Very soon, twenty of the world's fastest and most talented drivers will go wheel-to-wheel in the world's highest motor-racing category, Formula One. This season, the sport has four new rookies on the grid as well as six drivers changing teams and two drivers making comebacks. At the front of the grid, the spotlight is on Lewis Hamilton as he guns for a sixth world title while nemesis Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari tries to serve up a challenge, yet again. Red Bull Racing's Max Verstappen will be hoping to join this party. The tight midfield will be full of drivers hoping to make a mark through strong results. In this piece, we take a look at each of the twenty drivers and what they will be hoping to do in the season ahead.
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes
What 2019 means for him: Lewis Hamilton is a superstar in every sense of the word. He is on top of his racing game and doesn't seem to put a foot wrong. At the same time, he is also an ace ambassador for the sport. For Hamilton, one more season means one more opportunity to break records. A world championship win this season will take him to six titles, only one behind the legendary Michael Schumacher. It will also cement his place as one of the foremost legends of his era.
The questions to ask: Murmurs regarding Hamilton's levels of motivation and focus on F1 have always been around. He is a man of many interests and passions — how soon before one of the other eclipses his desire to be racing in Formula One? How will Mercedes keep him motivated race after race, especially if Ferrari and Red Bull Racing fail to deliver a strong challenge this season? Losing Hamilton will be a strong blow not just to the team, but to Formula One as a whole.
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes
What 2019 means for him: A strange twist of fate brought Bottas the fastest car on the grid but he has still been unable to show that he truly deserves the Mercedes seat. In no uncertain terms, 2019 is a 'make or break' season for Bottas. His contract expires at the end of the season and Mercedes already have their talented junior driver Esteban Ocon waiting in the wings. The team will be thinking about succession planning for when Hamilton moves on, and hence the question is not if Ocon will get a Mercedes drive but when. Bottas needs to put his head down and deliver a string of blockbuster results and simultaneously, also hope for a fair share of good luck.
The questions to ask: Even though Bottas has been 'fired up' in pre-season testing, will he be able to soak up the pressure and deliver, and does he have it in him to match his world champion teammate consistently? Bottas will also be thinking about his future and which team he could move to if Mercedes do not renew his contract. Hence, having a strong 2019 is the biggest determinant of which way his F1 career will go.
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
What 2019 means for him: Time and patience is running out for Vettel at Ferrari. The last few seasons have seen him "attempt" to take on Hamilton, only to eventually flounder. Vettel needs to show that he is still capable of consistently outstanding drives and show that he is the right person to lead the charge for Ferrari. The fact that Ferrari seems to be shifting their focus towards the future sends a strong message.
The questions to ask: The dynamic between Vettel and his new teammate Charles Leclerc will be interesting — a former world champion and a future world champion together. The last time Vettel was paired with a newcomer (Daniel Ricciardo in 2014 at Red Bull Racing) he was beaten decisively — will history repeat itself? Will the change in environment and atmosphere at Ferrari further aid Vettel's charge?
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
What 2019 means for him: Simply put, 2019 is the opportunity of a lifetime for the young driver. A strong season could signal to one and all that Ferrari has made the right choice and make them further invest in him and groom them as their future hope. 2019 will also show the paddock how Leclerc handles the pressure of being in a frontrunning team against a highly rated teammate.
The questions to ask: What role will Leclerc play this season? Will he challenge Vettel, or prefer to learn and grow as the "number two driver?" It will also be interesting to see how he stacks up against Verstappen (Red Bull Racing's 'future hope').
Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
What 2019 means for him: Red Bull Racing's golden boy comes of age as this will be his first season as the 'senior' driver at the team and also the undisputed 'number one driver.' Last season, Verstappen had some good results, but also made some regrettable mistakes. He will be eager to show that he has learnt from those and is now quicker, but more mature.
The questions to ask: The main question plaguing Red Bull Racing is the Honda engine — will the package come together to support Verstappen's ambition to battle for wins? In case their is frustration and the team slips backwards into the midfield, how will he deal with the frustration and failure (something we have known him not to be the best at)?
Pierre Gasly, Red Bull Racing
What 2019 means for him: Daniel Ricciardo's unexpected departure form Red Bull Racing gave Gasly a racing seat there. We know that Red Bull Racing are demanding employers — they expect results, quickly and consistently. If not, the demotions come swiftly. Gasly needs to show that he deserves the seat and can keep up with his talented teammate, although he stated that his goal is not to beat Verstappen this season.
