Formula 1 bursts back into action this week with the first pre-season test in Barcelona, offering us an early glimpse of how the teams and eight new driver combinations are shaping up on the countdown to Melbourne on March 17th.
But the week of new-car launches last week has already thrown up some insight and hinted at key storylines that should develop once the season gets into full swing. So what have we learnt so far about F1 in 2019? Read on…
1. New front wings catch the eye
A significant regulation tweak for this year has resulted in one obvious visual development. The new five-element front wings are wider and more imposing. But revised prescriptive design rules have also made them simpler, changing the nature of how they direct airflow over and around the front of the car.
Further to this, clampdowns on brake duct and barge board design, and a higher, simpler rear wing have been collectively devised for a singular purpose: to make overtaking easier and therefore racing better.
In theory, slipstreaming should be less disrupted by ‘dirty air’ than it was in 2018. Predictions of an increase in lap time to the tune of around a second and a half have also been mentioned, but that is not how this latest change will be judged. If we don’t see more passing than we’re used to in the opening rounds, expect F1 promoter Liberty Media to face a barrage of criticism.
2. Fresh sponsors bring new colour
A prolonged drain of household brand-names has increased the financial strain on F1 teams in recent years, so an influx of new sponsors has to be good news, while also adding a splash of new colours to a familiar field.
ROKiT at Williams, Rich Energy at Haas and SportPesa at Racing Point (formerly Force India) are among those who have valid reasons for plunging resources into F1, but your response to each might well have been ‘who?’ These companies aren’t exactly Vodafone, Martini or Allianz… but then F1 teams aren’t exactly inundated by prospective sponsors like they used to be. New backers are welcome, whoever they might be – as long as they have the dollars they promise.
Williams in particular needed new support after the triple-whammy of losing Martini’s support, Lawrence and Lance Stroll to Racing Point and Sergey Sirotkin’s SMP Russian backing. But ROKiT, a new, ambitious name in the communications industry, wasn’t attracted by a team pitch: it approached Williams. Such good fortune might be taken as a sign of better things to come after the annus horribilis of 2018.
3. Some teams still addicted to tobacco
But a couple of financial deals strike a more discordant note elsewhere on the grid. Tobacco branding has been banned since 2006, but that hasn’t banished F1’s long-standing bad habit completely. Indeed, there appears to be a renewed interest from cigarette manufacturers in 2019.
Philip Morris, owner of Marlboro, has never stopped its support of Ferrari, and late last season launched new Mission Winnow branding on the airbox, a purposefully obscure campaign that continues into 2019 and is apparently based around scientific and technological developments rather than selling tobacco. Still, it has triggered an official investigation in Australia on whether it contravenes advertising legislation.
Then last week McLaren announced the return of British American Tobacco to F1 as one of its new backers. Again, the campaign is based around the promotion of new technology, and team boss Zak Brown was quick on the defence when questioned about the ethics of such a partnership that seems far out of step with modern sensibilities.
However he cuts it, BAT has and continues to make incredible sums from the sale of products that lead to the deaths of millions. The (again obscure) BAT slogan on the nose of the new MCL34 declaring ‘A Better Tomorrow’ will be tough for some to inhale…
4. Humility is in vogue
Brown also made some comments at his team’s launch that could be described as high-handed about some of the new brands sponsoring rivals, and that in contrast McLaren only wants associations with “leading” companies. That seems a little rich giving how far the team has fallen under his watch.
Despite this, the McLaren launch was marked by a tone of out-of-character humility for a proud team no longer considered a major force in F1. The driver line-up, now without the mighty Fernando Alonso, perhaps reflected a lowering of expectations. Lando Norris could be a great F1 driver one day, but as an unproven rookie he’s some way short, and Carlos Sainz Jr. is no A-lister either. Strange times in Woking.
But McLaren’s new-found humility had nothing on Toto Wolf’s show at the Mercedes launch. There’s nothing to suggest the reigning champion will have lost even a sliver of its edge over the winter, but Wolf went to some lengths to state all teams are a “threat” at this stage and that there’s “absolutely no sense of entitlement” as Mercedes begins its quest for sixth consecutive world titles.
Is he genuine? Perhaps no more or less than Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Whatever, his sporting words represent exactly how a car manufacturing giant would wish to be seen – and is a timely reminder to his staff that ‘complacency’ has no entry in the company lexicon.
5. New drivers offer a shot in the arm
Mercedes and Haas are the only teams with unchanged drive line-ups, so launch week also included the novelty of familiar faces in unfamiliar racing overalls. But at Renault, Daniel Ricciardo’s appearance in black and yellow offered a great deal more.
During an introduction to the staff at the team’s Enstone base, he was met with a roar of approval that apparently took him by surprise. This is a manufacturer team with ambitions to challenge for world titles once more, and the arrival of a proven winner – not to mention a man of great personality and humour – personifies the strength of desire within Renault’s ranks.
Ricciardo made a point of keeping a lid on expectations for 2019, but he’s also clearly revelling in his status at the team and – no surprise – is confident he’s made the right call to leave Red Bull.
Whether he feels the same by Abu Dhabi on December 1st is a whole different matter.