On the eve of the Australian Grand Prix, ESPN takes a look at the areas which could make or break the season of each of Formula One’s ten teams.
A look at the various changes to regulations for 2019 and their likely impact on racing.
A look at the 10 teams on the Formula One grid in the order preseason testing suggested they all sit on the eve of the Australian Grand Prix.
Unlike main rival Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel disappeared from the public eye after squandering the 2018 championship. Laurence Edmondson looks at whether he has done enough to avoid history repeating itself in 2019.
Keeping its empire from falling apart
One of the most impressive things about Mercedes’ dominance of recent years is that it survived a major regulation change in 2017. The history of F1 is littered with winning streaks being brought to a halt by revisions to F1’s rulebook and it could prove that 2019’s subtle yet impactful changes finally knock Mercedes off its perch.
The simplification of the front wing under the 2019 rules has a knock-on effect for the entire car. Ever since 2009 teams have been using the front wing to manage the aerodynamic wake coming off the front wheels, which has the potential to play havoc with the downforce generating air flow heading to the floor and rear of the car. But in 2019 many of the devices used to condition the air have been eliminated by the new regulations.
The key this year is finding a way to claw back control of those aerodynamic flow structures and continue to separate the front wheel wake from the rest of the car. With just testing to look at, it’s still too early to tell if Mercedes has succeeded or failed in that task, but the early signs are that the car is lacking some of the rear stability the drivers need. The biggest challenge this season will be dialing that out of the car and giving Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas a package to keep Mercedes at the very front of the grid.
Avoiding the mistakes of recent past to return to glory
Sebastian Vettel had a shot at winning the drivers’ title last year, but both he and Ferrari threw it away. With a car that looks like the class of the field this year, the biggest challenge facing the team in 2019 is ensuring it doesn’t experience a repeat.
A large part of that will be managing Vettel himself. After his success at Red Bull, there’s no doubt he knows how to win championships, but while he’s been at Ferrari something hasn’t clicked. Vettel is an emotional guy and the team did not give him the support he quite clearly required last year. A change in leadership promises to create an atmosphere in which Vettel can thrive, with new team principal Mattia Binotto determined to bring the fun back to Ferrari.
The only problem could be new-signing Charles Leclerc challenging Vettel on pure pace, and Binotto will have to be careful about how he manages the two drivers. Leclerc is clearly a big part of Ferrari’s future, but ensuring he doesn’t trip Vettel’s title challenge from the word go will require tact and a firm hand. However, if Leclerc scores more points in the opening rounds, Ferrari will have to retain a certain degree of flexibility to make sure it doesn’t end up backing the wrong horse.
Staying patient with its new engine partner
The addition of Honda as a works engine partner promises to be the final piece in the Red Bull puzzle. Based on testing, the new Honda power unit looks reliable and powerful, but the size of the challenge facing the Japanese manufacturer must not be underestimated.
A year away from the spotlight at Toro Rosso clearly did Honda some good last season. The difficult years with McLaren showed how toxic a works partnership can become if one side (or arguably both) are failing to deliver. What’s more, Red Bull has a history of using its engine partner as a punching bag and, with the Honda project still fragile, persistent failures could put a dangerous strain on the relationship.
However, given the support it needs and a strong chassis, Honda has the potential to return to the winning circle this year – an almost impossible thought just two years ago when it was still with McLaren. Treated as a long-term project, Red Bull-Honda has massive potential, but it must survive the pressure cooker of the 2019 season first in order to flourish.
Producing a season worthy of Daniel Ricciardo
Renault made a huge statement last year by luring Daniel Ricciardo across from Red Bull, a move literally no-one would have predicted this time last year. Now it needs to back that move up with clear progress and provide undeniable proof this team is on an upwards trajectory towards competing for championships again.
