New boys ready to shine in new era

If a week is a long time in politics, a European winter off-season is a long time in Formula One.

Just four months after Nico Rosberg claimed his first and only crown as world champion, a new championship is approaching – and with Melbourne ready to greet a new era and new generation of drivers.

The season-opening Australian Grand Prix on March 26 will be unique in welcoming the F1® circus back to Albert Park without a champion to put on show.

Instead, and in a period of transition that has seen Bernie Ecclestone replaced as the sport’s long-serving day-to-day boss by Chase Carey, a reshuffle with the introduction of a new set of technical regulations offers the prospect of ‘a whole new ball game’.

That in turn is expected to usher in a new generation of youthful young stars led by Dutch teenager Max Verstappen – a young man who will not celebrate his 20th birthday until the end of September.

The son of Jos has been a boy in a hurry all his life and is sure to fancy his chances this year of not only adding to his famous debut victory in last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, but also mounting a serious title challenge in his own name.

Alongside Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo in the Red Bull team that will fancy their chances in an Adrian Newey designed car that should look good in a ‘new’ formula that is expected to be the onus back on aerodynamics, Max is mentally tough, mature beyond his years and widely seen to be a champion in waiting.

But he is not the only of a new young crop that includes the understated Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne, 25, of McLaren Honda, Canadian rookie Lance Stroll, who is only 18, of Williams, Frenchman Sebastian Ocon, 20, of Force India, and German prodigy Pascal Wehrlein, 22, of Sauber, who is likely to shine.

In a year of transition at all levels of Formula One, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Ricciardo are likely to find they have their mirrors filled frequently by the sight of one or other of these young tyros pushing to make his mark.

Vandoorne, who raced in place of the injured Spaniard Fernando Alonso in Bahrain last year, impressed with his speed and poise – and scored a point. He is unlikely to be fazed in any way by taking over now from retired world champion Briton Jenson Button.

Alonso, who could be a surprise title contender if McLaren have found the package they need this time with Honda power, will need to be consistently fast to keep the Belgian boy at bay.

Stroll, highly-rated and likely to create a few upsets, will need time to bed into the circus after leaving his home in Montreal to partner returning-from-retirement veteran Brazilian Felipe Massa, but many have forecast big things for him – and Frank Williams is not one to make many errors of judgement with drivers.

Ocon, who delivered a series of mature-beyond-his-years performances last year when he took his chance at Manor, is similarly expected to create upsets.

Fast, composed and ambitious, the Normandy born Frenchman will push his partner Mexican Sergio Perez and it will be an interesting test of his consistency to see how this intra-team battle works out.

His team-mate at Manor last season was Wehrlein, who in turn was a contender to make the big leap to Mercedes to partner Hamilton, before the team opted for Finn Valtteri Bottas.

That left the young German unexpectedly without a top seat to take and he opted swiftly to take his chance with the revamped Sauber team that is under new ownership.

His exploits with Manor included scoring the team’s only point last year and it will fascinating to see if he can live up to his billing as the best of the crop to emerge from the Mercedes junior school production line.

Much is expected of him, just as it is of all the new boys due to make an impact this year. Above all, however, it is going to be Verstappen who will carry the greatest hopes.  

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