Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton in particular have dominated Formula One in recent years but the coronavirus-delayed 2020 season begins Sunday with Max Verstappen and Red Bull eyeing a title charge.
The Austrian Grand Prix is the first of a Spielberg double-header and a third consecutive race week in Hungary then gives Red Bull the ideal chance to set a marker in the championship battle.
“I hope so, it’s so hard to say,” Verstappen told the team homepage when asked if he could challenge for a first world title. “One thing I know for sure is that we will do everything we can to fight for it.”
Verstappen has won the last two races in Austria while Red Bull are traditionally strong in Hungary as well.
But there is an element of the unknown — rather than the season starting in Australia on March 15, just a few weeks after testing, teams have had the chance to tinker and develop cars without the public seeing the results.
“Mercedes are still the ones to beat, because they have been the dominant team for so long now,” said Verstappen. “They are still very strong and will be hard to beat but as a team we learnt a lot over the last year and I really think that we are stronger.”
Verstappen’s partner Alex Albon is likely to play second fiddle in the team hierarchy while a similar dynamic can be expected at Mercedes, even if it is not official policy.
Title-holder Hamilton can move level with Michael Schumacher’s record championship haul of seven and the German’s best tally of 91 race victories is also in sight.
Hamilton, like teammate Valtteri Bottas, is out of contract at the end of the season but Mercedes motorsport chief Toto Wolff has previously said “hopefully we will have something pretty soon”.
Sebastian Vettel is one of option as the German gears up for his last season with Ferrari having been usurped by younger teammate Charles Leclerc.
The pair have previously clashed on track and Vettel moving on — either into retirement or another team from 2021 — means he may have less inclination than usual to extend the hand of cooperation.
“It’s no secret that we’re all really keen to get back on track, as it’s been such a long time now,” Vettel told the Ferrari homepage.
“At the start, the break was enjoyable, as usually we are always travelling around the world and we have little time to spend with family and friends, but the time has come to get back on track.”
The Ferrari duo, like the rest of the grid, have been doing a mixture of fitness training, simulator work and entertaining fans online during the break. “But now it’s time to get back in the cockpit of a real car,” said Leclerc.
Below the big three teams, McLaren will expect to continue progress and possibly end a long podium drought before driver Carlos Sainz moves to Ferrari while Daniel Ricciardo begins his Renault farewell before replacing him.
American team Haas hope to bounce back from a poor 2019 while veteran former champion Kimi Raikkonen is still putting in the miles for Alpha Romeo.
Williams want to bounce back from an embarrassing last season but uncertainty remains around the classic British team due to ongoing financial struggles.
After a week off following Hungary, there is a British double-header August 2 and 9, then races in Spain (August 16), Belgium (August 30) and Italy (September 6).
Then the schedule is — still — a void with virtually everything up in the air until the finale in Bahrain and then Abu Dhabi in December. F1 still hopes to run a 15-18 race season.
There are no fans in the stands, a vastly reduced travelling village in terms of team numbers and media, and a strict hygiene protocol to follow with regular testing.
It will be different. But, from Sunday, there is racing again.
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