MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 12: Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing looks on in the Paddock during previews ahead of the F1 Grand Prix of Australia at Melbourne Grand Prix Circuit on March 12, 2020 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
Formula 1 2020 | Leclerc-Verstappen threat could deny Hamilton F1 immortality
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As Formula 1 emerges from its longer than anticipated hiatus this weekend in Spielberg, Lewis Hamilton eyes a place at the very summit of motorsport history, with the six-time World Drivers’ Champion standing on the precipice of title number seven and place in the halls of sports’ great alumni.
Before the Briton can take his place in such lofty environs however, Hamilton faces what could arguably be his toughest challenge yet with a season set to be condensed into a five-month period, at an unprecedented and relentless pace.
Not only that, but with a chaotic and surreal 18-race campaign to come, two players of the piece lurk within the shadows in the form of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, two men hungry for glory and to break Mercedes’ continuing F1 monopoly.
Driven ‘Bull’ Verstappen
As the youngest driver to ever win a Grand Prix in 2016 at the age of just 18, Verstappen has bloomed from break-neck rookie into a more mature individual over the past three years, now capable of mounting a serious challenge for the World Drivers’ Championship.
Under the guidance of former driver and mentor, father Jos as led his son from the tender age of four-years-old, when Verstappen first took up karting in his home province of Limberg in Belgium – like his dad.
Since his move from Torro Rosso to Red Bull, the now Dutch-adopted Belgian has left his raw teens and at 22, comes into the new season after impressing last year without the distraction and antagonism of his in-house rivalry with former teammate Daniel Ricciardo – now having departed for Renault.
Last season – aside from Hamilton -Verstappen was arguably the most consistent driver in 2019 and after finishing inside the top four for the opening six races, picked up wins in Austria, Germany and Brazil with podium finishes in Hungary, Singapore, the US and as runner-up in last year’s finale in Abu Dhabi.
Though finishing only third behind the Mercedes duo of the Briton and Valtteri Bottas, the mammoth points difference of 135 to Hamilton at the top of the standings is an unfair reflection of the tale of last term, indeed Verstappen is poised for a strong campaign this time around.
Rise of Leclerc
Across the paddock in the Ferrari garage, Leclerc has become the hottest property of the also-rans having taken the number two seat from Kimi Raikkonen in the last 12 months.
Forced to tow the Prancing Horse company line bestowed on Sebastian Vettel, the Monagesque 22-year-old nevertheless rose to the attention of F1 fans during the mid-point of last season, finishing with seven of nine podium places between Montreal and Sochi – forced to retire at Hockenheim, with a fourth spot in Hungary also.
Whilst Leclerc’s fortunes in 2020 will largely depend on the Scuderia pecking order, Ferrari will be keen to avoid a repeat of Marina Bay last September in particular, and with Vettel approaching his likely final years of his career, the Italian manufacturer may have to make further difficult decisions, to prevent their gleaming protege from seeking a future elsewhere.
If Verstappen is one of the strong contenders to match Hamilton stride-for-stride, the man from Monaco is perhaps a rawer, outside bet but after his rise from Sauber to the Ferrari hotseat in nonchalant fashion, Leclerc is a real threat this year.
Opening home salvo
In the case of Verstappen then, what better way to start the campaign than on Red Bull home tarmac in Spielberg, with not one but two races set for the curtain-raiser of the 2020 season at the Red Bull Ring.
Having won in Austria for the past two seasons, should the Dutchman make it a winning start to the campaign, a one-off Styrian GP awaits seven days later – named after the South Eastern locale of the country – and the potential of sitting top of the standings ahead of a trip to Hungary and double visit to Silverstone.
Hamilton will of course have other inclinations, but whilst only eight races of season have so far been mapped out, the 2020 F1 season is set to one like no other. With empty stands across the calendar, few are unsure what the new normal may bring between now and December.
That makes this campaign all the more intriguing. For Verstappen and Leclerc, few can argue their credentials as future world champions in the waiting. A wait, which may not be as long as many foresee.
The 2020 Formula 1 season begins this weekend at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, for the Austrian Grand Prix.
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