Plenty of people have been second-guessing Ricciardo’s move and the Australian is determined to prove his decision will wind up being similar to Lewis Hamilton leaving McLaren for Mercedes in 2013. He has joined a project which has had one eye on the 2021 rules overhaul since returning to the grid as a fully-fledged manufacturer two years ago, but his arrival has fired up the whole team — which spent much of the past few seasons under fire from the Australian’s former employer, Red Bull — about what it can do this year and next. It hopes to unlock a significant improvement in its much-maligned engine this season.
No-one is expecting miracles and Renault is likely to be fighting behind the front three again in 2019, but this year’s regulation change appears to have presented a legitimate chance to slash the gap which has existed recently between that group and the midfield. Renault has to ensure it is the one leading that charge and finishes the year biting the heels of the lead trio. If it is able to do that, we might be talking about Renault and Ricciardo’s decision to go there very differently in 12 months’ time.
Maintaining recent successes
After a remarkable rise in its first three years on the Formula One grid, Haas needs to make sure it is not a victim of its own success in 2019. The American team narrowly missed out on finishing fourth last year — a superb achievement for F1’s newest entrant — and expectations around this small outfit have grown as a result.
The Ferrari tie-up has clearly been very beneficial but Haas will be wary of Alfa Romeo challenging its position this year as its own partnership with Maranello continues to go from strength to strength. Add to that the fascinating battle brewing in the middle of the pack this year and there are plenty of potential banana skins Haas must look to avoid. As good as last year’s performance was, Racing Point finished a close sixth despite starting with zero points after Lawrence Stroll’s takeover in August, while McLaren’s season unravelled after a strong start. That’s not to take anything away from Haas’ achievement but the job required to match or improve it in 2019 is huge.
Haas is the sort of team capable of meeting that challenge, however, and this year is bolstered by a new title sponsorship partner with lofty ambitions of its own. For the first time since it arrived in F1 Haas no longer feels just like the new kid on the block and the biggest focus in 2019 is to reinforce the brilliant reputation it has built.
Adjusting to life without Fernando Alonso
There is a massive Fernando Alonso-sized shadow hanging over McLaren this year. After years of frustrations and public complaints, the Spaniard has stepped away from F1 to concentrate on finishing his World Endurance Championship campaign and his attempt to win the Indy 500 with the team in May. Carlos Sainz and rookie Lando Norris face the unenviable task of leading the rebuild of this famous team in his absence.
With no Alonso, the bombastic approach to recent seasons has given way to humility and tempered expectations. This is a team undergoing a significant overhaul of its entire operation and it seems to have finally appreciated it is a long work in progress. Alonso’s absence this year is ironic. The decision to ditch its Honda engine partnership was believed to have been significantly influenced by the desire to stop the Spaniard walking away ahead of 2018. If Red Bull is successful with McLaren’s former engine partner this year and next, that decision will look worse and worse with hindsight.
McLaren will feel very different without Alonso’s personality at the helm. Whether the F1 team thrives or falters without him steering the ship remains to be seen.
Hanging on to its magic touch
The Racing Point operation has been revitalised since this time last year. The team once known as Force India has a new owner — Lawrence Stroll, who brought son Lance with him from Williams to partner Sergio Perez — and now finally has the financial stability it was so desperately lacking. But a big influx of money like that can be a blessing and a curse.
As Force India, the team was lauded for the achievements it made on a shoestring budget, constantly out-performing its wealthier rivals in the midfield, and excelled in developing its car in the right areas throughout a season. While Stroll’s money will be a welcome bonus, the team must be careful not to lose this trait — it is easy for F1 teams to throw money at upgrades without seeing a result. Just see the struggles of McLaren in recent seasons for an example.
By contrast, this team has been excellent at playing the long game in recent times and that approach was unchanged for 2019 — its car was ninth ahead of Williams over pre-season, but it expects to continue its tradition of bringing a radical early-season upgrade. There’s no reason to expect the team has lost its resourcefulness in such a short time, but it’s not uncommon for an over-eager new owner to fall into the trap of wanting to see immediate results from their investment. The future looks very bright for Racing Point but it must be careful not to trip over itself this year.
