London, United Kingdom | AFP | A redecorated sporting bandwagon, complete with a roaring if not yet rampant Ferrari and a movie series on Netflix, embarks next weekend on an extended season of change and challenge when the Australian Grand Prix opens the 70th running of the Formula One world championship.
Two years on from Liberty Media’s takeover, and 25 since the death of Ayrton Senna, defending five-time champion Lewis Hamilton goes into F1’s first race in Melbourne expecting to be out-performed by his greatest rival Sebastian Vettel.
It may not be his or the sport’s only concern.
The prospect of a messy ‘no-deal Brexit’ could upset travel logistics for the seven teams based in Britain while new technical regulations and tyres, widespread team changes including a new boss at Ferrari, the arrival of three rookies and a bloated calendar of 21 races will deliver a daunting test of durability and, maybe at times, dignity.
The season will not end until the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on December 1, the latest planned finish since 1963 when Jim Clark took the title for champions Lotus, winning seven of the 10 races run from Monaco in May to South Africa at Christmas.
In that year, led by John Surtees, Ferrari finished fourth, a placing that would be a huge disappointment to new chief Mattia Binotto and both Vettel and his new tyro team-mate Charles LeClerc.
The German driver’s Italian outfit impressed most in pre-season testing in Barcelona, leaving Hamilton and Mercedes, winners of the last five drivers’ and constructors’ titles, gasping to keep pace, but refusing to feel intimidated.
“We don’t mind the challenge,” said Hamilton who claimed his fourth title in five years and fifth overall last season.
“We will fight. It just mean we have to work harder, but I am really proud of what our team has done already.
“I’m not worried or disappointed. I’m incredibly encouraged and enthused that we are working as hard as we are. We have a hill to climb, but we know how to do it.
– ‘We are the champions’ –
“We’ve got the best team around us. We have experience and it’s no coincidence that we are the champions.”
The only man to have beaten Hamilton in the last five years was his 2016 Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
He promptly retired, to be replaced by Valtteri Bottas, leaving Hamilton to reign supreme as the record-breaking global face of the sport.
But Hamilton is not the only man to face a challenge.
Vettel, himself a four-time champion, has a new team-mate in the scarlet scuderia following the team’s recruitment of Leclerc from the Swiss team Sauber, this year renamed as Alfa Romeo Racing.
Fast and smooth, the Monegasque prodigy, 21, will pose a sharper threat than his predecessor, the 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, now 39, as Vettel, in his fifth Ferrari season, seeks to begin emulating the feats of his compatriot Michael Schumacher who won his first title with the team in his fifth year.
Binotto, who has graduated from the team’s technical department to replace fellow-Italian Maurizio Arrivabene, is expected to give Ferrari a cooler and more technical edge in which reliability will be of paramount importance.
– McLaren, Williams face battles –
In 2018, they lost the title through mistakes and failings as much as Mercedes prevailed with dogged consistency.
“Our two drivers will be free to fight,” said Binotto. “But, certainly, if there is a big situation at the start of the season, Sebastian is the one who has more experience.
“Many years he has been with us. He has already won championships. So, he is our champion.”
Mercedes and the American-owned Haas team are the only ones to field an unchanged drivers’ line-up while two teams, Force India and Sauber, have changed their names to Racing Point and Alfa Romeo respectively.
If that signals a tricky pile of pre-race homework for the commentators, it reflects a deeper sense of change and challenge for the new owners as once-great teams like McLaren and Williams slump and historic circuits like Monza and Silverstone face an uncertain future.
Ferrari may be without a title for more than a decade, but they compete at the front while McLaren and Williams have been relegated to the also-rans, the latter in embarrassing fashion after failing to be ready on time for testing earlier this month.
Technical director Paddy Lowe departed to take “a leave of absence” soon afterwards leaving them in some disarray little more than a week before the opening session at Albert Park.