Welcome to a brand new year and decade in world motorsport, and to a brand new year and decade of Formula One, and after MotoGP (although Moto2 and Moto3 raced) was cancelled in Qatar due to the impact of coronavirus, our first real taste of the pinnacle level of motorsport comes at the 2020 Australian Grand Prix, Round One of the 2020 FIA Formula One World Championship, and after plenty of intrigue during pre-season testing, the main questions that are being asked (aside from technical issues) are: Is Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes still the driver and team combination to beat? And, can the likes of Red Bull Racing-Honda and Ferrari challenge Mercedes consistently in 2020?
In regards to the first question, based on the information that I have looked at from pre-season testing and my interpretation of it, Hamilton and Mercedes are still very much the driver and team combination to beat, and although they had some issues reliability wise on the penultimate day of pre-season testing, you would expect Mercedes to have the bullet-proof reliability that has come to define their dominance of the sport since 2014.
And, this is before we talk about how quick the car is!
In my view, the 2020 Mercedes is about seven tenths of a second quicker than anything else that was seen in pre-season testing, and if that is the case, that gives Hamilton the perfect platform to drive towards equalling Michael Schumacher’s record of seven world championships, as well as towards surpassing Schumacher’s records of most race victories (Schumacher: 91, Hamilton: 84), and most podium finishes (Schumacher: 155, Hamilton: 151) in Formula One.
It would also give Hamilton the best possible platform to launch towards becoming the first driver to claim 100 pole positions. With Hamilton currently on 88 pole positions for his career, and if I am right in thinking/interpreting that Mercedes have the advantage that they have, this is within reach in 2020.
And, given that Hamilton has taken pole position at Albert Park in each of the last six years, and in seven of the last eight, he could start this charge in Australia, and it could very well be a Mercedes front-row lockout with Valtteri Bottas joining the great champion and legend at the very front of the grid.
In regards to the second question, I think that Red Bull Racing-Honda is the best position to challenge Mercedes throughout the course of 2020, but if they are seven tenths off the pace, then it is going to be difficult for Max Verstappen to challenge for a first world championship, and become youngest-ever world champion in Formula One, and for Alexander Albon to challenge for podiums and race victories on a consistent basis.
As for Ferrari, I think they are about 1.3 seconds away from Mercedes, and closer to the midfield than they are to Red Bull Racing-Honda, and if that is the case, then it is a very disappointing result, not only for Ferrari supporters, but also for Charles Leclerc, who is looking to build on his impressive first season with Ferrari with a season full of podiums, race victories, and a world championship challenge, and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who is looking to rebound back to his best after a disappointing season by his standards in 2019, in which he had one race victory and a further eight podiums, although he only finished 24 points behind Leclerc in the championship.
As far as the midfield is concerned, Racing Point-BWT Mercedes with a Mercedes-inspired car from a technical point of view is leading the charge with Sergio Pérez and Lance Stroll, about 1.6 seconds behind Mercedes, followed by McLaren-Renault (+1.8 seconds) with Carlos Sainz Jr. and Lando Norris, AlphaTauri-Honda (+1.9 seconds), formerly known as Scuderia Toro Rosso-Honda, with Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat, Alfa Romeo Racing-Ferrari (+2.1 seconds) with 2007 world champion Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi, and Renault (+2.2 seconds) with Daniel Ricciardo and the returning Esteban Ocon.
And, behind the midfield and completing the grid for 2020 will be Haas-Ferrari (+2.7 seconds) with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, and Williams-Mercedes (+2.8 seconds) with George Russell and 2019 Formula Two Championship runner-up Nicholas Latifi.
So, who is going to win the opening race of 2020?
Based on the evidence that I have, and my interpretation of the evidence, I have good reason to believe that Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are the combination to beat once again, and I think Hamilton will claim a seventh-straight pole position in Australia, which would equal Ayrton Senna’s record of most consecutive pole positions at the same Grand Prix (San Marino), and a ninth overall, which would be the most by a driver at any Grand Prix, and go onto claim his third Australian Grand Prix race victory!
Behind Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas will finish a comfortable second, while Max Verstappen will finish a distant third, with Alexander Albon, Charles Leclerc, and Sebastian Vettel in no particular order fighting for fourth, fifth, and sixth.