F1 is officially back in session for another year with pre-season testing kicking off this week in Barcelona.
Mercedes starts yet another season with a giant target on its back and — as always — there are just two teams who have a realistic chance of hitting it.
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Red Bull and Ferrari are the leading challengers once more, but the latter could have more than just the Silver Arrows to worry about in 2020.
Here are the burning questions for the ‘big three’ ahead of the 2020 F1 season.
Is this season the end of the line?
Not in a literal sense — Mercedes says it’s in F1 for the long haul despite rumours it’s preparing to pull out of the sport.
But you can understand how the chat grew in the first place. Mercedes has everything to lose.
Nothing is a greater threat to a winning constructor than sweeping regulation changes.
That Mercedes has been imperious in a sport ready for its biggest ever shake-up can only spell trouble for the Silver Arrows.
Mercedes will be pushed out of its comfort zone in 2021 as F1 enforces regulations that drastically impacts bodywork while placing a higher demand on car durability and resourcefulness.
The German manufacturer is in some ways the architect of its own fate here given its immense wealth and sheer dominance has forced officials to try and level the playing field.
But with the introduction of a $260 million (AUD) salary cap, there is still some room for Mercedes to flex its muscle, while the current generation of power unit will stay. Furthermore, six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton is expected to resign given Ferrari and Red Bull have already heavily committed to Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen respectively.
As such, there is reason to believe Mercedes won’t be easily punted from the top like Red Bull was when 1.6 litre V6 turbo hybrids were first introduced.
Nonetheless, this era has been awfully kind to Mercedes and it will want to make the most of it while it lasts.
Is the Vettel-Leclerc partnership a ticking time bomb?
This is strange new territory for Ferrari, and history suggests it doesn’t have the tools to cope with it.
On one side of the garage, Ferrari has the future — Charles Leclerc — a youngster who’s made a promising start to his F1 career and is a potential world champion.
On the other is Sebastian Vettel, the veteran who has won four titles, but none with Ferrari where he’s failed to live up to his promise.
Their careers are heading in starkly different directions and Ferrari has acted accordingly, rewarding Leclerc with a long-term contract until the end of 2024 while allowing Vettel to enter the last year of his deal.
Furthermore, Ferrari confirmed the drivers will be on level-standing in 2021 after generations of unashamedly placing one driver over the other.
The result is a delicate situation that’s been placed in the hands of the heavy-handed; a ticking time bomb if there ever was one.
But Ferrari was handed valuable lessons last year when Leclerc upstaged his superior, becoming just the second teammate to outscore Vettel in an F1 season.
Former world champion Jenson Button has backed the team to learn from that experience.
“I think Sebastian now understands how quick his teammate is and I think they’ll have a much better relationship this year,” he told Sky Sports. “They obviously want to beat each other but I do think that pairing is very strong.
“When there’s a young gun in your team – we found it with Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton when they were teammates in McLaren – it does hurt the experienced driver a little bit. But once you get over that and look at him as an equal it’s very different and I think they will work well together.
“I hope they do, because it’s important for the championship.”
Can it really take the challenge to Mercedes?
Maybe Red Bull has been saving its best until last.
If there is one season in this hybrid era that Red Bull can ruffle Mercedes’ feathers then it’s this one.
Red Bull made the gamble at the end of 2018 to ditch its Renault power units for Honda and it appears to be paying off. The team’s reliability issues have improved and its pace has been more consistent, delivering wins last year in Austria, Germany and Brazil.
Now entering the second year of its partnership with Honda, Red Bull is a team that’s finally trending in the right direction after years of treading water.
No wonder it’s confident it can leapfrog Ferrari this year to become Mercedes’ main challengers.
“We want to fight for the title,” Max Verstappen told Sky Sports this month. “I hope this year onwards we are fighting for a podium at least, and the worst-case scenario is third.
“We are doing everything we can to try and step up.”
Mercedes’ Hamilton still beat Verstappen by 135 points last season, so any hopes of a complete overhaul would be largely optimistic. But the signs are positive for Red Bull that the gap can be closed, while beating Ferrari is now realistic.