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Revved up: Lewis Hamilton is eyeing a seventh world crown

Revved up: Lewis Hamilton is eyeing a seventh world crown

PA

Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton

PA

Revved up: Lewis Hamilton is eyeing a seventh world crown

Lewis Hamilton will begin the defence of his World Championship in Austria on Sunday. The 35-year-old British driver is bidding to win his seventh crown and equal Michael Schumacher's record. Here, we look at six key questions ahead of the forthcoming Formula One campaign.

1. How important could 2020 be for Lewis Hamilton?

Hamilton has used his huge social media following to become a leading voice for social change during his time away from the track. Hamilton said he was "overcome with rage" following the death of American George Floyd. He attended an anti-racism march in London last month, criticising both the sport and his peers for initially staying silent on the topic. The Mercedes driver has recently launched the Hamilton Commission in the hope of diversifying F1's white-dominated world, while the 'We Race As One' campaign will be launched by the sport's bosses in Spielberg on Sunday. Hamilton has also encouraged his team to adopt a black livery in a powerful message to fight racism. A driving force away from the circuit, Hamilton will now be intent on equalling Schumacher's Championship record when the season fires up in Austria. It is no exaggeration to say this might be viewed as the most important year of Hamilton's life.

2. How will the sport look this season?

The record-breaking 22-race calendar was effectively torn up following the outbreak of coronavirus. The Austrian Grand Prix will mark the first of eight races in 10 whirlwind weeks. Spielberg's Red Bull Ring will host the opening two rounds (July 5 and 12) before Hungary (July 19). There will then be two races at Silverstone (August 2 and 9) before rounds in Spain (August 16), Belgium (August 30) and Italy (September 6). The sport's bosses remain hopeful of announcing at least a further eight races, with the campaign to end in Abu Dhabi in the middle of December. There will be no Monaco Grand Prix on an F1 schedule for the first time since 1954. The races in Australia, Azerbaijan and Japan have also been cancelled. Spectators are banned, team numbers have been limited and there will be no customary champagne spraying for the top three drivers. Face masks will be prevalent in the pit lane, while all travelling personnel are required to be tested for Covid-19 every five days.

3. Is Hamilton the favourite to win the title?

In March, Hamilton's Mercedes team ended an impressive pre-season campaign with the fastest lap and the greatest number of miles. They also reinvented the wheel with their dual-axis steering system (DAS) which is set to provide Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas with a fresh edge this term. Ferrari have been forced to use the prolonged break to redesign their car after several issues during testing, but their updated machine is unlikely to be ready until the third round in Hungary. Max Verstappen will continue to lead Red Bull's attack. The former world champions are optimistic they have closed the gap to Mercedes and will hope the opening two rounds in Austria will suit their package - Verstappen has two wins from his last three appearances at the Red Bull Ring - but whether the super-talented Dutchman can match Hamilton over the course of the year is uncertain.

4. And what about the rest?

McLaren will be keen to build on an encouraging 2019 where they finished behind only Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull in the constructors' standings. Lando Norris enjoyed a strong rookie campaign, but, as he enters his second season, there will be greater pressure on the 20-year-old to regularly compete with team-mate Carlos Sainz, who heads to Ferrari in 2021. Williams endured the worst season of their history last year, finishing bottom with just one point, and announced during lockdown they are looking for a buyer following financial troubles. Deputy team principal Claire Williams, the daughter of the British team's founder, Sir Frank Williams, is under pressure. Racing Point could prove the surprise package of the season after copying last year's title-winning Mercedes.

5. Will this be Vettel's last season?

Sebastian Vettel may have four World Championships, and sit behind only Schumacher and Hamilton as the F1 driver with most victories, but he does not have a drive for next year after being dumped by Ferrari. The Scuderia have identified Charles Leclerc as their future, and decided against extending Vettel's contract. Mercedes are yet to confirm their line-up for next year, but while it seems improbable that Hamilton will leave, Bottas could be moved on. That could free up a seat for Vettel and allow the most decorated driver line-up of all-time - but potentially an explosive one, too. McLaren have moved to sign Daniel Ricciardo in place of Sainz, providing a vacancy at Renault. Racing Point, to be rebranded as Aston Martin next year, could also be an option for Vettel.

6. Are there any new kids on the block this year?

Canadian Nicholas Latifi joins Williams after replacing Robert Kubica and Frenchman Esteban Ocon returns to the grid following a one-year absence. He takes Nico Hulkenberg's seat to team up with Ricciardo at Renault.

Belfast Telegraph