LONDON: If there is one sport where you could argue that brilliance can be boring then Formula One is it.
For the past five seasons, thanks to the dominance of Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, the spectacle of speed has become, for some, a ponderous procession.
Hamilton has won 51 of his past 100 Grands Prix for the Silver Arrows, winning four of the past five championships in the process (Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg won the other one).
There is no doubting both the Briton’s and Mercedes’ brilliance. With every passing year and race win Hamilton is illustrating why he will go down as one of the all-time greats. He is already level with the brilliant Juan Manuel Fangio with five titles and just two back from Michael Schumacher’s record tally of seven.
However, the big “but” is that in terms of predictability and excitement, the sport has once again been found wanting and that is why this season is so important and why the signs from pre-season testing are so promising.
There is little doubt that Hamilton will add to his 73 race wins — 18 behind Schumacher’s record of 91 — but there is also little doubt, and much hope, that Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel can pose a far greater challenge than they have done over the past five seasons.
“This is going to be the toughest battle yet ... their pace is very good at the moment,” Hamilton said after suggesting in pre-season testing that Ferrari could be as much as half a second ahead of Mercedes, who are looking for become the first team in F1 history to win six successive title doubles.
What the sport needs — and, looking at the rule changes being bought in over the past few years, really wants — is a titanic battle for the title. The spectacle of speed needs to be just that, with thrills, excitement, overtaking and suspense dished out every race, starting in Melbourne on Sunday.
There are two reasons for Ferrari fans to be excited.
First, with the Prancing Horse under new management, it is hoped the appointment of Mattia Binotto as new boss will galvanize the Italian outfit. The Swiss-Italian engineer was technical head in 1994, at the start of Ferrari and Schumacher’s dominance, and it is hoped Binotto will raise morale and return the team to its racing roots.
Second, the omens bode well for Ferrari. It was five years before Schumacher won his first title with the Scuderia and it is now five years since Vettel, a four-time champion, joined the team for what he hoped would be a success-laden stint.
Vettel set the fastest time in pre-season testing in Barcelona and the hope is he and Ferrari take that momentum to the
first race this weekend, the Australian Grand Prix.
In terms of other storylines there is the return of Robert Kubica. In 2011, the Polish driver was seriously injured in a crash at the Ronde di Andora rally. His return to the top has been remarkable, and if he was to win a race for Williams this season, no one, not even title-cashing Hamilton or Vettel, would begrudge him that.
This is also a crucial season for some young guns. Max Verstappen is heading into his fifth season, but is still only 21. Can the Dutch dynamo prove his undoubted talent by mounting a title challenge? Red Bull claim the car is good enough.
Then there is much anticipation over Charles Leclerc. At 21, he is Ferrari’s youngest driver since 1961 and it is hoped he can push his teammate Vettel to new heights.
All the elements for a great, thrilling season are there, we just have our finger crossed it materializes.
Despite the supposed progress Ferrari have made in pre-season, it is hard to see past Lewis Hamilton claiming a sixth world title. The Scuderia certainly appear to have closed the gap on their German rivals and the title race will undoubtedly be much tighter than last year. But Hamilton always finds a way to win, even when things are going against him, which is why he is a great of the sport. The British driver will have to be at his best this year, but expect him to produce some of the best drives of his career and seal a fifth title in six years.
OUTSIDER TO LOOK FOR
Much like last season, when Hamilton looks into his wing mirrors in 2019, he is likely to see teammate Valtteri Bottas and Ferrari title rival Sebastian Vettel closing in behind him. But more often than not, he could be seeing a second streak of red — Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari. The Prancing Horse will prioritize Vettel’s bid from day one, but will give Leclerc all the support he needs to get on the podium in their efforts to wrest the constructor’s title away from Mercedes. If the man from Monaco hits the ground running, he might well force Ferrari to shift their priorities.
F1 and the German Grand Prix have had an up-and-down, on-and-off relationship this past decade. But for the first time since 2014, there will be back-to-back Grands Prix in the country. And this year, the Nurburgring is back on the calendar. We have not been treated to its blistering pace and relentless challenge since 2013, but we cannot wait to see the class of 2019 tear around that famous old track. F1 drivers and fans alike have welcomed the decision to return, and so do we.
It goes without saying for most F1 fans, but the sport is better when the season is a genuine white-knuckle, down-to-the-wire title race. Not since Hamilton’s stunning last-lap, last-corner world title victory in 2008, when he pipped Felipe Massa by a point, have we had such a spectacle. Since then fans have switched off and stayed away, something new owners Liberty Media are desperate to change. Since taking over in 2016, the group have said and done a lot of good things. Let’s hope this is the year they all come to fruition.
In a nutshell, another title procession. F1 is at a crossroads in terms of global appeal and if Mercedes and one of its drivers romp home to yet another world championship, it will damage the sport. Factored into that is the fear that in a bid to win new fans quickly, the sport will continue to search out new locations for Grands Prix. In recent years that has meant building soulless circuits rather than creating top-class motorsport. We want a preservation of Grands Prix like Monza, Spa and Interlagos rather than Shanghai, Baku or Texas.