Albon, Russell or someone else? Who will be F1’s breakout star in 2020?
Last season saw Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz emerge as major players in F1, alongside the established big boys. But which names will join them in going supernova this season? Will Buxton has his say…
Last year the rise of Charles Leclerc in his sophomore season cemented his status as one of the sport’s glittering stars not just for the future but for today. Coming off the back of a desperately impressive rookie campaign, the manner in which he approached and executed his first season in red confirmed him as something and someone seriously special.
Meanwhile, over at McLaren, a driver who’d been let go by the team he’d been racing for whilst also failing to have his option taken up at one of the big three left him with few attractive options. And yet Carlos Sainz turned what many had judged to be the poisoned chalice of a desperate last chance into a season that rewrote his career story and set him on the road to Maranello.
What interests me most in 2020, then, is which racers will have the kind of seasons that cement their reputations and create the foundations upon which their future paths in the sport are built.
Perhaps those who stand the best chances of becoming 2020’s breakout sensations, then, are those who have been the most active over the enforced break in the virtual world. While Charles Leclerc could do no wrong, building on his stellar 2019 season to show the relatable, human side of Ferrari’s new future (banana suit, locked out girlfriend and all) he brought along with him two old friends and rivals who both stand at the beginning of seasons that could define their futures in the sport…
In any other season, Alex Albon’s 2019 could have marked him out as the breakout star of the year. From no drive to a Formula E seat, to a Toro Rosso call-up, midseason switch to Red Bull Racing and his first podium nerfed by the world champion, the likeable Thai-British racer took it all in his stride.
While shy and self-effacing on camera, he has a steely determination and grit built in equal measure by both the fickle nature of the racing ladder and the harsh realities of the real world.
Should he be able to step up and regularly get on terms with Max Verstappen, this could be the year he solidifies his place at Red Bull and in Formula 1 for the long term.
"GEORGE", as Alex is wont to scream as all around descend into fits of giggles, is the final piece in the triangle. For many rookies, the kind of 2019 season that Russell endured at Williams could have crushed them, yet he emerged with his stock higher.
The last three months have added huge scoops of personality to the mix of a racer who rarely got the coverage his performances would have merited in a car capable of even midfield running.
It’s telling that Williams are so impressed they want to build their future around him, yet such is the potential of the racer who now holds Formula 4, GP3, F2 and Virtual F1 Grand Prix crowns that he’s also seen as a potential team leader at Mercedes.
While Leclerc, Albon and Russell got their fix away from F1 racing trucks and lawnmowers, Lando Norris was off contesting Supercars and a virtual Indy 500 and impressing in every single outing.
Already one of the leading lights in the virtual world, his analytical and introspective approach to F1 in 2019, packaged in a cheeky self-deprecating public persona won him a legion of fans.
With Carlos off to pastures new in 2021 and a new team mate with the biggest personality in the paddock to face up against next season, this is the time for Lando to firmly get a grip of McLaren and focus the team around him and his potential. He’s got it all. He just needs to grab it.
Over at Renault, Esteban Ocon faces the same dilemma that will confront Norris in 2021; namely, impressing against one of the most gifted racers and most liked characters in the sport.
Ocon is quick, no question, but he can’t allow frustrations to boil over as when he partnered Sergio Perez at Racing Point.
It’s no easy task, but besting Daniel Ricciardo will do wonders for his reputation in the sport and his standing at Renault.
And what of Racing Point? Sergio Perez’s stock couldn’t get much higher. Already widely regarded as the sport’s most dependable giant killer, he’s got little left to prove.
But with the increased opportunities which could come his way as the team morphs into Aston Martin, he may yet find himself, finally, with the chance of fighting for race wins.
That’s for 2021 and beyond, however. For 2020 the more pressing issue and our focus will be on the other side of the garage.
With what looks to be the best car the team may ever have had underneath him, Lance Stroll has an opportunity to mark himself out as being more than the son of the boss. And it is an opportunity he has to take.
On his day he can be tremendous. But only in proving the equal of Perez can he hope to shake off the stigma attached to his name and emerge as a star in his own right.
Five racers, then, each with age on their side and the potential to emerge from 2020 as the standout, breakout, brightly burning star of the season.
But there remains a sixth…
He’s already a star, I hear some of you say. And you are right – he’s a race winner. But if he can break the six-time champion and take the trophy, nobody could deny Valtteri’s ascent to superstardom.
The task of denying Lewis Hamilton a seventh world championship might look seemingly impossible, especially after the world champion has had the first break in his career and is returning looking trimmer and competitively hungrier than perhaps any of us have ever known…
Cruelly dubbed a wingman, there’s no easy way to remove that tag and the weight it carries from your neck. Even taking Hamilton down to the final three races of 2019 wasn’t enough. But if Valtteri Bottas can win the world championship then maybe he can finally take the adulation and respect he so deserves.
Just one week to go. I can’t wait.