With the 2020 Formula 1 season is set to finally roar into life this evening in Austria, Speedcafe.com takes you through all the runners and riders in this year’s championship.
It’s been an interrupted start to the campaign, with the last minute cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix back in March the last time the F1 paddock was assembled.
Now, amid the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, racing is finally set to begin in a rather unusual fashion.
Austria hosts the season opener for the first time in world championship’s 70 year history, the first of eight confirmed races through Europe.
More races are planned, but have not yet been announced.
A raft of procedures and protocols have been introduced in an effort to safeguard the sport against a COVID-19 outbreak, though according to officials the show will go on regardless.
There are no fans at this weekend’s event, limited media and team staff, while much of the pageantry that has become synonymous with F1 will also be missing.
Once on track, however, it should be a case of business as usual with 20 drivers across 10 teams set to line up on the grid come Sunday.
Among its ranks are three world champions, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, and Kimi Raikkonen, with Nicholas Latifi the sole newcomer.
Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team
Taking an unchanged driver pairing into the coming campaign, and with a strong winter testing programme under its belt, Mercedes is again favourite heading into the new season.
Lewis Hamilton is fresh from claiming his sixth world championship in 2019, and this year could see him equal Michael Schumacher’s record tally.
He’s also not too far away from the great German’s all-time wins record too; seven wins this year would see him draw level with Schuamcher’s 91.
A strong and consistent performer, Hamilton has been the benchmark driver throughout the current hybrid formula and has won five of the last six titles. There is no reason to expect a form drop this year.
Across the garage, Valtteri Bottas is coming off the best season of his career after taking four wins and finishing second in last year’s championship.
There’s little doubt that the Finn remains Hamilton’s rear-gunner, but at the start of 2019 showed glimpses that he can step it up another gear.
This year there is the added pressure of increased competition for his seat for 2021.
Bottas is out of contract at year’s end, and Mercedes has the impressive George Russell, currently housed at Williams, on its books.
A strong season for Russell and a wobble or two for Bottas could spell the end of his time at Mercedes, making this a crucial campaign for the 30-year-old.
That said, for the moment there have been no suggestions from Mercedes’ top brass that he is at risk, but in Formula 1 nothing is ever certain.
There’s no hiding away from the fact that Ferrari did not live up to expectations in winter testing, and by its own admission that situation has not improved.
The SF1000 is set to run in Austria in the same configuration it did during testing in Spain back in February, though updates are planned for the third race of the season in Hungary.
Following testing the team took a step back in an effort to understand the weaknesses from its new machine, meaning hopes are high come the Hungaroring that its updates will solve whatever faults the team found.
On the driver front, it has already been announced that Sebastian Vettel will end his Ferrari career at the end of the year.
Having joined in the hope of emulating Michael Schumacher by leading the team to championship success, such progress has not been forthcoming.
The decision to end the relationship was Ferrari’s, which has already signed Carlos Sainz in Vettel’s place for next year.
Without a drive, and yet to decide what he wants to do in future, it’s hard to decide just what this year will mean for Vettel.
A four-time world champion, he has little to prove, but in recent years his reputation has taken a bit of a hit courtesy of some clumsy errors.
That said, if he holds any desire to continue now is the time to recapture the form that saw him dominate the sport with Red Bull.
Conversely Charles Leclerc is clearly Ferrari’s chosen prodigy heading into the future, with a long term deal in place that will keep him at the team until at least 2024.
Last season he overshadowed his more experienced and better credentialed team-mate, underscoring the promise he’d shown while racing for Alfa Romeo in 2018.
His fortunes will very much depend on those of his team, but with a long term contract and the support of the team’s management behind him, this is a low risk campaign for the Monegasque driver.
There’s no doubt that he, like Vettel, is a potential race winner, so long as their machinery is up to the task.
With that in mind, don’t expect early season glory.
Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
In 2019 Red Bull managed what McLaren couldn’t, and made the most of its Honda powerplants to claim three victories with Max Verstappen.
It was, however, a year in which the team was clearly the third best for much of it, with Verstappen making only sporadic appearances on the podium.
Mid-season, Pierre Gasly was relegated to Toro Rosso (as it was then known) with Alex Albon stepping up from the Belgian Grand Prix.
Heading into this campaign and the squad looks to have taken a step forward, with pre-season testing suggesting it will be Mercedes’ biggest threat.
Verstappen has been tied down with a new contract, securing his future with the team, but the Dutchman is famously impatient.
He’s already claimed eight grands prix wins in his career and will be expecting at least to challenge for more this season.
Over the past five years the rough edges have been polished, and while he’s still some way to go to be as complete a racer as Hamilton, he’s still only 22.
In battle, he’s one of the hardest competitors on track, and has proved time and again he’s not averse to taking risks.
For Albon, the coming season is a critical one.
Promoted midway through 2019 into the senior Red Bull team, he basically had half a season with no expectations.
Even still, he managed some impressive performances, and probably would have chalked up his maiden podium in Brazil had he not been punted by Hamilton late in the piece.
Patience at Red Bull, however, is famously short, so he will need to continue his progression.
