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Five key questions ahead of F1's return

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Roar Guru
1st July, 2020
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The cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix and the subsequent postponement of the 2020 Formula One world championship still carries a sense of disbelief, given how quickly things unravelled in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, while on the ground at Albert Park on Friday the 13th.

But all those feelings at last feel as if they’re dissipating, as Formula One begins this weekend at the Red Bull Ring and finally the racing can take centre stage.

The first of two races in Austria raises the curtain on this vastly altered world championship and many questions can be asked of what we’re going to see from Formula One in 2020.

Here are five of the most key questions that the championship faces, from all-time records up for grabs and the uncertainty surrounding the future of some teams in the sport as well.

Will Hamilton match Schumacher?
Ahead of the original season start back in March, I wrote about Lewis Hamilton chasing greatness in 2020 and that this year could be the one to see the 35-year-old elevated to Formula One’s greatest of all time.

That sentiment hasn’t changed because of the delayed start, with the break from racing keeping the six-time world champion fresher than ever to match the great Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven titles and 91 race wins.

Hamilton’s Mercedes team were the strongest they’ve been in pre-season testing, since the start of the hybrid-turbo era back in 2014. Despite the impending departure of their engine chief Andy Cowell and the speculation around the future of team boss Toto Wolff, the entire team are on the precipice of setting their own record of seven consecutive constructors’ championships.

Along with Hamilton’s recent activist involvement among the Black Lives Matter movement and promotion of diversity across Formula One, there is no denying that mentally the Briton will be unbreakable and has greater cause to achieve that ultimate feat.

Mercedes have also confirmed that they will be bringing a chunk of upgrades for the Austrian season opener, which no doubt would’ve sent a nervous gulp down the throats of their competition, who aspire to knock them off their perennial pedestal.

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Mexican GP Lewis Hamilton Podium

(Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Who’ll be a credible challenger?
As much as the case is strong for Hamilton and Mercedes to win further consecutive titles, the breakout of the young brigade in 2019 could yet see a credible challenger to the Hamilton crown.

While Charles Leclerc was a standout last year with his back-to-back wins at Spa and Monza and being the more consistent of the Ferrari drivers, the 22-year-old is unlikely to have the car under his belt to be able to fight for a championship.

To say Ferrari’s pre-season testing was underwhelming is an understatement and already with them indicating to not expect any upgrades to their SF1000 during the Austrian double-header, that is enough to say they’re not going to be champions in 2020.

The Scuderia may still pick up the pieces and steal key results on occasions, though any greater for them would be a bonus. Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel’s final year with Ferrari will see him depart the famous team on a whimper behind Leclerc.

The shortened season, however, could play into the hands of Red Bull and Max Verstappen, who’ve been snapping at the heels of the Silver Arrows but have not yet quite been able to sustain a year-long title bid. The team have gone strength to strength since their switch to Honda power last year and at the reliability seems enough to not pose a concern.

Starting the season in Austria also plays into Red Bull’s hands. As well as being their home race, Verstappen has won the past two years there on merit, while the likes of Mercedes struggled with cooling issues.

A Verstappen win at either of the two Austrian races or the third event in consecutive weeks at the Hungarian Grand Prix would put the 22-year-old Dutchman in a strong position to threaten for the title.

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The same could be said of Valtteri Bottas, who reinvigorated has his best chance yet to beat his teammate Hamilton for the championship in this shortened season. Barring any mistakes from the six-time title victor, it would require a much tougher Bottas to go the extra step.

Valtteri Bottas

(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Who wins Class B?
Formula One’s unofficial Class B battle for the past few years has undoubtedly proven more captivating than the fight for the world championship itself, given the lopsided affair in favour of Mercedes.

The 2020 season will be no different with more fierce competition vying for that coveted fourth place in the constructors’ championship and with fewer races than expected, every result will be more crucial than ever.

McLaren finished 2019 as the team to beat and have the case to go back-to-back in fourth place. Their car was solid in pre-season testing, while it wasn’t exactly a world beater, although with the consistency of the ever-improving Lando Norris and Ferrari-bound Carlos Sainz, the team in papaya could deliver the goods once again.

