the only roadblock to Hamilton winning a fourth championship in five years.
That might be a concerning prospect for those who lost hope in the Finn during his demoralising 2018 campaign, but 2019 promises to be different.
For one, he’s beaten Hamilton at two of the four races to date, including scoring two pole positions to his teammate’s one, but perhaps more important is that he hasn’t been far behind Lewis on those weekends he didn’t claim maximum points. A driver’s off weekends decide their championship fate, and so far Bottas has ensured his lows aren’t anything like the chasms of yesteryear.
However, it’s also fair to say that none of his victories has been the sort of dynamite that really makes you sit up and pay attention.
While he was strong at the Australian Grand Prix, he still missed pole by a tenth to Hamilton, and in Azerbaijan, he was pushed by Lewis all the way to the chequered flag. Neither result will have rattled his decorated teammate.
Further, though it’s unfair to colour his wins with Hamilton’s relative performance, there’s no doubting Lewis hasn’t been at his sizzling best. He’s by no means off the mark, but Bottas has, for the most part, needed to be only good enough to triumph — but will this cut it over the course of a season?
Azerbaijan illustrates the point precisely. The Mercedes teammates lined up on the front row of the grid with Bottas on pole, but the Finn, cautious not to suffer wheelspin, was tardy off the line, and the pair went side by side through the first two corners.
Bottas, absolutely to his credit, managed to hang on around the outside of both turns and fought hard to hold what proved to be a race-winning lead. But Hamilton was generous to a fault in allowing space for his teammate despite his superior getaway — uncharacteristic of a driver renowned for his uncompromising racecraft.
“Selfishly, I could have pushed a lot harder and Valtteri would have lost positions and I would have gained positions,” he said afterwards.
“We have to work together.
“That’s a sacrifice you have to make in order for the team to win. I think if it were a Ferrari there, it would have been a lot different.”
It makes fine sense for now, with Mercedes still working to cover a theoretically fast Ferrari, but if we were to arrive at the halfway mark of the season with the German marque still in control of the championship, Hamilton could hardly be expected to maintain his altruistic outlook.
This is when the test will really start, because as Nico Rosberg learnt during his three seasons sparring with the Briton, an unshackled Hamilton isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of intra-team racing.
Had Hamilton been racing for the championship rather than his team in Azerbaijan, there’s no doubt Bottas would’ve been forced to decide between surrendering the lead or walloping the barriers rather than being allowed to cling to the wide line.
This will be the real test. If the season boils down to a straight fight between teammates, will he be able to rise to the challenge of a win-at-all-costs Hamilton in the other car, or will he crumble under the pressure exerted by the seasoned title-winner as he vies for his first crown?
Rosberg managed to do it by getting under Hamilton’s skin, beating him at times and in places he didn’t expect and refusing to lie down when Lewis felt he’d regained the ascendancy. The toll was severe — the team almost imploded for the toxicity of the relationship — but it paid off.
“It reminds me a little bit of the situation,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted.
“I think we are lucky that they have a very good relationship.
“But as a matter of fact, you have to be conscious. We have seen a relationship deteriorate.
“Both of the drivers have an ambition to win the championship. We want them to be feisty … but equally the respect needs to stay in there.”
But push will have to come to shove if this championship is to go down to the wire, and whether intentionally or unintentionally, Valtteri will have to rattle Lewis if he wants a shot at beating him, be that by breaking him in his qualifying domain or psychologically breaking him off the track. No-one expects the poison of the Rosberg-Hamilton years, but drivers rarely remain friends in the heat of a title fight.
It’s early days yet, but there could be trouble brewing at Mercedes — and if Ferrari can’t pull itself together, you’d better hope there is.