While unfair to suggest he should be challenging Verstappen, who is vastly more experienced, Albon does need to close the gap to his team-mate.
For the moment the Red Bull driver programme doesn’t have a ready replacement to steal away an F1 drive, but that is unlikely to stop Helmut Marko from making changes mid-season if he doesn’t like what he’s seeing.
McLaren F1 Team
McLaren took a step forward in 2019 to clearly establish themselves at the fourth best team in F1, leapfrogging Renault in the process despite sporting customer engines.
It was an impressive performance for the team which remains in a rebuilding phase after parting ways with Honda at the end of 2017.
Behind the scenes the team has invested in key staff, including Andreas Seidl who brings with him an immense amount of experience courtesy of his time with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.
The team though is not without its problems, and just last month its parent company, McLaren Group, was forced to fight off insolvency.
For the moment its immediate future looks secure, but it must be asked; how much impact has its recent hurdles had on the race team?
We know it’s cut staff across the broader Group, with some of those falling within the race team itself.
Though there were no high profile losses, a hit to its workforce in the lead-up to a new season is never ideal.
On the driver front both Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris showed strong potential last season.
Sainz snared his first F1 podium at Brazil and Norris continued to develop throughout the season.
The pair are also a breath of fresh air in the paddock, with Norris in particular showing an engaging personality.
For 2020, it’s unrealistic to expect the duo to start challenging Mercedes, though don’t be surprised to see it mixing it more regularly with Ferrari and, on a good day, Red Bull.
Podiums are on the cards, or at least that’s where the team should be aiming at very least, but one feels its fate will be entwined with that of Ferrari.
Renault DP World F1 Team
There’s no hiding away from the fact that Renault did not deliver as expected last year.
Having targeted the front of the midfield, it instead slipped behind McLaren, and only narrowly avoided slipping being Toro Rosso too.
Exactly what the issue was is unclear, but clearly it’s enough for Daniel Ricciardo to make the decision to leave the squad at the end of the year.
Ricciardo was signed with the intent of having a front line, established, race-winning driver lead the marque’s charge back to the front of the F1 grid.
Over the course of the season, the best he was able to manage was fourth in Italy, though he did appear on the second row of the grid in Canada en route to sixth in that encounter.
The Australian is a fighter, his nickname is the ‘Honey Badger’ after all, so while he’s already got one foot out the door don’t expect him to be taking his foot off the gas.
Nor for that matter will his new team-mate, Esteban Ocon, who joins the team after a year on the sidelines.
Ocon has proved an especially fierce competitor to the point that he had more than one clash with his Force India (as it was then known) team-mate Sergio Perez during their two seasons together.
A year out has made him hungrier than ever, and in Ricciardo he faces the sternest test of his young career to date.
He’s highly rated though, and will need a solid season if he is to justify the decision to hire him in place of Nico Hulkenberg.
Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda
AlphaTauri is simply Toro Rosso with a different letterhead, a new branding exercise from parent company Red Bull.
As such, little more is expected of the squad which for the coming year is in somewhat of a state of limbo.
Last season, Pierre Gasly found himself dumped back at the squad in favour of Alex Albon, with Daniil Kvyat passed over for the same promotion.
We therefore have the unusual circumstance where two drivers who’ve raced for the senior team have been demoted.
Had Red Bull been flush with drivers ready to make the step up, there’s little doubt one or the other would have found themselves without a drive, so they should perhaps consider themselves fortunate.
As such, there is comparatively little to lose for either, though a strong season could see them whisked away to another team for next season.
That seems the most probable outcome if either wish to prolong their careers, and Carlos Sainz has demonstrated it can be done.
The challenge will be getting noticed in what is expected to be a tight midfield group where scoring points is likely to be the only realistic target.
Banking points, staying out of trouble, and trying to impress a new employer for 2021 seems the order of the day for the AlphaTauri pairing.
BWT Racing Point F1 Team
Last year for Racing Point was a hangover of an immensely difficult 2018 campaign in which the team collapsed and was resurrected.
The financial struggles in that season meant development of the 2019 car suffered, and as a result so too did its performance.
Now, however, it has new management and will next year become the Aston Martin factory team.
That’s unlikely to spark an immediate turnaround in fortunes or increase in performance, but the operation is now well-funded and historically always managed to punch well above its weight.
At pre-season testing it rocked up with a car many dubbed the ‘pink Mercedes’ owing to its remarkable similarities with last year’s title winning car.
Simply copying last year’s pace-setter is not a sure-fire way to move forward; the technical team needs to have understood the underlying concepts in order to develop the car further.
Despite having spent the bulk of his career in the midfield, Perez has developed a solid reputation for himself.
He’s a strong performer, consistent, and one of the best on the grid when it comes to race management.
At just 30 years of age, he’s also got nearly 200 grands prix under his belt, so he remains a valuable asset to the squad regardless of its performance.
That’s useful since across the garage Lance Stroll is embarking on only his fourth F1 campaign.
While the son of one of the team’s owners, Stroll’s junior career was comparatively strong, though in fairness he did exercise every advantage his family’s enormous wealth afforded him.
