The usual sense of excitement and anticipation heading into a brand new Formula 1 season has been somewhat overshadowed by coronavirus.

The global outbreak of novel coronavirus has resulted in anxiety and uncertainty lingering over the entire paddock with concerns over how it will impact on the season, with the Chinese Grand Prix already postponed and the upcoming Bahrain Grand Prix on March 22 set to take place behind closed doors amid a raft of cancellations and disruptions to sporting events worldwide.

As the paddock descended upon Melbourne for the season-opener in Australia there was hope that the opening round would provide some form of distraction, with Ferrari saying it was obliged to make people smile amid fears relating to the continued COVID-19 crisis.

But on Wednesday the sense of worry returned when it emerged that three members of the paddock - one McLaren team member and two from Haas - are currently self-isolating as they await test results for coronavirus, which are expected to come in the next 24 hours.

The results of those tests could have a major impact on how the rest of the weekend shapes up in Australia, given how tight-knight the F1 paddock is with around 4,000 officials, team members and media attending each race.

Assuming the opening round does indeed go ahead, as is the case at the time of writing, there are plenty of talking points to look out for…

Start of historic season for Mercedes, Hamilton

2020 will be a landmark season for F1 as it celebrates 70 years of the world championship, while it could also mark a historic year for Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton in terms of accolades.

The all-conquering German manufacturer, which has claimed every single title on offer since the start of the V6 hybrid era in 2014, has the chance to win an unprecedented seventh straight constructors’ championship, a feat which would surpass Ferrari’s previous record from 1999-2004 which it currently shares with Mercedes.

Mercedes also has the chance to eclipse its own record of six straight world championship doubles if it triumphs to both the drivers’ and teams’ titles once again.

Hamilton is the firm favourite for the drivers’ championship and such success would see him move level with Michael Schumacher on seven world titles, an all-time record. The 35-year-old Briton can also beat Schumacher’s win tally of 91 if he is victorious on at least eight occasions this year.

Mercedes’ W11 looked strong in pre-season testing, aside from some engine-related reliability issues which the team is confident it can overcome in time for the start of the season. Will it be the car Hamilton steers to title glory for the seventh time?

Has Ferrari been bluffing?

Arguably, Ferrari is best-placed to provide Mercedes with its biggest challenge after its failed title bids in recent seasons.

Unlike previous years, Ferrari went about its winter test programme in understated fashion as it largely avoided setting fast lap times and focused on fully understanding its SF1000 contender following the performance fluctuations which hampered its 2019 campaign.

Team principal Mattia Binotto ruled out a fight for victory in Melbourne and insisted Ferrari will start the season behind its nearest rivals, but was this a classic example of pre-season bluffing?

In Australia, Ferrari will have nowhere to hide and its true performance will be revealed. But whether it will prove enough to be a Mercedes-beater remains to be seen.

The start of Ferrari’s season has been shrouded in controversy amid a row over its 2019 engine, which was the subject of an FIA investigation after suspicion arose amongst its rivals last season.

But a confidential settlement over the situation between Ferrari and the FIA has left its rivals angered, with seven teams signing a joint-statement to demand answers and clarity regarding the investigation on the eve of the 2020 campaign.

The issue and debate between teams is likely to rumble on in Australia as the paddock comes together for the first time.

Aside from Ferrari, the driver-team combination being tipped as the most likely to topple Hamilton is Max Verstappen and Red Bull.

Verstappen, who recently committed his future to the Red Bull-Honda project by signing a fresh, long-term deal, is determined to ensure it is he who goes head-to-head with Hamilton for the 2020 drivers’ crown, having scored three victories in a promising first year of Red Bull’s engine partnership with Honda.

All the noises coming from both Honda and Red Bull have been overwhelmingly positive heading into the new campaign, which has all the ingredients for a close fight between the top three teams amid relatively stable regulations.

 

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