The questions to ask: Have Red Bull Racing fallen into the trap of being too impatient with their drivers? Gasly's crashes in pre-season testing were heavily criticised by Helmut Marko, would that have already dashed the driver's confidence? Also, how will Gasly cope within a team that revolves around Verstappen and how will he carve a niche for himself?
Daniel Ricciardo, Renault
What 2019 means for him: This season is all about watching the dust that Ricciardo kicked up with his move to Renault settle and then figuring out whether his move was pure genius or career suicide. Ricciardo will be pushed to the limit by his super able teammate Nico Hulkenberg.
The questions to ask: Ricciardo's desire to be a World Champion is well known. Yet, as the driver turns 30 this year, time is running out for him. Will the Renault car be competitive enough to fight for occasional podiums, and then build up the performance to leap to the front? Will a seat open up for Ricciardo at Mercedes or Ferrari?
Nico Hulkenberg, Renault
What 2019 means for him: Hulkenberg has always been regarded as one of the best drivers on the grid and winning the 24 hours of Le Mans on debut only sealed that fact. Last season, he had the highest championship position after the drivers from the front-running teams and he will be eager to continue that form. That said, 2019 will be his toughest season yet with a tough teammate in Ricciardo to compete with.
The questions to ask: Will Hulkenberg finally be able to bag that long-elusive first podium this season? We all know that he deserves it!
Kevin Magnussen, Haas
What 2019 means for him: Magnussen's Formula One career has been a rollercoaster — from grabbing a podium on debut to being unceremoniously dropped by McLaren via a text message. Magnussen had a respectable 2018 as Haas recorded their best championship finish ever. During an exclusive interview with Firstpost in May 2018, Magnussen emphasised the importance of stability — something he has now in his third year with Haas. Along with stability, he will also be looking for some starpower — a podium, for example, would be very nice.
The questions to ask: Magnussen will be looking to claim the "best of the rest" tag in the Drivers Championship behind drivers from the top 3 teams. Can he do it?
Romain Grosjean, Haas
What 2019 means for him: Grosjean did not have the best season in 2018 — he failed to score points till Austria (ninth race of the season). The newly launched F1 documentary on Netflix shows Haas team boss Gunther Steiner calling him out for his lack of performances. However, he then went on to outscore Magnussen in the last seven races. The paddock wondered whether he would lose his Haas seat in 2019 and though he retained it, the clock is ticking. Grosjean will need to dig deep to string together a competitive, consistent and error-free season that should drive Haas to greater heights in 2019. The opportunity to play team leader is there for him, but can he deliver to it?
The questions to ask: Will Grosjean manage to bring consistency to this game in 2019? Although Grosjean has been with Haas since its inception, the team needs to start thinking ahead — the question is when.
Sergio Perez, Racing Point
What 2019 means for him: It almost feels like Perez has been on the cusp of breaking through the top teams for several seasons now but somehow, it never quite happened. Perez needs to stay patient and continue to perform well (including snatching the odd podium) to stay in consideration when a seat opens up.
The questions to ask: The arrival of The Strolls could be a blessing in disguise for Perez. Will Lance Stroll be an "easier" teammate to beat than Esteban Ocon last season? Will the investment by Lawrence Stroll help the team go faster — and fight higher up the grid? Or could beating Stroll regularly be the strange cause of Perez's exit from the team?
Lance Stroll, Racing Point
What 2019 means for him: The thing with Lance Stroll is that nobody really knows how fast he is — because his speed has been tied to the underperforming Williams car. 2019 is the season when Stroll's true potential will actually be uncovered. No more excuses, no more blaming the team — Stroll Jr. will have to show that he deserves his racing seat. Perez will be a tough teammate for him, but also a quick and experienced driver to learn from.
The questions to ask: Is Stroll genuinely quick enough to stay competitive in the crowded midfield? How will he build his own identity in a paddock that questions his privilege?
Carlos Sainz, McLaren
What 2019 means for him: From the Red Bull Racing stable to Renault and now McLaren, Sainz has had an eventful run in Formula One. Similarly, the last few seasons at McLaren have seen high driver churn. Will Sainz and McLaren be able to offer some stability to each other? 2019 marks Sainz's first season as the "senior driver" at a team. Given that McLaren are in a state of rejuvenation and (hopefully) resurrection, the responsibility of leading the team forward is crucial.