He’s won titles in Formula 4, the Toyota Racing Series, and FIA Formula 3 European competition, so he’s no slouch.
Thus far that hasn’t translated into success in F1, though there is just the odd spark of something there if only he could capture it consistently.
There is pressure on Stroll to step up his performance this year. Even though his father is an investor, he’s also a businessman and it seems unlikely he’ll entertain his son’s ambitions at the expense of the business long term.
The Aston Martin investment is significant, and its F1 team will need drivers able to live up to high expectations and push it forward.
While there is no doubt Perez can do that, Stroll needs to dig deep this year.
Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen
Something of a quiet achiever, Alfa Romeo has continued with Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi again for 2020.
The squad has close links to Ferrari, and don’t be fooled by the badge on the engine cover; it’s powered by a few hundred Prancing Horses.
However, there are questions over just how competitive that unit is this year, since the factory team struggled in pre-season testing.
On the driver front, Raikkonen is the oldest driver on the grid, having sailed beyond his 40th birthday late last year.
Over the years, he’s lost the blistering outright pace he had at the start of his career, but his experience has offset that to a degree.
He proved in 2018 he was still capable of winning races and there’s no reason to suggest that has changed despite moving into the midfield with Alfa Romeo.
Last season he picked up reasonable points to comprehensively beat Giovinazzi, who is a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy.
Heading into his second full season of F1, it’s time for Giovinazzi to show the potential that encouraged Ferrari to promote him in the first instance.
Four points-paying results last year, with a fifth in Brazil his best, netted just 14 points and he only ended the year ahead of the two Williams drivers and Romain Grosjean.
For someone on the books at Maranello, that won’t be tolerated for long, so he’ll need to step up his game this year.
On raw pace he’s not far from Raikkonen; it’s now a matter of bringing all the aspects of a race weekend together, week in, week out.
For Alfa Romeo, points are the goal this year; expect to see them battling somewhere in that midfield melee.
Haas F1 Team
Perhaps the 2019 season is best forgotten for Haas for a multitude of reasons, both on and off track.
It’s no secret the car was an animal, to the point the decision was taken mid-season to split specifications in an effort to understand exactly what was going on.
Fundamentally, that related to how the car used its tyres. It was unpredictable and inconsistent, and incredibly frustrating for drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean.
Off track there was the odd saga with Rich Energy, the fly by night energy drinks brand that was permanently in the headlines until it parted ways with the team mid-season.
There’s no doubt that would have been a distraction of sorts, but the real question is whether the lessons from last year have been learned and corrected in this year’s car.
Both Magnussen and Grosjean are handy drivers; in 2019 they were not the limiting factor and therefore it made sense for the team to carry on with them.
Owned by billionaire Gene Haas, rumours surrounding the team’s future have swirled for some time.
Should they be correct, that Haas is on the brink of pulling the plug on the programme, this season is critical to its future.
And that doesn’t mean it needs to be winning races, but does mean it needs to have its highest placed driver rather higher than 16th in the championship.
Haas desperately needs to begin scoring points regularly, with a car that doesn’t frustrate drivers and allows for a more constructive development curve than they had in 2019.
The team has shown it’s capable in the past; the question is really whether it can turn its fortunes around quickly for 2020, especially as it arrives in Austria without any updates after Guenther Steiner could justify the expenditure.
The coming year looks a difficult one for Williams, both on- and off-track.
Last year was its worst season on record, netting just a single point courtesy of Robert Kubica at the sodden German Grand Prix.
On the whole, the squad was nailed to the back end of the field, though there were a few moments of brilliance from George Russell that saw him threaten the cut at the end of Qualifying 1 on a handful of occasions.
With limited funding, it’s difficult to imagine 2020 as anything substantially different on-track, as an F1 team’s performance is directly linked to its bank account.
Joining the team is Nicholas Latifi, who has been on the fringes of F1 for a number of years and has proven to be a solid competitor in the junior formulae.
Latifi’s father (Michael) is also active in the paddock, and recently helped refinance the team to the tune of GBP 50 million back in April.
It should be noted Latifi Snr also has a 10 percent stake in McLaren, worth something like GBP 200 million.
There’s no wonder then Michael Latifi has recently been linked with a buyout of Williams after the Board announced it was considering all options, including a possible sale.
Though on-track performance was not where the team had hoped it would be last year, Russell was able to solidify his reputation as a bright young prospect.
He routinely out-performed Kubica even if the scoreboard at season’s end didn’t reflect that fact.
A Mercedes junior, another solid season could see Russell receive the call-up to the factory team.
His opposite number, Latifi, is the only rookie on this year’s grid.
At 25 years of age, he’s somewhat long in the tooth as a rookie by modern standards, but comes with more than four years’ experience in Formula 2 (formerly GP2), finishing second in last year’s title fight.
Expectations for the Canadian will be low, which therefore offer a comparatively pressure-free environment in which to gain experience.
His task will be simply staying out of trouble and bringing the car home, and if he’s within arm’s length of Russell that should be considered a win.