Though with the delayed start to the season having deprived everyone from seeing what the Pink Mercedes could have achieved in those open races, the hype around Racing Point will surely build again. Where they may benefit too is the freeze on any significant car development, so given their 2020 challenger is supposedly strong, they’ll carry that over into the next year also.

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Where there is concern for Racing Point is the strength in their driver line-up and while journeyman Sergio Perez is a proven midfield specialist that can hoover up key results, there is still uncertainty over Lance Stroll’s consistency. But with a competitive car under the Canadian’s belt, we may see the best of the 21-year-old and he could take the soon-to-be Aston Martin team to fourth.

The likes of Renault and the rebranded AlphaTauri would need more than their promised upgrades for Austria to mix it with the above teams and therefore can be ruled out of contention for that coveted fourth in the championship.

This is a disappointing reality for the French manufacturer in particular to face. Already before the racing started they lost their star driver Daniel Ricciardo, with the Aussie having signed for rivals in the Mercedes-powered McLaren for 2021.

If another season is spent going backwards for Renault, then the automaker’s hierarchy may need to ask serious questions of their Formula One team’s management, and it is surprising it isn’t the case already. Given that they have lent on the French government’s assistance during the pandemic to shore up their racing commitment, a change of culture at Enstone and Viry-Châtillon is necessary.

Will the calendar see further impact from COVID-19?
The eight races scheduled thus far in 2020 will be the bare minimum that is seen and also as a safety net is the minimum number of races required to form a world championship. Being based in Europe thus far and operating under strict safety guidelines as well as bio-security bubbles, there is hope for more events in that part of the world.

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Venues previously not on the calendar such as the Italian duo of Mugello and Imola, as well as the Algarve circuit in Portugal, look set to join the calendar after the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on September 6.

Where the uncertainty still lies is races abroad. Originally the plan outlined by Formula One when they restructured their schedule was to move to Asia and then the Americas before wrapping up in the Middle East.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc is followed on-track by Mercedes's Valtteri Bottas.

(Xavier Bonilla/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

But with the safety of the travelling parties not yet secure as well as the numerous travel restrictions worldwide, the prospect of either Asia or the Americas looks slim. However, as the situation remains fluid worldwide, things could rapidly change and the championship may yet be able to embrace those corners of the globe provided the adequate safety measures are in place.

In short, unfortunately the schedule will be further impacted by the global pandemic, although there should be gratitude to have the eight races that have thus far been confirmed for the world championship.

Will all ten teams make it to 2021?
So much in Formula One has changed because of the coronavirus pandemic. While it may have forced the sport to rethink the way they spend money and have further reduced the teams’ budget caps, there are teams that will battle throughout 2020 to ensure their place on the grid for next year.

The most talked-about team in this situation is unfortunately Williams, who before beginning their 43rd season in the sport as an independent family team announced that they were considering selling or even partially selling the race team to secure their future in the sport.

Williams also split with title sponsor RoKit during the break to put themselves in a position to lure investors to the ailing outfit. But with another difficult season on-track expected for the British team, could their days in Formula One be numbered?

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The introduction of the US$145 million (A$211 million) performance budget cap and also the sliding scale for aerodynamic development, which will favour the teams on the lower end of the grid, may be the saviour of a team such as Williams, but without a financial injection those changes may be moot for one of the sport’s most famous teams.

McLaren is another famous name to strike financial trouble during the pandemic, having also touted restructuring its shareholdings to attract new investors, in the wake of the organisation making an estimated 1200 employees redundant.

For now, the team have secured a £150 million (A$270 million) loan with the National Bank of Bahrain, who themselves are part owned by Bahraini wealth fund Mumtalakat, which also has a 56 per cent majority stake in McLaren.

Ultimately, plenty hinges on the results from this year for these teams, as well as the likes of Haas, whose owner Gene Haas has been questioning his squad’s presence in the sport off the back of a dismal 2019 campaign. Better results mean better prize money and if all the teams can make into the 2021 when the budget cap in introduced, then relief might be in sight.

That and so much more is to come and to be asked during the 2020 Formula One world championship. And as always, the sport looks set to deliver its trademark drama and excitement, regardless of the impact of the global pandemic.