The smart money says Ferrari and Mercedes will be fighting for victory at Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix. While it might also seem to be a clever bet that Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton will be leading their team’s respective charge, you should be rooting for the other guy in both instances.
Everything you need to know about the opening race of the 2019 season, including which car should go quickest at the Albert Park.
Charles Leclerc isn’t expected to win his first race with Ferrari this weekend, but if he does it’s unlikely to be as remarkable as Nigel Mansell’s debut with the Scuderia 30 years ago.
Alongside Vettel and Hamilton are two men in entirely different positions going into this season — one looking to vindicate the hype artists calling him Formula One’s next big thing, the other facing what could be his last chance to fight for and win a championship. There’s a lot riding on both scenarios.
Here is the case for why both men deserve your backing this weekend.
If you aren’t excited about Charles Leclerc yet, you should be.
The Monaco native, godson of the late Jules Bianchi, has been a Ferrari junior for years and swept to a record-breaking Formula Two title in 2017. His elevation to the Italian team, which follows an impressive rookie campaign with Sauber (now Alfa Romeo), sees it break its recent preference of having two former world champions at the helm — in 2014 it put Kimi Raikkonen alongside Fernando Alonso, before replacing the Spaniard with Vettel the following year.
Before his death in July last year, former Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne had decided the young Leclerc, now 21, was worthy of a seat for the upcoming season. As much as it was a ringing endorsement of his talent, it can also be seen as a warning shot to Vettel, whose well-documented errors played a part in the team squandering a championship. Vettel still appears to be the de facto No. 1, with new team boss Mattia Binotto saying the four-time world champion will get priority whenever a team-orders-style situation arises, but that could all change very quickly if Leclerc is immediately competitive. Nothing he’s done so far in his racing career suggests he isn’t capable of rising to the challenge in 2019, and even Vettel expects him to.
Many F1 fans will remember what happened at McLaren in 2007. A young Hamilton, in his rookie season, ruffled the feathers of Alonso in a battle that raged on all year — on that occasion, it was horribly managed and helped Ferrari and Raikkonen claim what is the team’s most recent drivers’ championship. While a disaster for McLaren, it made for a thrilling season and marked Hamilton’s arrival in the sport in a big way — imagine if Leclerc could do similar alongside another of the greats of the modern era. If he claimed a title this year, he would be the youngest man ever to do so, a record currently held by his new Ferrari teammate.
Vettel has previous experience in this sort of scenario. His final year at Red Bull in 2014 was alongside Daniel Ricciardo, who replaced fellow countryman Mark Webber. Despite having dominated Webber after their close fight for the title in 2010, Vettel had no similar joy against the younger Australian and was roundly beaten — Ricciardo claimed three wins to the German’s zero and by the end of the year Vettel had accepted a drive at Ferrari. While Vettel’s error-riddled 2018 has left a stain on his legacy in F1, there was already one there from how comprehensively he was beaten that year. Earlier this week we wrote about why the upcoming campaign is so important for him.
If Leclerc can follow in the footsteps of Nigel Mansell, Raikkonen and Alonso and win his first race in red, it will set up a tantalising 2019 campaign. You wouldn’t want to be in Binotto’s shoes if he did. Title fights with intra-team battles have an added dimension to them — an extra level of tension, knowing the other guy has the same machinery and, as made famous by Hamilton’s frustrations during his battles with Nico Rosberg, access to reams of data about how the other man is driving. Add into the mix a man with a childhood dream to win a title at Ferrari, who has moulded the operation around him like his hero Michael Schumacher did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and there’s another element — how would Vettel’s shaky temperament cope with Leclerc being instantly competitive on a Ferrari team he joined to dominate F1 with.
Ferrari has already given Vettel its backing publicly but, unlike with Raikkonen, the team has invested in Leclerc as its long-term future. That makes this storyline all the more fascinating. In 2007, McLaren faltered on what to do with its scenario as it found itself between a rock and a hard place — its superstar driver (who had won the past two titles and fulfilled a boyhood dream to join the team) who had expected priority treatment was clashing with the team’s young starlet, the youngster Ron Dennis had signed at a young age to win McLaren a bevy of championships in the future. That doesn’t sound too dissimilar to what could unfold this year if Leclerc is a title contender from the get-go.
