It has been an interesting off-season in Formula One, with a number of big changes. Daniel Ricciardo leaving Red Bull Racing-Honda to join Renault and being replaced by Pierre Gasly, Charles Leclerc joining Ferrari to replace Kimi Räikkönen, who has join Alfa Romeo Racing-Ferrari, Lance Stroll joining Racing Point-BWT Mercedes, and new driver pairing at McLaren-Renault (Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz Jr.), Scuderia Toro Rosso-Honda (Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat), and Williams-Mercedes (George Russell and Robert Kubica).
However, the most decisive change may well be the addition of a championship point for the driver who sets the fastest lap of each race in 2019, as long as the driver who sets it finishes the race inside the Top 10, and with an extra 21 points potentially on the line, could this decide who wins the 2019 FIA Formula One World Championship, which starts this weekend at Albert Park in Melbourne?
Possibly, but who are the championship contenders?
Realistically, based on the results of testing, three teams are capable of challenging for the world championship.
Mercedes are obviously going to be right up there, and are chasing an unprecedented sixth-straight drivers/constructors championship double. Five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is undoubtedly in career-best form as he looks to hunt down a number of records held by seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, including most championships, most race wins (Schumacher 91 to 73), most podiums (Schumacher 155 to 134), and most races led (Schumacher 142 to 129), while his teammate Valtteri Bottas will be looking for a vastly-improved performance in 2019 after finishing fifth in the world championship in 2018.
However, Mercedes face a huge battle to maintain their superiority against Ferrari, who have been very quick in testing in the hands of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, and his new teammate Charles Leclerc, who will become the youngest driver to race for Ferrari since the late Ricardo Rodriguez (19 years and 208 days) in 1961 at the age of 21 years and 153 days.
Vettel, who is looking for a third-straight win in Australia, will be desperate to deliver Ferrari their first driver’s world championship since Kimi Räikkönen back in 2007, and the Prancing Horse have been quick in testing, leading the timesheets on four of the eight days of testing at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, and if that is anything to go by, Ferrari will be serious championship contenders to Mercedes in 2019, but the obvious question marks will be whether Vettel and Ferrari can sustain a championship challenge for a full season against the juggernaut that is Hamilton and Mercedes, and whether Leclerc will prove a handful for Vettel, and deny the German the fifth world championship that he has been seeking since joining Ferrari in 2015?
The third team that appears to be a championship contender is Red Bull Racing-Honda with Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly. Verstappen is perhaps the most natural talent in Formula One today with the possible exception of Lewis Hamilton, and if he and Red Bull can get on a good run, they can challenge Mercedes and Ferrari for the world championship. However, the jury is still out on Gasly, and whether he can fill the large shoes of Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull.
Talking about Ricciardo, he is now with Renault for the 2019 season, driving alongside Nico Hülkenberg, and on the face of it, they look like they may well be the fourth-quickest, and the best of the rest behind Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull. However, I don’t think Renault are quite at that level of being a championship contender just yet, but if there is a chance of a really strong result, you know Ricciardo will be there to take the opportunity, and maybe a race victory, which would be the eighth of his career, isn’t out of the realms of possibility!
However, a team that won’t be challenging anywhere near the front is Williams-Mercedes. It was a disastrous off-season for the great British team, with the team not getting their car out onto the track until the second half of the third day of testing in Barcelona, and appear comfortably behind the rest of the field, which is a shame considering the miraculous return to Formula One of Robert Kubica for the first time since 2010 after the shocking rally accident in February 2011, which he came close to losing his life.
Hopefully at some point in 2019, we can see Kubica and Williams in a competitive position, but that seems unlikely at the moment.
So, who is going to win the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, and perhaps the 2019 FIA Formula One World Championship?
In regards to both, it is going to be battle between Mercedes and Ferrari, as well as Max Verstappen from Red Bull Racing-Honda, and despite speculation that they have been knocked off their perch, I think Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes will rise to the top, and dominate the weekend at Albert Park, and the two times when he has won the Australian Grand Prix (2008, 2015), he has gone onto win the world championship, and if he gets off to the perfect start, it is going to be a tall order for anyone to stop him winning his sixth championship, and moving to within one of Michael Schumacher!