Lewis Hamilton once again heads into a new Formula 1 season as the man to beat, but will 2020 be the year he is dethroned? 

We take a look at the contenders who are most likely to challenge Hamilton’s current supremacy at the top of F1 with the Briton on the verge of equalling Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven drivers’ world titles 

Here are some of the six-time world champion’s biggest threats…

Valtteri Bottas 

Starting off with the most obvious candidate, given the pair share the same machinery as teammates at the all-conquering Mercedes squad. Valtteri Bottas recovered from a tough, winless 2018 to turn in the best season of his life as he finished runner-up to Hamilton in the championship. 

The Finn managed four victories across the season and matched Hamilton’s tally of five pole positions, though he ultimately missed out on a maiden title by a whopping 87 points. That is quite a margin considering Bottas had the same car that Hamilton steered to the top step of the podium 11 times. 

Bottas undoubtedly improved in 2019 and on his day was more than a match for Hamilton, but once again over the course of a 21-round season, Hamilton had the measure of his teammate in comprehensive fashion. 

If Bottas is to finally knock Hamilton off his perch, he must find greater consistency in 2020, a year that he will once again be trying to persuade Mercedes that he deserves to continue in the seat he currently occupies heading into F1’s new era in 2021. 

Max Verstappen 

Arguably the greatest outside threat emerging to Hamilton’s dominance is the Red Bull-Honda package driven by the ever-improving Max Verstappen.

In 2019, Verstappen demonstrated just why he is being tipped as future world champion material. A series of eye-catching performances reflected his strongest F1 campaign to date as Red Bull made serious gains with new power unit suppliers Honda. 

After a traditionally slow start to the year for Red Bull, the Dutchman went on to score three brilliant victories and pick up his first (and second) career pole positions to secure a top-three finish in the F1 championship for the first time. 

Red Bull’s strong progress enabled the team to match and beat Mercedes and Ferrari at some of the later rounds of the season, while Honda’s performance impressed as the year headed into its conclusion. 

If Red Bull can make a fast start out of the blocks and provide Verstappen with race-winning machinery, he will certainly be a factor in the 2020 title race. 

Verstappen and Hamilton’s thrilling duels for the lead in Monaco, Hungary and Brazil acted as a taste for what is surely to come in the future. Let’s hope we get more wheel-to-wheel action between the pair again this year. 

Charles Leclerc 

Charles Leclerc underlined why Ferrari gambled on him by proving he has all the credentials to be a star of the future in his maiden campaign at the Scuderia. 

The baby-faced assassin showed early signs of his potential at the Prancing Horse by coming agonisingly close to converting a maiden career pole into victory in Bahrain, only to see his chances cruelly taken away after suffering late engine woes. 

Leclerc recovered from notable errors in Baku, Monaco and Germany and outshone four-time world champion teammate Sebastian Vettel in the second half of the season to end the year fourth in the championship, 24 points clear of the German.

The Moneqasque enjoyed a strong run over Vettel in qualifying from France onwards and followed up Ferrari’s first victory of the year in Spa with a popular win on home soil at Monza to etch himself into Maranello folklore by delivering the team’s first Italian Grand Prix victory since 2010. Leclerc’s electrifying qualifying pace was reflected in the fact he took more poles than any other driver with seven. 

Leclerc rounded out 2019 by asserting himself into contention as the new team leader at Ferrari. If he can cut out those occasional silly errors, harness his raw speed and have a strong car underneath him, he could force himself into championship reckoning in 2020. 

Vettel himself cannot be written out of the equation given his past success, though he will have to overcome his recent struggles and return to his brilliant best in order to topple Hamilton, who has had the measure of the quadruple world champion in recent years. 

Reliability 

Given Hamilton’s and Mercedes’ supreme form as the current benchmark in F1, it is hard to see how he can be beaten in a fair fight. But as we have seen in the past, external factors could come into play. 

Car reliability has played a role in deciding championships in the past, as Hamilton knows all too well from his narrow 2016 defeat to Nico Rosberg

While Hamilton may have been haunted by reliability gremlins before, he has also enjoyed strong reliability (Austria 2018 aside) throughout the past two seasons. 

In fact, Hamilton did not suffer any from any major issues across the 21-round 2019 campaign, enabling him to stretch out his remarkable streak of 33 consecutive races inside the points - a run that goes back as far as the 2018 British Grand Prix. 

The law of averages would suggest that Hamilton is due for some bad luck to fall his way in the near-future and his rivals may well be clinging onto that hope, given he has been largely untouchable otherwise. 

Himself 

OK, bear with me on this one. 

One of Hamilton’s flaws in the past has been a tendency to allow an air of complacency to creep in. He eased off after wrapping up the 2015 title with three rounds to go having beaten then Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg to back-to-back championships. 

Hamilton appeared to have Rosberg covered but his mistake was enabling the German to gain a crucial run of momentum at the end of the year when he went on to record three victories on the bounce in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi

Rosberg suddenly believed he could beat Hamilton and returned from the subsequent winter break a revitalised figure. He claimed four successive wins at the start of 2016 that ultimately proved pivotal in setting up his maiden title triumph as Hamilton never fully recovered. 

Reliability did massively hamper Hamilton along the way, and had it not been for a dramatic engine blow up while comfortably leading the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2016, Hamilton would already be a seven-time world champion. But Hamilton had himself to blame too as he made a string of costly errors - most notably via poor starts - that saw him squander multiple points to Rosberg. 

Granted, Hamilton has learned from the past and not taken his foot off the gas in the same manner in recent years, which was underlined by his dominant end to 2018 and by crushing his opposition at the 2019 season finale in Abu Dhabi. 

At 35, Hamilton is undoubtedly at the peak of his powers and appears to have no weakness heading into the new season. Since the start of 2017, Hamilton has been near-flawless. 

With stable regulations also in place, realistically it will take something truly special to usurp him in 2020.

 

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