Mark Absolon: Lewis Hamilton favourite to leave young pretenders in his F1 slipstream

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FIVE-times world champion Lewis Hamilton is gearing up for one of the biggest battles of his career when the 2019 Formula 1 season gets underway in Melbourne tomorrow.

Hamilton delivered a super campaign in 2018 to close out his fourth championship in five years and see off Sebastian Vettel’s stuttering challenge with two rounds to spare.

If you add in the fact that Hamilton is probably in the form of his life, then the argument for a sixth title for the Mercedes driver looks compelling.

Mark Absolon

However, all the early signs suggest that 2019 could see a vintage battle between the Mercedes and Ferrari No 1 drivers.

The omens look good for Hamilton in his bid to move to within just one title triumph of Michael Schumacher’s record haul of seven world titles.

After five years of Formula 1’s turbo-hybrid era, the Mercedes team have a perfect five drivers’ and constructors’ titles under their belts. Indeed, if they take the honours again this year, it will be a record sixth straight double title.

If you add in the fact that Hamilton is probably in the form of his life, then the argument for a sixth title for the Mercedes driver looks compelling.

When put under pressure during the second half of last year’s championship, Hamilton responded in style to dominate Vettel, who visibly wilted as the season reached its conclusion.

Intriguingly, though, the pre-season tests certainly proved that Mercedes will have a fight on their hands. Ferrari enjoyed a stellar time in testing, consistently topping the lap-charts with Vettel and new team-mate Charles Leclerc quickly declaring the car was balanced, easy to drive and, most importantly, quick from the offset.

But Mercedes racked up more miles than any other team during testing and only revealed their upgraded aero package at the second test in Barcelona.

Once Hamilton got to grips with the new set-up, he all but matched Vettel’s pre-season best time on the final day to set the scene nicely for tomorrow’s season opener in Albert Park.

While Hamilton and Vettel are expected to be the main title protagonists, there will be a number of drivers and teams snapping at their heels to chalk up race wins.

Rising star Leclerc replaces Kimi Raikkonen at Ferrari and the 21-year-old has been tipped for big things by both Hamilton and Vettel. Valtteri Bottas will also be looking to make a real breakthrough in his third season with Mercedes.

The form of the Red Bull cars could be the biggest wild-card of the season. With the team ditching the Renault power unit and opting for Honda engines, it could be an unpredictable year for one of the sport’s most consistent runners.

But given Adrian Newey’s exceptional design nous, plus Max Verstappen’s sheer speed on the track, expect them to be pushing for race victories. With Daniel Ricciardo having left for Renault, Verstappen will have a new team-mate this year – Toro Rosso graduate Pierre Gasly.

The most eye-catching of the sport’s rule changes will see a bonus point awarded to the driver who sets the fastest lap in races this year – provided they also finish in the top 10. A point will also be awarded to the constructor of the driver setting the fastest lap.

There are also minor changes to the front and rear wings of cars as well as the DRS system, all designed to encourage overtaking and wheel-to-wheel action.

All in all, 2019 is shaping up to be one of the most closely-contested seasons for years.