Driv­ers at cross­roads in sea­son of un­cer­tainty

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SPORTS - Can Hamil­ton re­tain fo­cus to land sev­enth ti­tle? Ver­stap­pen’s chance to seize the day? Will Vettel shine in fi­nal sea­son with Fer­rari? End of the road for Wil­liams and what now for Rus­sell? Not much prospect of joy for Ric­cia­rdo at Re­nault?

A look at five talk­ing points ahead of the start of Sun­day’s be­hind­closed-doors sea­son cur­tain-raiser, the Aus­trian Grand Prix, at the Spiel­berg cir­cuit.

The main threat to Lewis Hamil­ton’s bid to land a record-equal­ing sev­enth driv­ers’ ti­tle is likely to be him­self — just ahead of Mercedes team­mate Valt­teri Bot­tas and Red Bull’s Max Ver­stap­pen.

The sport’s first black cham­pion has ad­mit­ted he is com­mit­ted to rac­ing for more than per­sonal or team tri­umphs.

“I’m rac­ing for all of you out there who may feel that you don’t have a voice,” said the Bri­ton, who made his voice heard in sup­port of re­cent anti-racism protests dur­ing the en­forced time­out.

“In the world, in the so­ci­ety that we live in, I think mak­ing it as a young black kid from a coun­cil es­tate in Steve­nage, mak­ing it to F1 through the tini­est win­dow of op­por­tu­nity — that’s a very, very im­por­tant part of my jour­ney and then stay­ing there and con­tin­u­ing to de­liver against ad­ver­sity.”

Asked where F1 should race, he added: “Africa. It’s such an im­por­tant place to go back. At the mo­ment, F1 goes to coun­tries and doesn’t re­ally leave much be­hind, if any­thing. For­mula 1 has to shift into be­ing a sport that does go to places and leaves be­hind some­thing that can re­ally help the com­mu­ni­ties.”

Hav­ing proved his speed and rac­ing tal­ent this is the time for Max Ver­stap­pen and Red Bull to seize their mo­ment and emerge from the open­ing trio of races as cham­pi­onship lead­ers.

A year ago, the young Dutch­man bul­lied his way to vic­tory at the Red Bull Ring and a dou­ble re­peat of that plus a strong re­sult at Bu­dapest would see the Milton Keynes-based team on top of the em­bry­onic ti­tle race.

Pre­sea­son test­ing in Barcelona sug­gested Red Bull’s car is very fast, but also skit­tish and may face re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lems.

But the driver pair­ing of Ver­stap­pen and Alex Al­bon has a proven abil­ity to shine in chal­leng­ing con­di­tions and can beat Fer­rari to take the fight to cham­pion Mercedes.

After con­firm­ing he is leav­ing Fer­rari at the end of this year, Se­bas­tian Vettel may feel freed and ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing the con­sis­tency and speed that can in­spire the team again de­spite the threat of Charles Le­clerc.

The four-time cham­pion has the speed and qual­ity, but Fer­rari has to de­liver a car that can show im­me­di­ate per­for­mance developmen­t as the sea­son un­folds.

Pre­sea­son test­ing sug­gested that this year’s ma­chine had sac­ri­ficed some of last year’s out­right straight­line speed for im­proved pace in slow and medium cor­ners.

Ge­orge Rus­sell and Wil­liams face a defin­ing sea­son after the Bri­tish team was put up for sale dur­ing the shut­down — leav­ing their young and tal­ented English driver to race for his fu­ture this year.

Rus­sell, a mem­ber of the Mercedes ju­nior driver pro­gram, is tipped to have a big fu­ture, but needs a stronger team in 2021 to prove him­self un­less Wil­liams finds some resur­gent form and hauls it­self off the bot­tom of the cham­pi­onship.

Rus­sell made good use of the shut­down to be­come F1’s ‘vir­tual cham­pion’ from his home com­puter dur­ing an e-sports com­pe­ti­tion, and said re­cently he is “very ex­cited” to re­turn to rac­ing.

“It’s go­ing to be sur­real, but I can’t wait for it — I just want to be back in a car.”

Daniel Ric­cia­rdo is fa­mous for his beam­ing smile and big hugs, but he has had to aban­don his tac­tile ap­proach to life.

He will be joined by a new Re­nault team­mate in French­man Esteban Ocon, but de­cided dur­ing lock­down to leave the team next year and switch to McLaren as a suc­ces­sor to de­part­ing Spa­niard Car­los Sainz, who is join­ing Fer­rari.

The fact that McLaren is switch­ing to Mercedes engines was a fac­tor and one that may not have enhanced Ric­cia­rdo’s stand­ing with Re­nault as he starts his fi­nal sea­son.

“I’ve got to keep my dis­tance,” he ad­mit­ted in a team video call last week. “We’re go­ing to find some new ways to em­brace each other, es­pe­cially after a good re­sult, but ob­vi­ously we’re go­ing to do what we can to keep this thing (coro­n­avirus) out of the pad­dock.”

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