We emerge bleary eyed and sluggish from our festive season stupor to the cold reality of a new year full of uncertainty. What on earth, we wonder with a shiver, will 2019 bring?
Enough of that. Let’s shake off those new year blues. In the world of motor sport, at least, there is much to look forward to this year. And with the new season countdown on, it’s time to stick our neck on the block.
Yes, deep breath… it’s prediction time on some of the expected big stories of 2019. We’ll come back to them as the next festive season approaches to reflect on how remarkably spot on/idiotically off the mark we proved to be. Here goes.
1. Charles Leclerc will prove faster than Sebastian Vettel
Yep, a big one to get us going. Ferrari’s bright young star arrives from a rookie season at Sauber with everything to play for, in what should be once again one of the two quickest cars in Formula 1.
What an opportunity – and he’s only 21. But as we’ve seen with Max Verstappen and Vettel himself when he first burst on to the scene, age is irrelevant for modern generations. The old adage ‘if you’re fast enough, you’re old enough’ has never been more true than it is for today’s young heroes, who arrive in F1 better prepared, more experienced and perhaps more confident than their predecessors, thanks to advances in simulators and data technology that increases their chances of hitting the ground running when big opportunities knock.
Leclerc is ready to win grands prix – everything about his maturity, speed and racecraft in 2018 suggests as much. And with Vettel already under pressure after a season pock-marked by errors, the four-time world champion is there for the taking.
Not that Vettel should be underestimated, of course. He’s still a fantastic racing driver with huge ability. But on what we’ve seen so far, we reckon the same is true of Leclerc.
We predict the Frenchman will win the intra-team qualifying battle, score some victories – and give the senior Ferrari driver a mighty scare.
2. Verstappen will break Honda’s duck
Big year for Red Bull. The team has taken that huge risk of believing in Honda, after the Japanese manufacturer’s hybrid-era miseries with McLaren, and has put all its chips on Honda finally coming up trumps.
By committing his future to the team, Max Verstappen shares that faith (and risk). But let’s trust in the judgement of Christian Horner and Adrian Newey. With their track record together, they wouldn’t bank on Honda without solid belief that it will lift them back into title contention. Red Bull doesn’t race to be third best.
A title tilt might be too much to expect, but we predict Verstappen will win races in 2019 and breath new life into Honda’s deflated reputation.
3. Kubica’s comeback will make Williams smile again
Predicting that Williams will improve would win us little credit because, let’s face it, the team couldn’t get much worse than it was in 2018. So let’s talk about one of the potential stars of the season, and a man whose recovery to this point is already little short of miraculous.
Is Robert Kubica the same driver he was before his terrible rallying accident in 2011? Of course not. The injuries were too severe and he admits he has to work around them to drive effectively in an F1 cockpit. But Williams’ faith ensures he can at least be good enough, and just possibly a great deal more.
We predict that, in a team that has regrouped after the aerodynamic nightmares of the FW41, Kubica will carry Williams from the back row to the midfield and regularly score solid points. A podium finish? It would be reckless to go that far before the new FW42 has even run. But the Pole has the character and ability to bring a bit of joy back to a beleaguered fallen giant.
4. Alonso won’t win the Indy 500 for McLaren
He’s still big news, isn’t he? The two-time world champion was mourned by most in F1 when he walked away in Abu Dhabi (although not necessarily for ever) to concentrate this year on enhancing his growing reputation as one of the great racing all-rounders.
The Indy 500 is the primary goal as Alonso targets the completion of motor racing’s unofficial Triple Crown, having already conquered the Monaco GP (twice) and the Le Mans 24 Hours with Toyota in 2018. But victory at the Brickyard in May will be a serious long-shot.
Why? After all, he blew everyone away with his showing on his Indy debut in 2017, when only a late-race Honda failure robbed him of a chance to challenge for victory.
The difference this time is that rather than link up with an established team, McLaren has chosen the brave move of going it alone. Working within Michael Andretti’s multi-car attack guaranteed Alonso had everything in his arsenal to be competitive on his maiden Indy visit.
But a bespoke team set up specifically by McLaren for one big race? Sorry, with the team’s recent record in F1 very much in mind, we don’t buy it. We predict more disappointment for Alonso come May – which means, of course, he’ll have to come back again in 2020 for another crack.
On the upside, he has every reason to hope for a second Le Mans win in June and at the close of the FIA World Endurance Championship’s unique super-season, could well end up with his third career world title.
5. Meeke will be a WRC title contender with Toyota
Citroën lost faith in Colin McRae’s crash-prone former protégé, but Toyota has snapped up Northern Ireland’s Kris Meeke for the 2019 World Rally Championship. And with the Yaris having already claimed the manufacturers’ title in 2018 to return Toyota to the top, Meeke has everything he needs to prove his French doubters wrong.
Already a multiple rally winner, we predict that Meeke will be in contention for the WRC title when the season heads for its climax in Australia next November. Cut out the errors and he’s too good not be considered a potential world champion.