Top talking points for the 2019 F1 season

LONDON • Below are the talking points in the new Formula One (F1) season that starts next weekend at the Australian Grand Prix.

Ferrari in hot form, but Vettel may face fireworks: Scuderia Ferrari SpA is expected to set the season-opening pace at Albert Park, but the Italian team could be the scene of some old-fashioned intra-team fireworks.

New boy Charles Leclerc, a Ferrari academy protege brought in from Sauber to replace Kimi Raikkonen, matched four-time champion Sebastian Vettel in testing at Barcelona.

Vettel is entering his fifth season with the team and knows he has to improve on last year’s erratic showing to retain the faith of the Tifosi and keep Leclerc at bay.

Michael Schumacher had to wait until his fifth season in red before he claimed his first driver’s title with them and then won five in a row.

Netflix movie targets younger audience: Liberty Media Corp took over in January 2017 and soon switched attention from a more traditional broadcast business model to greater use of social media, streaming and inter-activity with fans.

The first series of Netflix movie “Drive to Survive” was launched last Friday with Ross Brawn, once one of the best-known bespectacled boffins of the pit-lane during his title-winning years with Benetton, Ferrari and his own eponymous Brawn team, heading the promotional activity in his role as motorsport boss for the new owners.

“This sport is able to grow and it will grow quicker if all the teams are part of the process,” he said, noting that top teams Ferrari and Mercedes had opted out of the initial filming in 2018.

Williams and McLaren desperate: The once-great Williams team, which has powered drivers including Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Alain Prost to world titles, turned up late for pre-season testing at Barcelona — and then flopped miserably as they clocked the slowest times.

Technical director Paddy Lowe, recruited two years previously from Mercedes to head the team’s revival, departed on March 6 to take a “leave of absence”.

Like Williams, McLaren has undergone a transformation from dominant force to midfield scrappers in the last decade and they are a long way from repeating the halcyon days of the famous rivalry between Ayrton Senna and Prost.

Last season, they were sixth in the constructor’s title race before two-time champion Fernando Alonso left the team, to be replaced by fellow-Spaniard Carlos Sainz. He is partnered by British rookie Lando Norris, 19.

Three bright rookies: Three rookies join the grid for 2019. George Russell, Norris and Alexander Albon finished in that order on top of the 2018 F2 championship and have joined Williams, McLaren and Toro Rosso respectively.

Albon, born in London, is the first Thai driver since 1954 and will partner returning Russian Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso.

Russell, 20, partners 34-year-old Robert Kubica who returns for the first time since 2010 following a near-fatal rallying crash that left him with a partly-severed right forearm.

Norris, 19, will be the youngest driver on the grid as a partner to Sainz, 24, at McLaren.

Point for fastest lap: F1 has stepped back to the future for 2019 by a desire to re-introduce the award of a world championship point for fastest lap at each race.

A point for the fastest lap was awarded during the first decade of the world championship from 1950 to 1959 and was decisive in the outcome of the 1958 title race.

In that season, Mike Hawthorn beat Stirling Moss by a single point to take the drivers crown, having set two fastest laps more than his rival.

The 1,000th race to be in China: The 1,000th race in the running of the F1 world championship since 1950 will be this year’s Chinese Grand Prix at Shanghai on April 14.

In a season of curiosities, and after an off-season of many drivers and team changes, only two teams have retained their driver line-ups from 2018 — Mercedes and Haas.

The former Force India team has changed its name to Racing Point and will have Lance Stroll, son of the new owner Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll alongside retained Mexican Sergio Perez.

The Swiss Sauber team has changed its name to Alfa Romeo Racing.

Ricciardo at Renault, “mature” Max stays put: Daniel Ricciardo’s beaming smile will be missed at Red Bull after the Australian’s move to Renault where he will be under scrutiny alongside respected Nico Hulkenberg.

The Australian has been tipped as a future world championship contender but struggled to outshine Dutch tyro Max Verstappen in recent seasons.

Verstappen intends to shake off his “Mad Max” label and emerge in 2019 as “Mature Max” as he leads Red Bull’s bid to pressure champions Mercedes and Ferrari.

His new teammate Pierre Gasly faces a major task to keep pace and has crashed heavily in testing. The team has warned him to take more care.

New helmets and technical points: New extra-protective helmets, capable of resisting a metal disc fired at 250km/h, are to be introduced this year. The helmets must also be resistant to a 790°C flame, an air rifle shot at the visor and a 10kg weight dropping on it from 5m.

The cars will have simpler front and rear wings and smaller barge-boards following aerodynamic rule changes, overseen by Brawn, to assist overtaking. The teams were unconvinced, after testing, that the moves had made much difference.

A new range of tyres have been prepared by Pirelli to be supplied in a range of only 3 colours — red (soft), yellow (medium) and white (hard) (Pic: AFP)

A new range of tyres have been prepared by Pirelli to be supplied in a range of only three colours — red (soft), yellow (medium) and white (hard).

They replace the “rainbow” range of tyres used and seen at races last year.

Kubica comeback — romantic dream or true return?: Kubica was heralded as a certain race winner and possible future champion when he became F1’s first Polish driver with Sauber in 2006.

This season, however, back after an eight-year absence following a massive rallying accident in 2011, he is fighting to prove he deserves his comeback seat with struggling backmarkers Williams.

His crash in the Ronde de Andora rally in February 2011 was expected to end his career, but despite almost severing his right forearm, he battled back.

He now drives 70% left-handed, but is adamant he can survive and succeed.

“It is a different situation for me and there is a way to change your mind and learn a new way. I have discovered how powerful the brain can be,” he said. — AFP