Way-too-early predictions for the 2019 Formula One season

The 2018 Formula One season is done and dusted. What can we expect from the next one?

Our F1 editors Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders join columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker in discussing some of the biggest talking points likely to dominate the 2019 season.

Can anyone stop Lewis Hamilton winning the title in 2019?

LE: Yes. Had Sebastian Vettel not made a bunch of mistakes during the second half of this year, we would have had a very different season finale in Abu Dhabi. I don’t see Ferrari dropping back relative to Mercedes over the winter and now the Italian team has Charles Leclerc on board, it has two drivers capable of taking the fight to Hamilton.

NS: Only an error-free Ferrari campaign can. Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclec should both have the car and do have the talent to do so, but we saw Hamilton reach a new and terrifying level in 2018. Ferrari cannot afford the sort of implosions that ruined their last two seasons.

MH: Given the way Hamilton has been driving with such speed and supreme confidence this year, if Mercedes do even a half a decent job, it’s difficult to see anyone getting close.

KW: Only Lewis Hamilton can. If he continues the run of form he’s shown this year, Lewis will be a driver at the peak of his powers and borderline unstoppable.

Who will score more points, Sebastian Vettel or Charles Leclerc?

LE: I think it will be close, but I reckon Vettel’s extra experience will give him the edge. Yes, Leclerc looked impressive in his debut year with Sauber but let’s not forget he was up against Marcus Ericsson and not a four-time world champion. Leclerc is clearly still learning in these early years of his career — especially on the engineering side — so I think Vettel will have what it takes to come out on top. But 2020 could be a different story…

NS: You know what, I’m putting my neck on the line — Charles Leclerc. This year showed some glaring weaknesses in Vettel’s race craft and temperament and that was all alongside a fairly uncompetitive teammate (in comparison). Vettel struggled alongside Daniel Ricciardo in similar circumstances in 2014. I’ve been careful not to jump on board the Leclerc Hype Train but he was super impressive this year and I can see him making an immediate impact.

MH: The romantic notion is to have Leclerc come in and blow Vettel’s doors off – similar to Ricciardo at Red Bull in 2014. The first half of the season will be critical. If Charles can take the pressure of being at Ferrari and gives Seb a hard time, it may be the final straw for Vettel after his various problems this year. If he doesn’t score more points, it’s Game Over for Vettel. And yeah, I know; I haven’t answered the question…

KW: Probably Seb, because he’s got the advantage of having been embedded with the team for several years now. But Charles has his Ferrari Driver Acadamy experience and relationships, so… What will make next season interesting at Ferrari is that Charles doesn’t need to beat Seb to come out on top in the psychological battle — he just needs to match him.

How many wins can Red Bull-Honda claim next year?

LE: With a tweaked set of aero regulations, Max Verstappen at the wheel and more single-lap performance than they had this season, I would be surprised if they don’t at least match this year’s four wins. But I still think it will be track dependent, with Monaco, Hungary, Singapore and Mexico the obvious targets for victory.

NS: Probably not quite enough to challenge for the championship, but I can see Verstappen doubling his career tally next year with another five. Any more than that in the first year with Honda will be a big ask. 2020 is a different story, though…

MH: Tempting to wonder if Max was asking himself that as oil sprayed from the back of Gasly’s Toro Rosso during the closing laps on Sunday. Honda aren’t there yet but a Newey chassis will ready and able, as will Verstappen. Four wins; same as this year.

KW: Seven. No reason, I just like the number.

Will Daniel Ricciardo visit the podium at any point in the year with Renault?

LE: We saw in China this year how he can steal a win from nowhere, so I’d back him to take a podium with Renault. But I can’t see it coming without some failures among the top three teams.

NS: I don’t think so. Renault and the midfield pack really aren’t fighting in the same championship as the top three so, barring a freak result, I think it’s going to be a while until we see another shoey from up high. I’d love to be very wrong on this, but I can’t see the gap getting smaller next year.

MH: Bit by bit, Renault are getting there and it would be nice to think a podium is not out of the question on a day when one or two of the top six drivers have a problem.

KW: Yes. Daniel is a driver who’s more than capable of maximizing every opportunity he gets on track — the honey badger is a fair fighter, but he pounces, and when he pounces he often wins unexpectedly.

Which team will be the best in the midfield fight?

LE: Now Force India has stable financial backing, I think they are going to produce the best car of the midfield next year. However, I see Lance Stroll as the weak link and I can imagine Renault grinding out more points by the end of the season with Nico Hulkenberg and Daniel Ricciardo behind the wheel.

NS: Renault looks to be comfortably the best in that battle now. The addition of Daniel Ricciardo only strengthens its place there.

MH: Renault.

KW: Renault. Force India will be stymied by the extra cash, so used to squeezing everything they can out of their budget that the Stroll money will confuse them with an excess of potential development paths.

