Although there are only two changed driver line-ups from last year – Ricciardo/Ocon at Renault and Russell/Latifi at Williams – there are nonetheless some intriguing dynamics between team-mates, some of which will shape the season, others which could be career-defining.
The top three teams each have one driver with an apparently impossible challenge against their team-mate. But just how feasible is it for Valtteri Bottas, Sebastian Vettel or Alex Albon to confound those expectations?
Can Bottas match Hamilton at Mercedes?
Last year at Mercedes, Bottas got a flying start to the season that took Lewis Hamilton by surprise. After four races they were on two race wins apiece, with Bottas ahead in qualifying. It took until Montreal in June for Hamilton to begin to decisively out-perform him in the races, though even by the end they were even on pole positions, at five apiece.
It was by far the strongest challenge the Finn had ever put up against the man about to rewrite the record books. Bottas continues to work on himself, to find improvements in his game and is meticulous in this search. His biggest challenge is in trying to match Hamilton’s often-extraordinary combination of race pace and tyre usage.
Although Hamilton is a force of nature, historically he’s been at his most vulnerable at the start of a season. All Bottas can do is ensure he hits the ground running and squeezes every ounce of his own potential from himself. But the rest is not in his hands.
Vettel vs Leclerc: Round 2
That Vettel, a four-time world champion, should be the underdog in the Ferrari match-up is telling. Charles Leclerc last season gradually established himself as the team’s number one, something that seemed to be symbolically confirmed after he won Monza following an internal disagreement about the events of qualifying.
“All is forgiven,” said team boss Mattia Binotto after Leclerc’s stunning victory. Vettel, after a disastrous error-riddled race, looked like yesterday’s man in that moment. Yet he immediately began a fightback.
His performances in Singapore and Suzuka rather took Leclerc by surprise, particularly his Suzuka pole lap. The controversy of their collision in Brazil only underlined the fact that Vettel was giving virtually nothing away to Leclerc in the latter part of the season.
As the younger driver, with the team’s apparent backing, history suggests that Leclerc will ultimately prevail. But Vettel is by no means to be written off in this contest.
Getting close to Verstappen key to Albon’s future
Going into just his second season, Alex Albon will be measured against a phenomenal one-in-a-generation talent Max Verstappen already with five seasons of experience behind him.
Realistically, Albon isn’t going to come out on top. But with Verstappen as the ultimate barometer, Albon has to demonstrate that he can regularly keep him in sight and in the process form part of the team’s championship challenge.
Red Bull is notoriously unforgiving of under-performance, but failing to beat Verstappen would not get Albon dropped. It’s the margin by which he’s behind that will be crucial.
Ricciardo vs Ocon the pick of the midfield battles
Outside the top three teams, the most intriguing contest is that between Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon at Renault.
Ricciardo’s stature is still that of one of F1’s absolute elite, but at 30 time is running out if he’s to translate that reputation into achievement. He absolutely must prevail over Ocon if he’s to retain that standing and remain an attractive prospect for one of the top teams. But Ocon – coming back after a year on the sidelines, watching and learning from Hamilton at Mercedes – is super-fast, super-tough and extremely combative.
This is going to be absolutely fascinating – and potentially controversial.
Elsewhere on the grid: Lando Norris/Carlos Sainz in their second year together at McLaren. The highly-polished Sainz was the unofficial ‘Class B’ champion last year, the rookie Norris not quite as consistent. With his data banks now much fuller, Norris will be a formidable threat.
Although Sergio Perez can be expected to remain Racing Point’s lead driver, Lance Stroll needs to justify his place in the team as it transitions towards its Aston Martin future, regardless of it being owned by his father.
He has it within him to do that and the unerringly competitive Perez will form the perfect barometer.
Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly, both on the rebound from Red Bull, are each capable of formidable performances. But which of them can hook it up better at AlphaTauri through the season is not a given.
Realistically, Antonio Giovinazzi’s F1 future is dependent upon him prevailing over Kimi Raikkonen at Alfa-Romeo. Easier said than done.
George Russell’s stature as a potential star would be severely dented if he could not dominate the rookie Nicholas Latifi at Williams.
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