Formula 1 is back for another season and the 71st running of the championship, with Lewis Hamilton aiming to maintain his position as the class of the field. 

Entering a new decade and on the eve of major regulation changes, 2020 is set to be a fascinating campaign with two new races in the Vietnam and the Netherlands joining the calendar to form the longest season in F1 history. 

Here are five key storylines expected to make the headlines in 2020…

Hamilton’s quest to match Schumacher 

Hamilton can achieve another historic feat in 2020 by matching Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven world championships. 

Following up on his sixth title triumph with another crown would result in Hamilton achieving something most would have considered highly unlikely when Schumacher set his benchmark back in 2004. 

Hamilton’s near-perfect run of domination in the V6 hybrid era - barring only his slim title defeat to Nico Rosberg in 2016 - has paved the way for him to equal and potentially eclipse Schumacher’s feat. 

With Hamilton winning the last three drivers’ titles, and Mercedes’ all-conquering spell of six consecutive double world championships, it is hard to see past another successful year for the 35-year-old. 

The Briton already has 84 grand prix victories, 151 podiums and 213 points finishes to his name and could surpass three further records held by Schumacher in 2020. 

Schumacher’s tally of most wins (91), most podiums (155) and most races in the points (221) are all under threat with F1 set to embark on its longest-ever season with 22 races on the calendar. 

But Hamilton will face stiff competition from Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas and a resurgent Ferrari and Red Bull squads spearheaded by its superstar young chargers Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen

Success or storm at Ferrari 

Will 2020 be the year Ferrari finally ends its barren run without an F1 title that has stretched out for over a decade?

As often seems to be the case in recent years, Ferrari was hyped up following a promising pre-season testing performance, only to once again suffer defeat at the hands of rivals Mercedes during 2019.

The Scuderia’s SF90 was in a class of its own on its day - particularly so in a straight-line - but proved less of an all-rounder than Mercedes’ W10, which performed better across a variety of circuits. 

It took the Italian squad until Belgium to register its first victory of 2019, which began a run of three straight wins as Ferrari appeared to make a significant breakthrough with its aerodynamic package, though its performance once again tailed off in the latter rounds as Mercedes reigned supreme.

Ferrari certainly does not lack the appetite nor motivation for turning in a renewed title push in 2020, providing it can understand and address the weaknesses of its 2019 car and take the fight to Mercedes. 

Its drivers will be desperate to prove a point too, with Sebastian Vettel entering the final year of his contract as he looks to re-assert his authority over Leclerc, who turned in a sensational maiden year at Ferrari. 

One concern for Ferrari will be how its drivers fare against one another after tensions flared up throughout the 2019 campaign. Frictions over team orders and the battle to usurp the other ultimately culminated in a collision between Vettel and Leclerc in Brazil. Will things escalate further in 2020?

Can Red Bull-Honda hit the ground running?

Red Bull has traditionally made slow starts to the season in recent years and will need to overcome its Achilles’ Heel if it is to mount a serious title push in 2020. 

The Milton Keynes squad ended the year with a package that was on a par with rivals Mercedes and Ferrari, with Max Verstappen celebrating a successful start to its new partnership with Honda by scoring three wins across the season in Austria, Germany and Brazil. 

While Red Bull and Verstappen’s improved form in the second half of the season was not enough to topple its rivals in the championship, it will take great encouragement heading into 2020.

Verstappen, fresh from penning a multi-year contract extension with Red Bull, will be motivated to carry his stunning form into what he hopes can be his first genuine F1 title fight. A season-long, heavyweight duel against Hamilton is a mouth-watering prospect to get any F1 fan excited. 

Teammate Alex Albon will also have eyes on him in what will mark his first full-season at Red Bull, following his mid-season graduation to replace the underperforming Pierre Gasly in 2019. 

Albon impressed Red Bull with a streak of eight top six finishes from the final nine races of the season, but there will be pressure on the British-born Thai driver to make a step up in 2020 and get closer to the level of performance displayed by Verstappen, especially if Red Bull finds itself with championship-winning machinery at its disposal. 

A silly or sedate driver market 

In Abu Dhabi, the impression left on the paddock was that the driver market for 2021 had the potential to be a crazy affair, with big name drivers Hamilton, Vettel and Verstappen all out of contract at the end of 2020, with only three drivers on the current grid committed beyond the end of the season. 

However, Tuesday’s announcement that Verstappen had agreed a new multi-year extension to remain part of the Red Bull-Honda project until the end of 2023 has somewhat sedated the market. 

With Hamilton expected to remain at Mercedes, and assuming he will continue to be partnered by Valtteri Bottas (on the basis he has another solid campaign), then Vettel becomes the key player left to resolve his future. 

Should the four-time world champion decide to call time on his career - or indeed be forced out - it would open up a seat alongside Leclerc, who recently put pen to paper on a fresh four-year contract. Daniel Ricciardo, who has previously been linked to Maranello, would surely become a leading candidate in such a scenario. 

More likely, though, is that Vettel will sign a shorter-term deal until at least the end of the 2021 season, providing the Scuderia with stability heading into F1’s new era. The German has repeatedly batted away suggestions he was considering retirement and remains determined to be the man who hands Ferrari its first drivers’ title since 2007. 

The decisions at Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari will ultimately impact on the nature of how the rest of the grid shapes up, with more deals likely to fall into place over the coming months now that Leclerc and Verstappen have set the first chess pieces moving. 

It will be one to keep an eye on as the year develops…

Another close midfield battle looms 

McLaren emerged triumphant in the 2019 midfield fight and will be looking to make further progress in 2020 by continuing to close the gap to the front. 

As Renault demonstrated with its slide from P4 to P5 across 2018-2019, it can be difficult to remain on top and keep making inroads on the leading trio of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. 

McLaren convincingly took fourth in the constructors’ and enjoyed its best season to date in the V6 hybrid era, but is set to face a challenge to retain or indeed improve on its position. 

Renault will be desperate to reclaim its stranglehold over the midfield, while the likes of Racing Point and Haas will be looking to recover from disappointing campaigns. 

Racing Point is confident of battling towards the higher end of the midfield this year after conceding Lawrence Stroll’s late takeover amid financial struggles in 2018 meant his investment was not fully felt in 2019, hampering the team’s development progress, while Haas fell to ninth as it struggled to grasp its inconsistent 2019 challenger. 

Powered by the ultra-strong Ferrari engine, and having abandoned its 2019 campaign early to switch development focus onto 2020, the US squad could move right back into the fight providing it has successfully addressed its weaknesses.

 

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