Lewis Hamilton is aiming for a record-equalling seventh Formula 1 title this season – but is braced for a tougher test than ever from his rivals.
So, who will be the Mercedes driver’s biggest threat?
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Will Valtteri Bottas finally mount a season-long championship challenge? Is this Max Verstappen’s year to compete in a strong Red Bull car? And what about Charles Leclerc, and the departing Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari?
The Sky F1 pundits have had their say – and you can, too, by casting your vote in the poll below…
Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes
Karun Chandhok: “I think it’s a big year for Valtteri. He’s been training very hard, and he knows he’s fighting for that seat at Mercedes. It is the best seat in Formula 1, and it’s the one which has won the constructors’ championship for so many years now. He’s got people like George Russell snapping at his heels, so he’s now got the next six months to prove once again that he’s the man for the job, not just for 2021 but beyond that when we get the new regulations in 2022.
“To do that, he needs to be right there with Lewis winning races. I think the key word is consistency for him. We’ve seen on occasion in the past, there have been races where he’s out-qualified Lewis – I think of Barcelona last year where he out-qualified him by half a second, but then got beaten comprehensively in the race. I think there are two or three pieces of the puzzle that Hamilton does slightly better than him on a consistent basis. That doesn’t mean Valtteri can’t raise his game, it’s just a question of can he, and how quickly?”
Johnny Herbert: “I think Valtteri has improved each year. But where we have Lewis’ ability to fundamentally change his style to the situation he finds himself in, Valtteri hasn’t quite been able to achieve that. He’s done a lot of fitness, he seems to be in the best shape he’s ever been in, and I think what is crucial for this weekend is to actually dominate his team-mate. If he can do that, at a track he has done well at the past, he can start to use that extra energy to put the pressure on his team-mate.”
Max Verstappen, Red Bull
Damon Hill: “Max will be up for it. Don’t forget he’s won there in Austria, twice. I think Red Bull will be looking at taking chances, doing risky strategies – they’ve got nothing to lose. For Mercedes, the issue is continuity – how can they play it aggressively when they’ve got to protect their position? Red Bull are a much more attacking team, they’re in a position where they can go flat-out in every race and it might work for them.”
Karun Chandhok: “I would put Red Bull as the nearest challengers to Mercedes [rather than Ferrari]. Max has form, and in pre-season testing, certainly on the long runs and qualy one-lappers, they looked closer to Mercedes than Ferrari.
“Also, Red Bull are the only one of the top three teams who have run their 2020 car with their filming day. The images and pictures you saw from that last week showed a whole raft of updates on their car. So they’ve already had a chance to at least do some correlation work and know where they are heading to Austria, which will give them at least some direction. I’m really interested to see, when we get to qualifying, how close the Red Bull-Honda package is going to be.”
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari
Johnny Herbert: I think what’s good for us going to Austria is that Charles Leclerc has grown over the last season. We saw that brilliant battle last year with Max where in the latter part of the race they were battling side-by-side. That released a new Charles Leclerc, a very aggressive Charles Leclerc who decided: Right, if that’s how you’re going to play this game, I’m up for that.
“Of course Ferrari have got to give him that opportunity. I hope they’ve had that time to analyse what they’ve done and now put themselves in a better position, because at testing they weren’t up to speed at all.”
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
Johnny Herbert: “Has he already checked out? The Sebastian I know hasn’t. When he was leading the team, he had the might of Tifosi on his shoulder, Italy on his shoulder, and all the pressure from Ferrari as well. It didn’t really help him. When you look at the garage at Mercedes, Lewis doesn’t have as anywhere near as much pressure.
“Has that now been released, and are we going to see the Sebastian Vettel of old? I hope so. He’s not a four-time champion just because he had the best car, and it’s not a given that Leclerc is going to go to Austria and be the quickest Ferrari driver.”
Karun Chandhok: “I really wonder which Sebastian Vettel is going to show up. Last year in Singapore, Russia, we saw the quadruple world champion with devastating speed. But then we also saw the error-prone Sebastian at times.
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