Making good on pre-season promise and the arrival of Kimi Raikkonen
The excitement generated by the return of Kimi Raikkonen to the team formerly known as Sauber continued with an encouraging pre-season in Barcelona. The team appears to have benefited from its growing ties with Ferrari and the design of the 2019 car caught the attention of many in the paddock during those two weeks.
It’s remarkable to look at where the Swiss-based team has been in recent years — it comes into this season having finished tenth, eighth, tenth, tenth and eighth in the the years since the introduction of V6 turbos in 2014 — compared to where it appears to be right now. Given the scale of improvements at Hinwil since the famous Alfa Romeo badge returned to its car last year as a title sponsor it should be seen as a massive failure if the team is unable to improve on recent seasons.
It’s hard to bet against this team finishing seventh or higher this year but it has to ensure the team doesn’t simply revert to type as 2019 wares on and allows all of this potential to fizzle out as the car development war ramps up in a few months time.
Not getting lost in Red Bull’s shadow
Toro Rosso effectively tested the waters with Honda for senior team Red Bull in 2018, with the former world champions convinced enough with what it saw in the data to ditch Renault in favour of the Japanese manufacturer this year.
Red Bull’s switch coincides with the re-forming of a close technical partnership with Toro Rosso it did not have when both teams were customers of Renault. The STR14, this year’s car, features many parts which have been purchased by Red Bull, with rules stating teams only need to build their own chassis and major aerodynamic surfaces. That gap in the regulations has allowed Toro Rosso to lean heavily on Red Bull’s expertise — in doing so, the hope is its own team can focus more on finer details of car development elsewhere.
That dependence on Red Bull could be a double-edged sword. Red Bull is determined to use 2019 to put itself in the best place to challenge for the title in 2020 and it’s not beyond the realms of the imagination that a difficult start for Red Bull’s first year with Honda could have ramifications further down the food chain. It’s hard to get excited about Toro Rosso’s driver line-up at this point in the year but the Italian-based team will hope Daniil Kvyat and the rookie Alexander Albon can keep the blue and red car from slipping down the order as the season unfolds.
Stopping its current crisis from unraveling even further
You know that scene in the film ‘Tropic Thunder’ where Robert Downey Jr’s character Lincoln O’Sirus is shouting “survive!” at Ben Stiller? That is basically where Williams is at coming into the new season.
Claire Williams addmitted she was embarrassed by her team’s late start to pre-season, where it missed over 25 percent of potential track time. Avoiding further bouts of that is going to be the biggest job in the early rounds of 2019.
The failure to hit the development targets it set for its new car which prompted the late arrival to Barcelona was followed by the decision to place technical chief Paddy Lowe on leave 10 days before the Australian Grand Prix. Williams had its worst-ever season in 2018 and lost both the financial backing of Lawrence Stroll and its iconic Martini title sponsorship but, even when you add the events of the last few months into that mix, the team still might not have hit rock bottom yet.
The early rounds of the season, at the very least, are going to be incredibly painful given how far behind the team appeared to be after the testing it did manage to complete in Barcelona. Williams needs to tread water through this season and ensure it is still in a position by the end of this season and into 2020 to rebuild this once brilliant race team back into competitive shape.
ESPN will show live coverage of the 2019 Formula One season in the United States this year. The season begins with this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix: TV times for the weekend are as follows (all times Eastern)
Practice 1 – Thursday, March 14, 8:55 PM – ESPN3
Practice 2 – Friday, March 15, 12:55 AM – ESPNEWS
Practice 3 – Friday, March 15, 10:55 PM – ESPNEWS
Qualifying – Saturday, March 16, 1:55 AM – ESPN2
On The Grid – Sunday, March 17, 12:30 AM – ESPN
Race – Sunday, March 17, 1:00 AM – ESPN