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.
Talking points in the new Formula One season:
In a season of curiosities, and after an off-season of many driver and team changes, only two teams have retained their driver line-ups from 2018 – Mercedes and Haas. The former Force India team has changed its name to Racing Point and will have Lance Stroll, son of the new owner Canadian billionaire Lance Stroll alongside retained Mexican Sergio Perez. The Swiss Sauber team has changed its name to Alfa Romeo Racing.
Ferrari in hot form, but Vettel may face fireworks
Ferrari are expected to set the season-opening pace at Albert Park, but the Italian team could be the scene of some old-fashioned intra-team fireworks.
New boy Charles Leclerc, a Ferrari academy protege brought in from Sauber to replace Kimi Raikkonen, matched four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in testing at Barcelona.
Vettel is entering his fifth season with the team and knows he has to improve on last year’s erratic showing to retain the faith of the tifosi and keep Leclerc at bay.
But remember, Michael Schumacher had to wait until his fifth season in red before he claimed his first drivers title with them and then ended up winning five in a row.
Three bright rookies
The trio of George Russell, Lando Norris and Alexander Albon finished in that order on top of the 2018 Formula Two championship and have joined Williams, McLaren and Toro Rosso respectively.
Albon, born in London, is the first Thai driver since 1954 and will partner returning Russian Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso.
Russell, 20, partners 34-year-old Robert Kubica who returns for the first time since 2010 following a near-fatal rallying crash that left him with a partly-severed right forearm.
Norris, 19, will be the youngest driver on the grid as partner to Carlos Sainz, 24, at McLaren.
Point for fastest lap
F1 has stepped back to the future for 2019 by a desire to re-introduce the award of a world championship point for fastest lap at each race.
A point for the fastest lap was awarded during the first decade of the world championship from 1950 to 1959 and was decisive in the outcome of the 1958 title race.
In that season, Mike Hawthorn beat Stirling Moss by a single point to take the drivers crown, having set two fastest laps more than his rival.
Netflix movie targets younger audience
Liberty Media took over in January 2017 and soon switched attention from a more traditional broadcast business model to greater use of social media, streaming and inter-activity with fans.
The first series of Netflix movie ‘Drive to Survive’ was launched on Friday with Ross Brawn, once one of the best-known bespectacled boffins of the pit-lane during his title-winning years with Benetton, Ferrari and his own eponymous Brawn team, heading the promotional activity in his role as motorsport boss for the new owners.
“This sport is able to grow and it will grow quicker if all the teams are part of the process,” he said, noting that top teams Ferrari and Mercedes had opted out of the initial filming in 2018.
Williams and McLaren desperate
The once-great Williams team, which has powered drivers including Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Alain Prost to world titles, turned up late for pre-season testing at Barcelona – and then flopped miserably as they clocked the slowest times.
Technical director Paddy Lowe, recruited two years previously from Mercedes to head the team’s revival, departed on March 6 to take a ‘leave of absence’.
Like Williams, McLaren have undergone a transformation from dominant force to midfield scrappers in the last decade and they are a long way from repeating the halcyon days of the famous rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
Last season, they were sixth in the constructors title race before two-time champion Fernando Alonso left the team, to be replaced by fellow-Spaniard Carlos Sainz. He is partnered by British rookie Lando Norris, 19.
Ricciardo at Renault, ‘mature’ Max stays put
Daniel Ricciardo’s beaming smile will be missed at Red Bull after the Australian’s move to Renault where he will be under scrutiny alongside respected Nico Hulkenberg.
The Australian has been tipped as a future world championship contender, but struggled to outshine Dutch tyro Max Verstappen in recent seasons.
Verstappen intends to shake off his ‘Mad Max’ label and emerge in 2019 as ‘Mature Max’ as he leads Red Bull’s bid to pressure champions Mercedes and Ferrari.
His new team-mate Pierre Gasly faces a major task to keep pace and has crashed heavily in testing. The team has warned him to take more care.
New helmets and technical points
New extra-protective helmets, capable of resisting a metal disc fired at 250 km/h, are to be introduced this year. The helmets must also be resistant to a 790-degree Celsius flame, an air rifle shot at the visor and a 10-kilo weight dropping on it from five metres.
The cars will have simpler front and rear wings and smaller barge-boards following aerodynamic rule changes, overseen by Ross Brawn, to assist overtaking. The teams were unconvinced, after testing, that the moves had made much difference.
A new range of tyres have been prepared by Pirelli to be supplied in a range of only three colours –- red (soft), yellow (medium) and white (hard).
They replace the “rainbow” range of tyres used and seen at races last year.
Kubica comeback – romantic dream or true return?
Robert Kubica was heralded as a certain race winner and possible future champion when he became Formula One’s first Polish driver with Sauber in 2006.
This season, however, back after an eight-year absence following a massive rallying accident in 2011, he is fighting to prove he deserves his comeback seat with struggling back markers Williams.
His crash in the Ronde de Andora rally in February, 2011, was expected to end his career, but despite almost severing his right forearm, he battled back.
He now drives 70% left-handed, but is adamant he can survive and succeed.
“It is a different situation for me and there is a way to change your mind and learn a new way. I have discovered how powerful the brain can be,” he said.
With AFP inputs