An air of unrest and uncertainty hangs over Formula One as the global motor racing bandwagon flies to Melbourne for the start of the 71st championship season at this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton’s bid to equal Michael Schumacher’s tally of a record seven drivers’ titles, and to overhaul his total of 91 race wins, will surely be the greatest focus of on-track attention as his younger rivals rise to challenge his supremacy.
Against a backdrop of climate crisis demonstrations and coronavirus fears, not to mention an angry anti-Ferrari schism in the pit-lane, it is hardly likely to be a peaceful season.
Hamilton is in the final year of his current Mercedes contract amid persistent rumours of a possible future move to Ferrari while the sport itself is bracing for the introduction of a radical new rule-book and revamped formula in 2021 –- and the need for a green revolution beyond that.
The 2020 calendar, originally a bloated and unprecedented 22 races, including new events in Vietnam and the Netherlands, has been hit by late alterations including the postponement of China’s race in April, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and doubts over other Grands Prix.
It is a situation demanding day-to-day reviews with the races in Bahrain on March 22 and in Hanoi on April 5 most susceptible to enforced delays or cancellation before the revived Dutch Grand Prix, on May 3, marks the opening of the European season.
On Sunday, Bahrain announced a plan to race without spectators.
Three years on from Liberty Media’s takeover, F1 is at the threshold of an exhausting examination of its credibility, durability and, in some quarters, relevance as the world around it swirls with influential events yet there is still evidence of its rude health in the queue to host races, huge budgets and extended number of races.
Hamilton and Mercedes’ hegemony is under threat from not only Ferrari’s old-and-new pairing of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, but also the unquestionable brilliance of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who holds the records as youngest driver, at 17, and winner, at 18.
Now 22, he aims to take Vettel’s record as youngest champion.
Verstappen, however, has shrugged aside talk of records to focus, instead, on unsettling his target.
“He is good, very good and one of the best, but he is not God,” he said of Hamilton in February.
The champion replied, suggesting such sabre-rattling was “a sign of weakness”.
For the Dutch driver, it was a satisfying result. His darts had stung, he claimed.
“I think the only competition he’s had over the years, really, has been his team-mate,” he said.
“In general, over a season, the car has been too dominant for anyone to be able to do something against it. That’s why I think so far we have not been able to stress test him. It’s been a little too comfortable.
“I’m very fired up to give it a go and I think he knows that. The whole team is fired up and we want to give them (Mercedes) a hard time. If you don’t have that fire within yourself, you’d better stay home.”
– ‘Amusement’ –
Pre-season testing saw Mercedes, the six-time champions of the current turbo era, introduce an adventurous dual-axis steering system (DAS) to an inevitable uproar from their rivals.
F1 head of motorsport Ross Brawn, a famed poacher-turned-gamekeeper, laughed at the furore, describing it as “classic F1”.
He said a protest at the opening race is likely –- and that the innovation will be banned next year.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of those arguments myself, in my time,” he conceded. “So, I watch now with amusement.”
Like most observers, he believes Hamilton remains the man to beat, a view shared by former champion Damon Hill who has compared his compatriot’s stature in F1 to that of Roger Federer in tennis.
“He keeps coming back to the front,” he said. “It takes enormous talent, but that’s not good on its own. He has nurtured it, applied it, not spent it unwisely. He is a phenomenon.”
Another title success this year would invite Hamilton to go on to seek an eighth and move into uncharted places, just as F1 readies itself for a leap into the unknown.
In many ways, 2020 could be a defining end-of-era season.