Lewis Hamilton begins the defence of his world championship in Melbourne a week on Sunday.
The 35-year-old British driver is bidding to win his seventh crown and equal Michael Schumacher’s record.
Here, the PA news agency looks at 10 key questions ahead of the forthcoming Formula One campaign.
1. Will Lewis Hamilton win his seventh title?
Hamilton and his Mercedes team were in high spirits during six days of winter testing in Barcelona and who can blame them? Mercedes posted the fastest lap and completed the greatest number of miles. They have also (quite literally) reinvented the wheel with their dual-axis steering system the envy of the Formula One paddock. Hamilton appears fresh, sharp, as determined as ever, and intent on equalling Schumacher’s title record. We should not forget that the Brit is just seven wins shy of the German’s all-time victory tally, too. Hamilton has the beating of Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who could prove his closest championship challenger, over the course of a campaign so, it is little surprise that he heads to Melbourne as the bookmakers’ favourite.
2. But what about his contract? Could he join Ferrari in 2021?
Hamilton’s £40million-a-year Mercedes deal expires at the end of the season. Last year, Ferrari admitted their interest in Hamilton only to then distance themselves from the six-time world champion. Mercedes want to keep Hamilton, and while the driver is in no rush to fine tune a new deal which could earn him up to a staggering £60m-per-season, at this stage at least, it seems inconceivable he will leave.
3. What is DAS?
In a year where there were only minor tweaks to the technical rulebook, Mercedes bamboozled the paddock by unveiling their dual-axis steering (DAS) contraption during testing. On-board footage captured Hamilton pulling his Mercedes steering wheel towards him as he entered the main straight at the Circuit de Catalunya. The never-seen-before device narrowed the alignment of the front wheels of his Mercedes increasing straight-line speed. Hamilton then pushed the wheel away from him before cornering, improving his car’s set-up. Mercedes are confident the system – which has been more than a year in the making – will provide them with a fresh edge. Rival teams are considering whether to copy the device but it will take months to design. DAS has been outlawed for 2021 but that will not stop Mercedes from using it to their advantage this term.
4. Who can take the challenge to Hamilton?
Although the results of testing should be treated with caution, there may be cause for concern at Mercedes’ rivals Red Bull and Ferrari. Max Verstappen, 22, who won three races last year, fell off the track a number of times in Barcelona, leading to obvious suggestions that his new Red Bull is difficult to drive. Meanwhile, team principal Mattia Binotto has admitted Ferrari will start the year on the back foot. He also hinted they might soon turn their attentions to next season – when the sport undergoes a radical regulations overhaul – if the start of this year is bleak.
5. So, does Hamilton have anything to worry about?
Reliability may be one issue that Hamilton has to contend with this year. He stopped on track with an engine failure on the penultimate day of testing, while Williams, who are powered by Mercedes, encountered three separate problems. “Is it a concern? For sure,” said Hamilton. “Normally in pre-season testing, we’ve got much more confidence in the reliability, so it’s not been perfect for us.”
6. Is it a make-or-break year for Vettel?
Such is the extent of Sebastian Vettel’s recent troubles, that it is not an exaggeration to say this could be his final year in the sport. Vettel may have four world championships, and sit behind only Schumacher and Hamilton as the F1 driver with most victories, but he is out of contract at the end of the season. Ferrari have identified Charles Leclerc as their future, recently securing his services until 2024. The Monegasque, 22, finished above Vettel in last year’s standings, while scoring a greater number of wins and pole positions than his more experienced team-mate. The two drivers also endure a fractious on-track rivalry which boiled over in Brazil. If that continues into this season, it would seem unlikely that Ferrari would retain Vettel.
7. And what about the rest?
McLaren will be keen to build on an encouraging 2019 where they finished behind only Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull in the constructors’ standings. Lando Norris enjoyed a strong rookie campaign, but, as he enters his second season, there will be greater pressure on the 20-year-old to regularly compete with team-mate Carlos Sainz. Williams endured the worst season of their history last year, finishing rooted to the foot of the table with just one point. Deputy team principal Claire Williams, the daughter of the British team’s founder, Sir Frank Williams, is under pressure to reverse their fortunes. British driver George Russell leads Williams’ challenge. Racing Point could prove the surprise package of the season after copying last year’s title-winning Mercedes.
8. Are there any new kids on the block this year?
Canadian Nicholas Latifi joins Williams after replacing Robert Kubica – the Pole’s remarkable comeback from his horror rally crash lasting just one season. Frenchman Esteban Ocon returns to the grid following a one-year absence. He takes Nico Hulkenberg’s seat to team up with Daniel Ricciardo at Renault. Meanwhile, Red Bull’s junior team Toro Rosso have been rebranded as AlphaTauri.
9. And what about any new races?
The Vietnamese Grand Prix is set to make its debut on the calendar next month. The race, on the streets of the country’s capital Hanoi, is set for April 5. The Dutch Grand Prix returns as an F1 fixture after an absence of 36 years. Zandvoort, a coastal town west of Amsterdam, is poised to stage the fourth round of the season on May 3. The Chinese Grand Prix, originally pencilled in for April 19, has been postponed due to the outbreak of coronavirus. F1 bosses are exploring options, albeit limited ones, to reschedule the race for later in the year, ensuring a record-breaking 22-race calendar.
10. What impact will coronavirus have on the new season?
At the time of writing, Shanghai is the only race that has been postponed. The opening three rounds in Australia (March 15), Bahrain (March 22) and Vietnam (April 5) are all still scheduled to go ahead. F1 bosses say they are continuing to monitor the situation. Some teams have amended their journeys to avoid high-risk countries, while personnel travelling from Italy, home to Ferrari, AlphaTauri and tyre supplier, Pirelli, will be extensively screened upon their arrivals in Melbourne, Bahrain and Hanoi.