Will Fernando Alonso win the Indy 500?

LE: I’ve no doubt he has the talent to win it, but there are a whole bunch of factors that need to go his way for a victory to come together. It’s only a gut feeling, but I think completing the triple crown is going to take a few years yet.

NS: No. I have a feeling the Indy 500 is going to frustrate Fernando Alonso for years. He was tremendous throughout his first appearance at the Brickyard in 2017 but skill is only half of what is required to win that race. Given how unlucky he’s been at crucial moments of his career it’s easy to imagine another series of excruciating near-misses.

MH: We know he’s more than capable of doing the job — if luck, an integral part of the Indy 500, goes his way.

KW: Not next year. He’ll lead and then have an engine failure at the eleventh hour.

What will be the most lopsided teammate battle?

LE: I think Kimi Raikkonen’s move to Sauber will see him rediscover the kind of form he had with Lotus in 2012 and 2013. If that’s the case, then Antonio Giovinazzi is going to have a hard time keeping pace with him, especially if the car initially proves difficult to understand like this year’s C37.

NS: I feel like everyone is going to say Sergio Perez > Lance Stroll, so I’m going with Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly. Gasly is talented but if Verstappen can carry his current form into 2019 he’ll be difficult to beat in equal machinery.

MH: Force India, assuming Lance Stroll gets the last available seat.

KW: Perez-Stroll.

Who will be the breakout star of the year?

LE: It may not look that impressive from the outside due to the performance of the car and the quality of his teammate, but I can see George Russell getting some very strong results next year. He showed maturity, intelligence and very impressive pace in Formula 2 this year and I think signing him was Williams’ best decision since it bolted a Mercedes engine to its car in 2014.

NS: Alexander Albon at Toro Rosso. Former rivals speak very highly of him indeed and he should have less pressure on him compared to fellow rookies George Russell and Lando Norris, both at struggling teams with famous names. Albon is also up against the returning Daniil Kvyat, who I’m not really convinced will be much better in F1 at the third time of asking.

MH: George Russell — and that’s no disrespect to Robert Kubica.

KW: Can Charles Leclerc be considered a breakout star when he’s already done an excellent job of showing us just how good he is? Of the incoming pack, George Russell was exceptional to watch in F2, but I don’t think Williams will have the car to do it. Toro just might deliver, in which case Alexander Albon — the driver Russell called the most underrated in F2 this year — will be one to watch.

Who will be the biggest disappointment of the year?

LE: Following on from my previous answer, I would say the Williams car. Everyone would love to see what Russell and Robert Kubica can do in competitive machinery, but after the exodus of technical staff during the year I can’t see how the team will turn it around in 2019. I sincerely hope I’m wrong as the drivers and legendary team name deserve more.

NS: I think this will be two-fold, but both painted in papaya orange. I expect McLaren’s dismal run to continue into 2019 and, given its appalling recent track record with young drivers, I can see Lando Norris struggling a lot in his rookie campaign.

MH: Lando Norris. He’s going to find it very tough at McLaren and that might be hard to take following the pre-season F2 hype and comparative disappointment this year.

KW: Whichever team boss makes negotiating the next Concorde Agreement more complicated than it needs to be. F1 has a real opportunity for positive change and it could be scuppered by self-interest.

And finally, will Valtteri Bottas still be driving for Mercedes at the end of 2019?

LE: Without a doubt. Sure, Bottas has underperformed in terms of pure results this year, but nobody would have suggested getting rid of him midway through the season after the bad luck he had in the early rounds. What’s more, it would be completely unfair to drop Esteban Ocon in a front-running car midway through the season and with minimal testing — it simply wouldn’t make sense for either driver or the team as a whole. However, in order to keep his drive in 2020, Bottas will need to do something very special next year and I think only beating Hamilton – or finishing a very close second with some bad luck along the way — will be good enough.

NS: I’m not so sure. Laurence makes a fair point above, but if it’s tight at the front again can Mercedes really afford to keep an underperforming Bottas in the car next season? If he starts the year strongly, as he has done in both campaigns with Mercedes, it should be enough to keep his seat through the year but if Bottas arrives in Melbourne as the same broken figure we saw in Abu Dhabi, Toto Wolff is surely going to have to consider if he wants to keep an unchanged formula over a long and gruelling 21-race season.

MH: Really feel for Bottas because I don’t think he could have done any more than anyone else when up against the phenomenal speed of Lewis Hamilton. Maybe Valtteri now regrets not throwing it down the inside of Vettel at Bahrain, given the bad luck he’s had (and team orders denying a win in Russia). He makes no waves, keeps his head down, works hard. Mercedes would have to give a very good reason for moving him on.

KW: Yes. Will he still be a Mercedes driver at the start of 2020? Only if Lewis retires.