RACE DEBRIEF

    Formula 1 2020 will long be remembered as one of the most unusual championships in history, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic that called off the season opener and delayed the start by nearly four months.

    But as progress is made in the fight against the virus, the world is starting to return to a new normal with Formula 1 beginning with an initial eight-race calendar, starting in Austria on 3-5 July.

    READ MORE: F1 confirms first 8 races of revised 2020 calendar, starting with Austria double header

    With this quirkiest of seasons almost upon us, we look at the biggest challenge facing each of the 10 teams.

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    Mercedes – Can they maintain their ultra-high standards of excellence amid uncertainty?

    The Silver Arrows have a win percentage of 73.6% across the last six years, winning 89 of the 121 races contested. Year on year, they get better, they get faster, they get more innovative.

    Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff’s leadership technique has moulded the talented group at Brackley into one of the most ruthlessly efficient and successful sporting entities in the world.

    His and the team’s challenge, then, is to continue the quest to hold on to that mantle – especially given the uncertainty surrounding some key members of the operation. Wolff himself has already admitted he is 'contemplating' his own role in the team, while Lewis Hamilton is yet to sign a new contract for next year, and highly-rated engine chief Andy Cowell has confirmed he is leaving.

    Can they weather that upheavel and still come out on top?

    READ MORE: Mercedes fire warning to rivals as they confirm ‘a chunk’ of upgrades for Austria

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    Ferrari – Can they ensure driver harmony with Vettel soon to be heading out the door?

    There were four flashpoints in the final eight races of 2019 between Ferrari team mates Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, culminating in the pair banging wheels and retiring in Brazil.

    Since then, Vettel and Ferrari have decided their time together is over, with the German leaving at the end of the campaign and leaving Leclerc to spearhead the Italian team’s title push.

    But before Vettel says goodbye, he’s got this season to navigate, and he’ll want to prove himself. That creates a completely new dynamic. How will Ferrari go about managing it this time?

    TECH TUESDAY: Should we expect to see a different Ferrari from testing in Austria?

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    Red Bull – Can they sustain a season-long title challenge rather than flashes of real speed?

    It’s remarkable to think it has been seven years since Red Bull last built a car capable of genuinely winning the championship.

    They’ve won races in all but one of the following campaigns and for short periods appeared like they could take the fight to Mercedes and Ferrari, only for their form to dip and pull them out of contention.

    The opening sequence of the revised calendar – two races in Austria and one in Hungary – is tailormade for the Red Bull’s characteristics. Capitalise on that and maintain the momentum and maybe, just maybe, we might have a real title fight on our hands.

    READ MORE: Why Austria and Hungary are the perfect tracks to show where the top teams stand in 2020

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    McLaren – Can they maintain momentum after an impressive 2019?

    If Formula 1 handed out awards for the most improved team, McLaren would have wrapped their fingers around the 2019 prize, so impressive was their rise to fourth in the constructors’ championship – their best performance in seven years.

    There was some low-hanging fruit, though, so first repeating their defeat of the rest of the midfield and then closing the gap to the top three will be a far sterner challenge.

    McLaren have the momentum, mind, and with Lando Norris keen to prove his contract extension was worth it and Carlos Sainz set on having a strong end to the year so he can join Ferrari on the bounce, they are primed to capitalise on it.

    ANALYSIS: Why are McLaren considering a partial sale of their F1 team?

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    Renault – Which way will they go in 2020, forwards or backwards?

    While McLaren were surging forward in 2019, Renault were heading in the other direction, the French manufacturer suffering the ignominy of finishing behind their customer team in the constructors’ championship.

    They were dealt a heavy blow when their star driver Daniel Ricciardo declared he was off to, of all places, McLaren in 2021 having not even turned a wheel in anger this year.

    Fortunately, the Renault board declared their commitment to the F1 project last month to boost internal moral, while their pre-season testing pace was encouraging. But it will all count for nothing if they don’t make the most of that lifeline and follow through on that early potential.

    READ MORE: Testing 2018 Renault showed me how much progress team have made, says Ricciardo

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    AlphaTauri – Can they score regularly as midfield rivals load up?

    The 2019 campaign was a strong one for Toro Rosso, now known as AlphaTauri. They scored more than one podium in a single season for the first time in their history, and equalled their best-ever finish in the constructors’ championship, with sixth.

    Ambitious Team Principal Franz Tost has set his sights on going one better – but will that be a step too far in what is likely to be an even more competitive midfield battle? To achieve the feat, they’d need to beat two of McLaren, Renault and Racing Point – who all looked quicker in pre-season testing.

    But as they showed last year, with their two podiums, the team are well-versed in seizing an opportunity when it comes – and they’ll need to do that with ruthless consistency if they are to make gains this year.

    READ MORE: ‘Life without racing is boring’ – Franz Tost on lockdown and what to expect when F1 returns

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    Racing Point – Can they avoid the distractions of their upcoming Aston Martin rebrand?

    There’ll be another new name above the door of the racing team situated over the road from Silverstone next year, with Racing Point owner Lawrence Stroll rebranding his outfit as Aston Martin Racing.

    With such an illustrious name comes great responsibility and the boys and girls at Racing Point will need to start demonstrating this year that their ultra-efficient little racing team is capable of delivering a works team level of competitiveness without losing their core identity.

    It is no easy task, but they at least start the campaign with what boss Otmar Szafnauer describes as the “most competitive” car he’s seen roll through the doors of their factory.

    READ MORE: Racing Point tech boss explains how new safety protocols will impact teams at race weekends

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    Alfa Romeo – What will happen to Raikkonen, and do Alfa need him?

    Will Kimi Raikkonen stay or will he go for 2021? That’s the key question for Team Principal Fred Vasseur, as he prepares for his third full season in charge of the Hinwil-based team.

    Raikkonen may be in the twilight of his career, but he oozes star power and has been an immensely useful resource for Alfa Romeo, as they look to build a solid presence in Formula 1.

    What’s clear is that if Raikkonen is happy, he’ll do a strong job and will be useful to the team – so it’s up to Alfa Romeo to deliver him a package that keeps the Finn – who turns 41 in October – interested.

    READ MORE: From wild man to family man – Kimi Raikkonen on life as a racing dad

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    Haas – Can they prove to Gene Haas that he should stick around?

    Haas’s foray into F1 has been a largely successful one, but the American team got themselves in all sorts of bother last year, producing a car they simply did not understand and could not make work.

    A lowly ninth in the constructors’ championship in a sport Gene Haas felt was not a level playing field left the businessman questioning whether pumping tens of millions into the team was worth it.

    The new rules, including a cost cap, seem to have allayed many of his fears, but he will not tolerate another wayward season this year. Haas need to find a good baseline from the off and then steadily improve.

    READ MORE: ‘I think Haas is here to stay’ – Steiner confident Gene Haas will keep his team in F1

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    Williams – Can they re-join the midfield fight?

    You could argue it couldn’t get much worse after last year’s torrid campaign, the iconic British team cut adrift from the pack with the tone for the year set when they failed to have a car ready in time for testing.

    Pre-season testing in 2020 was more encouraging and the inherent pace of the car suggested that maybe, just maybe, they might be able to haul themselves onto the back of the midfield.

    They’ve lost their title sponsor, but they have also opened the door to selling part of the team as they look get the team in shape to capitalise on the incoming cost cap and new technical regulations. An improvement overall would make them a more attractive proposition.

    ANALYSIS: What lies ahead for Williams after shock financial news?