The questions to ask: Will Sainz be able to hold his own against seriously quick rookie Lando Norris? Will McLaren feel the vacuum caused by the departure of double world champion Fernando Alonso, and will Sainz be able to lead the team in his place?
Lando Norris, McLaren
What 2019 means for him: 2019 is a great year for rookies. Ffor the first time since 2010, all three of the top finishers in the sport's primary series (Formula 2 currently) have gotten a racing seat. Norris finished second in the F2 championship, losing out to George Russell. It will be interesting to see the duo continue their scrap in Formula One, especially since Williams vs McLaren is an interesting constructors battle to watch; only that it could be for last place.
The questions to ask: Will Norris be able to beat his far more experienced teammate Sainz? How will he stack up against the three other rookies?
Kimi Raikkonen, Alfa Romeo Racing
What 2019 means for him: Life comes a full circle as Raikkonen returns to the team where he started his F1 career. The atmosphere at Alfa Romeo will be a huge contrast to that at Ferrari — Raikkonen will probably enjoy his racing far more this season. Crucially, it is difficult to say how many seasons he has left in Formula One so diehard fans will be hoping for a podium appearance this season.
The questions to ask: Raikkonen is known to be a man of many talents, but building and leading a team is not one of them. Will Raikkonen be able to lead Alfa Romeo forward, while also mentoring his rookie teammate?
Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo Racing
What 2019 means for him: After two years of waiting for a racing seat, 2019 is finally the year for Giovinazzi. After sparkling in his debut GP2 season in 2016 and pushing title favourite Gasly close, Giovinazzi was snapped up as a Ferrari junior driver. He has spent the last two seasons in testing, although he did make two appearances for Sauber in place of the injured Pascal Wehrlein at the start of the 2017 season
The questions to ask: How will Giovinazzi perform in comparison to his world champion teammate Raikkonen and the other rookies? Just how fast is the Alfa Romeo car and will it be a serious and consistent challenger in the upper midfield?
Robert Kubica, Williams
What 2019 means for him: This is a real-life fairytale that Kubica is living — one that saw him go from a life-threatening crash to making a heroic comeback in Formula One. That being said, getting a racing seat is just the beginning, Kubica needs to deliver on track. Unfortunately, the challenge continues as Kubica must work his magic in the slowest car on the grid.
The questions to ask: Will Kubica's physical health support him on-track, especially given the hectic F1 calendar? How will he rate against his rookie teammate George Russell, winner of the 2018 F2 championship?
George Russell, Williams
What 2019 means for him: The 2019 Formula 2 champion will be keen to take Formula One by storm. Of course, being in the Williams makes it much harder, but that also means that any good performance counts for much more. In essence, the credit for a good result will go to the driver and not the car!
The questions to ask: Will Russell be able to shine on his Formula One debut despite being saddled with the slowest car on the grid? How soon before he is able to impress against the other rookies and move up to a faster team? The fate of the other Mercedes junior drivers (Wehrlein and Ocon) isn't most-encouraging, so let's hope the World Champion team have concrete plans for the young British driver.
Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso
What 2019 means for him: The torpedo returns to Formula One! Kvyat comes with a lot of baggage and at the same time, has the opportunity to make a fresh start in the sport. He has plenty to prove — especially to Red Bull Racing and show that they made a mistake by demoting him (twice).
The questions to ask: Kvyat needs to beat not just his teammate but also other midfield drivers to position himself as a prime contender in case Gasly does not deliver at RBR and the seat becomes vacant. Will he be able to? We know that towards the end of his first stint in F1, he had lost a lot of confidence. Will he be able to come back with a bang and make the most of Red Bull's repeat life-lines?
Alexander Albon, Toro Rosso
What 2019 means for him: Albon was third in the 2018 Formula 2 championship and will be delighted to have earned a Formula One promotion thanks to the departure of Brendon Hartley. Interestingly, he is only the second driver in F1 history to race under a Thai flag (Thailand and Red Bull anyway have an interesting history). Like all the other rookies, he will be eager to make a name for himself in the paddock and put himself in contention for a promotion in case Gasly slips up.
The questions to ask: Simply put, can Albon be the next Verstappen for the Red Bull racing stable — an exciting new talent, ridiculously fast and hellbent on winning?
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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 19:52:59 IST