Great F1 seasons thrive on fireworks, and there’s a factory full of them ready to ignite at Maranello.
This is Valtteri Bottas’ career, right here.
The Finnish driver arrives at the Australian Grand Prix knowing it kicks off the most important year of his career. It’s his third season with Mercedes, but given the cars he has had at his disposal so far, a return of three victories and six pole positions seems dire — especially when compared with Hamilton’s tally of 20 and 22 respectively over the same time frame. None of those three Bottas wins was in 2018. As well as dominating the head-to-head, Hamilton also won the title in both seasons he’s driven alongside Bottas, a man who was reduced to a supporting role last year and ordered not to race his teammate on two occasions, in Germany and Russia.
The most painful moment for Bottas was the second instance, having to yield the lead of the Russian Grand Prix to Hamilton, who already had a healthy but not insurmountable championship lead over Vettel, to strengthen his grip on the title. While it was a tough situation to see, it made sense. Bottas’ performances on the year meant he did not deserve that win in Sochi. He could have been in the mix — horrible bad luck hurt him on two occasions, with an ill-timed Safety Car when he was leading in China and a puncture while closing in on the chequered flag at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, before a cruel engine failure in Austria. But there were also glaring moments he was found lacking. He crashed out of qualifying in Australia and, most damningly, failed to attempt a late lunge on Vettel on the final lap in Bahrain having closed in on the Ferrari driver with fresher tyres in the closing stages.
Surely with the benefit of hindsight Bottas would now approach that situation much differently, as he now knows what it means when he drifts too far away from the championship contenders. After an encouraging start (he was the better of the two Mercedes drivers in the early part of the year), his form tailed off, and by the Hungarian Grand Prix he was already playing “wing man”, to quote team boss Toto Wolff, to Hamilton.
“There was definitely a point in the season, I can’t remember exactly the place, but it was pretty clear that at some point I was not going to be fighting for the championship,” Bottas said during preseason. “What I went through last year, as I driver I had goals for the season and I worked hard for it, but it was taken away so I had to try to reset and make new targets, which isn’t always easy.
“It was really obvious last year that I knew the end of the year could be difficult but I was not worried at all. On the negativity from last year, maybe it was good for me, I feel really good now, and I have managed to forget all the negativity and what is left has been turned into motivation. No worries on that.”
He sang the right tune ahead of this weekend’s race, saying he is prepared to take a more selfish approach in order to stay in the championship fight until the end of the year. He needs to, as well. This is his contract year, and Mercedes has young starlet Esteban Ocon — who despite bags of talent lost out in last year’s remarkable game of musical chairs in the driver market — waiting in the wings. Most in the paddock assume Ocon will be Hamilton’s teammate sooner rather than later.
So why should you want him to win this weekend’s race? Well firstly, as outlined above, intra-team battles are awesome, but this one is more about Bottas himself than what could happen at Mercedes. As much as he’s struggled for form and confidence over these past 24 months since replacing Rosberg, his talent is worthy of one proper shot at the title. We have seen a few occasions of utter brilliance from him since he arrived at Mercedes; his main problem has always been that he has found that level so infrequently.
Rosberg showed that Hamilton can be beaten to the championship and has frequently laid out the blueprint for how to do so. He won the last three races in 2015 and carried that momentum across to 2016, winning the opening four races in what turned out to be his title-winning season — if Bottas is stood at the top of the podium on Sunday afternoon in Melbourne, it would be the start he’s not been able to produce so far while driving in silver. And who knows what an in-form and fully confident Bottas could achieve with a competitive car at his disposal.
It’s on him to make it happen, of course. If he can’t, with it hard to see a seat at another top team opening up for him, his career is only going in one direction after 2019.
Spoiler alert: it isn’t upwards.
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