The new Formula One season is gearing up to potentially be one of the most significant in recent memory. The campaign will kick off in Melbourne on March 15 with the Australian Grand Prix, the curtain-raiser on what those in the cockpit and behind-the-scenes are claiming will threaten six-time champion Lewis Hamilton’s dominance.
The narrative: the young upstarts gunning to displace the 35-year-old and upsetting his intent on certifying himself as the greatest of all time.
Hamilton is currently just one championship behind Michael Schumacher’s all-time record and is currently the only driver in F1 history to have won at least one race in every season he has contested.
Hamilton and Mercedes have had the F1 monopoly for the best part of a decade, the Brit winning five of the past six World Drivers’ Championships with the manufacturer, helping to maintain the longest standing relationship of the type in F1 history. His sixth title came from 11 GP wins on the 21-race calendar. The only disruption coming with former teammate Nico Rosberg’s win in 2016.
Hamilton is however in the final year of his current contract, with a sealed extension with Mercedes as yet unforthcoming. The potential for a usurping and how Hamilton counters that is a mouthwatering prospect for F1 fans across the year.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is entering his sixth F1 season but is still just 22 years of age - that’s the same age as Hamilton debuted in 2007. If the Dutchman or Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, also 22, win the championship this season they will become the youngest winners in F1 history, neither of them turning 23 until after the conclusion.
Verstappen is the record-holder as F1’s youngest ever race winner, having done so at 18 years and 228 days in 2016 at the Spanish GP and the Red Bull chief and 'Mr Ginger Spice' Christian Horner, who oversaw Sebastian Vettel’s stunning quadruple success between 2010 and 2013, is adamant that it won’t be another walkover for Hamilton and that prized number seven if Verstappen is in top gear:
“Lewis is the world champion, but Max is the most in-form driver going into the new season,” Horner told The Guardian. "Max’s wheel-to-wheel racecraft is second to none. The only person I have seen Lewis make mistakes around is Max. Max is the coming man. He is 22 and on the ascendancy. Lewis is 35.
“It is inevitable in any sport there is always another generation coming and, with Max and [Ferrari’s] Charles Leclerc, it is set for a really thrilling year. Of course Lewis also has all that experience and all those years of know-how. I think it is going to be a classic.”
In 2019, Red Bull finished the season strongly with Verstappen gaining four podium positions from the final seven races. In total, Verstappen won three races and finished third in the drivers’ standings, behind the Mercedes one-two of Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas. Verstappen has previously defiantly declared himself up to the challenge of displacing the racer 15 years his senior, stating that he can beat Hamilton, though “it is very car-dependent, of course."
"Lewis is very good,” Verstappen has said, “He is definitely one of the best out there but he is not God. Maybe God is with him, but he is not God.”
There are high hopes for Leclerc also, with former champion Jody Scheckter - who won with Ferrari in 1979 - previously anointing him ‘the Federer of Formula 1’. In 2019, Leclerc gained considerable attention following consecutive wins at the Belgian and Italian Grand Prix, and just before Christmas signed a long-term contract keeping him with Ferrari until the end of the 2024 season. Verstappen meanwhile, has tied himself down to Red Bull until 2023.
Ahead of the vehicles from all ten entrant teams running from February 11, Leclerc and Verstappen understandably find themselves second and third in the odds, behind the defending champion Hamilton and Mercedes. This upcoming season will be the longest in the motorsport’s history, running across 22 races with the conclusion at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 29.
“Sport always works in cycles and maybe, just maybe, this is the chance for a new cycle to begin,” said Horner, balancing his optimism. For F1, it would be phenomenal if you had a three-way fight between ourselves, Lewis, Charles, maybe even Sebastian. It would be fantastic for the sport and the fans. We look set for a really stellar year."
The new generation is most definitely here. 22 competing at the top of the game is sickening but whether the old guard are ready to concede will dominate the F1 across the globe and 2020.