It has been seven months since Formula One last staged a grand prix following the coronavirus outbreak that forced the postponement or cancellation of the year’s first nine races.
But as the season finally prepares to get underway with the Austrian Grand Prix on Sunday there are a few familiar names up for discussion concerning the fight for the world championship.
The standout favourite remains current world champion Lewis Hamilton, who has enjoyed almost exclusive domination of the sport since winning his second title in 2014.
But as he looks to match Michael Schumacher’s record of seven championships, who is likely to lead the challenge against him? Sportsmail looks at the major stars looking to land F1’s biggest prize.
Lewis Hamilton won his sixth world championship at the United States Grand Prix last term
Titles: 6 (2008, 2014-15, 2017-19) Debut: Australia 2007 GP starts: 250 GP wins: 84
There are many rules and regulations in Formula One, enough to make even the most ardent of fans roll their eyes in despair. The biggest rule though is perhaps unwritten – never count out Lewis Hamilton.
Five world titles in six years means he is the benchmark all are judged by and there is good reason for that given the astonishing drives he has put in not just at Mercedes but throughout his whole career.
Since breaking onto the scene in 2007 at McLaren and instantly challenging for the world championship, Hamilton has rarely been off his game.
Hamilton heads into the 2020 Formula One season as favourite to win the drivers’ title
More often than not, he is leading from the front but on the rare occasion he is playing catch up you wouldn’t dare rule him out of victory.
His relentless pace to haul in Max Verstappen and snatch the win in Hungary last year was one of his all-time great drives. He arguably has the best race craft on the grid so is rarely stuck behind a fellow driver for too long before he finds a way through.
Even at 35 years old he has no apparent weakness and if his Mercedes, as expected, is a front runner again, he will be incredibly difficult to overhaul.
Could his recent focus on promoting a more diverse F1 hinder him? Not a chance. His passions away from his on-track duties haven’t slowed him down before and they won’t now. His new all-black race suit and Mercedes car, which he has helped design to promote the cause of Black Lives Matter, might even inspire him to new heights.
Title chances: 9/10
With Mercedes, Hamilton has won five of the last six world championships, 2016 the exception
Titles: 0 Debut: Australia 2013 GP starts: 139 GP wins: 7
One of the hardest jobs in sport must be trying to compete with Hamilton as a team-mate.
At least with a different team you can hope of having car advantages in certain areas, but at Mercedes you are simply in a straight fight with one of F1’s greatest drivers.
So for all of Valtteri Bottas’s talents, and he is a very good driver, he seems destined to always be in Hamilton’s shadow as long as he stays with the Silver Arrows.
Valtteri Bottas will be hoping this is the year he can take the fight to his team-mate Hamilton
Over a weekend he is not too far off the Brit’s pace and on a fair few occasions can beat his team-mate, as evidenced by his seven race wins over the last three seasons.
But consistency is key in the championship, and having now been at Mercedes for three years he has not shown he can take the fight to Hamilton over a campaign like the man he replaced in Nico Rosberg, who claimed the 2016 title.
Aside from Rosberg, only Jenson Button back in 2011 has scored more points than Hamilton as a team-mate over a single season and the world champion has only become stronger since. In equal machinery, Bottas has little chance of troubling Hamilton over a campaign.
Title chances: 5/10
The Finn has seven victories to his name but can struggle for consistency over a season
Titles: 0 Debut: Australia 2015 GP starts: 102 GP wins: 8
Following pre-season testing, there was a quiet confidence radiating out of Red Bull despite them not setting any headline lap times during the fortnight in Barcelona back in February.
For the sake of a competitive championship battle F1 needs to hope Red Bull had been sandbagging over the winter.
Max Verstappen (R) is considered one of the greatest threats to challenge Hamilton for the title
With Max Verstappen in their ranks, they have a driver who has proven that in a race-winning car he has the ability and confidence to go wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton – in fact he relishes it.
In Brazil last year he ended up passing Hamilton twice in supreme fashion at Interlagos on the way to one of his best career victories.
Still only 22 years old, he will keep getting better and the only reason he has yet to sustain a title challenge is because Red Bull have struggled to produce a car capable of beating Mercedes. The Dutchman will hope this is the year Red Bull return to the top.
Title chances: 7/10
But up until now Red Bull have struggled to give the Dutchman a competitive enough car
Titles: 0 Debut: Australia 2019 GP starts: 21 GP wins: 0
Albon may be over a year older than Verstappen but he only made his debut in the sport a year ago, before going on to enjoy an excellent rookie year.
The London-born Thai racer started the season at sister team Toro Rosso (now Alpha Tauri) and impressed enough to be handed a mid-season call up to Red Bull to replace the struggling Pierre Gasly.
