Buchignani: Five things about the new Formula One season
|Montreal Gazette 15 Mar 2019 at 11:31|
For one, Montreal’s Lance Stroll carries the colours of a new team and the prospect of a smoother road ahead after a rocky ride in his sophomore campaign last season.
The 2019 calendar features a record-matching 21 stops, with the Canadian Grand Prix taking up its usual slot June 7-9 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
Lewis Hamilton is chasing his sixth F1 drivers’ title, one short of the record held by Michael Schumacher. He was back in familiar form Friday, topping the time sheets during both practice sessions at the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit. Clive Mason / Getty Images
It seems sensible to say the team that has swept the drivers’ and constructors’ championships in each of the last five years enters the new season as the clear favourite.
Hamilton, though, doesn’t want you to think that. He’s been playing up Ferrari’s strong form during pre-season tests and insisting the Silver Arrows are behind by as much as half a second per lap, an eternity in F1 terms.
But we’ve heard this before. Last season, too, Ferrari seemed to have the better car at the outset and at certain points during the campaign. And yet, in the end, Hamilton bagged his fifth drivers’ title with two races to spare.
Which goes to show, despite what the detractors say, the car alone doesn’t win championships. The driver must deliver maximum performance, too, at every opportunity, or pretty well close. And so does the team around him.
No one has delivered better on all three fronts — driver, car, team — than Mercedes since the introduction of hybrid-turbo engines in 2014. That’s why they are where they are, and why they will be difficult to displace.
Can Ferrari do it this time? Sebastian Vettel, seen during Friday practice in Melbourne, will have to avoid the gaffes of last season if he hopes to beat Hamilton. PETER PARKS / AFP/Getty Images
Hamilton’s hyperbole aside, it’s true Ferrari looked strong in testing and remains the most likely candidate to break the Mercedes stranglehold on F1.
To do that, though, it must avoid repeating the gaffes of last season — both on and off the track — that saw it squander championship points on too many occasions.
Vettel, a four-time champion, must for his part be more like, well, Hamilton, and put in a near-error-free performance if he is to deliver Ferrari its first drivers’ title since 2007.
This time around, it seems, the atmosphere at the Italian stable is more positive and relaxed under new team principal Mattia Binotto, who has replaced the enigmatic Maurizio Arrivabene. That should help.
But Binotto is not the only big change, nor perhaps the most significant.
The highly rated Charles Leclerc is making his much-anticipated debut as Vettel’s teammate, replacing the veteran Kimi Raikkonen, who’s sitting in Leclerc’s old seat at Alfa Romeo.
With the eager and talented Leclerc nipping at his tailpipe, Vettel will have all the more reason to up his game if he wants to remain Ferrari’s No. 1 title contender.
Lance Stroll of Montreal greets autograph seekers at the Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit. He put in a promising debut with Racing Point, placing ahead of teammate Sergio Perez on the Friday practice time sheets. Andy Brownbill / AP
If there is something to be learned from Leclerc’s accelerated move to Ferrari, it is that you don’t need a great car to make a big impression.
The lesson is not lost on Stroll, you’d think.
In just one year in F1, Leclerc, 21, managed to show sufficient promise at a mid-level team to have earned him arguably the most coveted seat on the grid.
Stroll, meanwhile, is starting his third year. At 20, it’s fair to say he’s held his own so far. It’s also reasonable to expect a little bit more.
This season offers a fresh start with a new team — Racing Point, the former Force India outfit that was bought out by a group of investors led by his billionaire father.
Given dad’s influence, Stroll will have all the support he needs to step up and stand out, Leclerc-like.
If he doesn’t, the risk is that pretty soon he’ll be seen as just another also-ran.
The oft-injured Robert Kubica is back in F1 after an eight-year absence. Unfortunately for him, team Williams appears to be in for another tough season toiling at the back of the grid. Clive Mason / Getty Images
Kubica, who’s making an improbable return to F1 after eight years, has strong connections to Montreal — both good and bad.
The bad came in 2007, when he was involved in a horrific crash at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, his airborne BMW-Sauber striking a barrier at 300 km/h. Incredibly, he suffered only minor injuries.
The good came the following year when he returned to the scene of the accident to score his first and only F1 win, stunning the packed grandstands that included a great many emotional members of Montreal’s Polish community.
In 2011, another major setback: Kubica sustained major injuries, including a partially severed forearm, in a rally crash in Italy, and his racing days were thought to be over.
But no. Intense rehabilitation and determination have steered him back to an F1 racing seat at age 34, filling the vacancy left by Stroll at Williams.
Happy at home. Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo left the F1 world scratching its head with his switch to Renault. Will he be smiling at the end of the season? Mark Thompson / Getty Images
F1 drivers take a risk every time they climb into their cockpits, but Ricciardo’s decision to ditch Red Bull in favour of Renault might rank as his biggest gamble yet.
Red Bull is the only team besides Mercedes and Ferrari to have won races since 2014. Ricciardo has seven to his name — his first coming, coincidentally, at the Canadian Grand Prix that year.
There is no evidence Renault is anywhere near ready to challenge for a win — even a podium might be difficult — so it’s a mystery why the Australian has chosen this path.
The closest he has come to an explanation appeared in a Melbourne newspaper this week, where he was quoted as saying “perhaps the love just wasn’t there” during contract negotiations that left him feeling less wanted than his younger and brasher teammate, Max Verstappen.
Ricciardo, who turns 30 on Canada Day, is among the most talented and popular drivers in F1, and it would be a shame to see his career shift into reverse.
Then again, behind his trademark grin, maybe he knows something the rest of us do not about Renault’s prospects, whether in the short or long term.