He impressed enough in the second half of the campaign to be kept on the team, yet on a regular basis he was slower than Verstappen on the other side of the garage.
Alex Albon will be a rank outsider to challenge for the world championship this term
There is little expectation he can match Verstappen’s pace this year either, which is more down to the outstanding talents of the Dutchman rather than Albon’s ability.
A criticism of Albon could be that although he displays a pleasant mild-mannered attitude he has shown little of the aggression and ruthlessness that is needed in the high-pressure stakes of battling at the front. Is it there? If it is it needs to be shown this term.
Albon is still getting to grips with the sport so while he could still have the talent, he is going to struggle keeping up with Verstappen let alone slugging it out with Hamilton.
Title chances: 4/10
The London-born Thai enjoyed a rookie year in the sport which earned him a seat at Red Bull
Titles: 4 (2010-2013) Debut: United States 2007 GP starts: 240 GP wins: 53
A decade of two halves for Vettel, who started it by winning four consecutive world championships with Red Bull and ended it looking a shadow of his best at Ferrari.
Vettel joined the Maranello outfit in 2015 and in his first two years impressed enough in a team still trying to play catch up with Mercedes and Hamilton.
Once they did though, Vettel’s form deserted him at the worst possible time. He faded badly in 2017 to go from series leader to a distant second, while in 2018 a catalogue of errors destroyed a similar advantage he had over Hamilton.
Sebastian Vettel will hope to rediscover championship form to put three bad years behind him
The biggest was his silly spin out of the race in his Germany homeland, which handed the win to his title rival. He hasn’t recovered since, making many similar errors and winning just twice in the 31 races that have followed.
To make matters worse for Vettel, he was upstaged by team-mate Charles Leclerc last term and heading into the season has never looked so much on the back-foot.
He and Ferrari will part ways at the end of 2020 and it’s not too far-fetched to think this could be his final realistic shot of winning the world championship as he heads into the autumn of his career.
Returning to former glories is not beyond him, but with Ferrari’s pre-season looking far from perfect the 32-year-old, who turns 33 on the eve of the new season, may find his battle lines are across the opposite Ferrari garage rather than to his old sparring partner Hamilton.
Title chances: 6/10
Vettel is under pressure to deliver as he enters his final season as a Ferrari driver
Titles: 0 Debut: Australia 2018 GP starts: 42 GP wins: 2
Along with Verstappen, Leclerc at just 22 years old is seen as one of the next-generation talents to lead the sport once Hamilton departs.
His debut year with Sauber in 2018 was impressive enough, but it was at Ferrari last term where he showed just how much potential he has.
The highlight was undoubtedly his victory at Monza, giving Ferrari a first home win in front of a partisan Tifosi at the Italian Grand Prix for the first time in nine years.
Charles Leclerc will be hoping to carry on from an impressive first year at Ferrari
The manner in which he managed to fend off a rampaging Hamilton over the course of many laps was testament to his talent, confidence, temperament and ruthlessness which tick all the boxes for a world champion in the making.
So can he use that experience to now trouble Hamilton over a campaign? It might be a year of frustration at Ferrari who appeared behind the curve in pre-season testing, while Leclerc’s first year at the team was littered with rookie errors such as his spin in Germany which robbed him of an excellent chance of victory in the chaotic rain-hit race.
If he can at least see off Vettel again, his reputation which has quickly developed to one of the fastest drivers on the grid will remain intact.
Title chances: 7/10
Ferrari though appeared to struggle in testing and could be on the backfoot in the title race
Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari are known as the ‘big three’ in Formula One such is their advantage over the rest of the grid, but even for the latter two teams it has proven tough to keep up with the Silver Arrows.
So while title hopes for the rest of the the grid are next to none, there are still plenty of drivers who have title ambitions in their careers, not least at Renault where seven-time race winner Daniel Ricciardo, who will join McLaren in 2021, will hope to see off Esteban Ocon, who is still part of Mercedes’ development driver programme and has an eye on a drive for the works team.
McLaren were a distant ‘best of the rest’ last term and with a strong pairing of Carlos Sainz and Britain’s Lando Norris, and will hope to kick on trimming the gap to the ‘big three’ this term, with Sainz replacing Vettel at Ferrari for 2021.
George Russell is another Brit looking to impress for a future Mercedes drive and although he will be grateful just for points at the struggling Williams team, he is seen as a talent for the future.
And for those looking for a veteran there is always Kimi Raikkonen, with the 2007 world champion still going strong at Alfa Romeo in a season when he will turn 41.
Kimi Raikkonen won the world championship in 2007 and is still going strong at 40 years old
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