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Five talking points ahead of the F1 Australian Grand Prix

THE Formula One circus has made its way Down Under for the start of the new season with final preparations under way at Melbourne’s Albert Park.

Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton (pictured above) will be looking to make it three titles in a row in his Mercedes, but Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel will be fighting hard to end a six-year championship drought and Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc and Pierre Gasly will want to impress their new bosses.

Here, we take a closer look at the major talking points ahead of the Australian Grand Prix, the season’s curtain raiser.

New Year’s resolutions

The start of any new season inevitably leads to questions about how the following eight months will pan out.

Hamilton will be looking to draw first blood in his battle against the Ferraris of Vettel and Leclerc in Australia, but could his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas emerge from a torrid — and winless — 2018 and put the pressure on the reigning champion?

The aforementioned Leclerc may well look to set out his stall on the streets of Melbourne in his new seat at Ferrari, and Nico Hulkenberg will be battling new recruit but old hand Ricciardo to be deemed top dog in the Renault garage.

Third time’s a charm

Sebastian Vettel (pictured) will be hoping to continue his purple patch at Albert Park, having taken the chequered flag in 2017 and 2018. A third consecutive victory would draw him equal with all-time record holder Michael Schumacher, who had four wins in Australia.

On the face of it the ingredients are there, with Ferrari performing strongly over the winter period and the German’s appetite still apparent.

The Italian outfit have undergone a management change in the off-season, with former technical chief Mattia Binotto now heading up their challenge and saying the new rules — adaptions to the front and rear wing designs to spice up the racing — could be a game changer.

Bulls on the charge

Red Bull and Renault enjoyed a fruitful relationship in the early 2010s with the French firm providing the engines which launched Vettel and Red Bull Racing to four consecutive championships. But the pairing soured and Max Verstappen and Pierre Gasly will be driving Honda-powered units in 2019.

Will it work? McLaren blamed Honda for their miserable failings in recent years and paid a sizeable amount to ditch the Japanese manufacturer, but Toro Rosso managed to put the Honda engine to good use last year.

Back in pole position

Robert Kubica will complete one of the most impressive sporting comebacks when he takes to the grid in his Williams in Melbourne eight years after he was nearly killed in a rallying accident.

His five-season F1 career, which yielded one victory and 12 podiums to rank him among the finest drivers on the grid, was brought to a terrifying halt in 2010 at the Ronde di Andora in northern Italy.

The 34-year-old (above) will be partnered with Britain’s George Russell for Williams, who will both be looking to improve on 2018 when they finished last in the constructors championship.

Far from pointless?

For the first time since 1959, a point will be awarded for the driver who completes the fastest lap around the 3.296-mile circuit and is among the top 10 finishers. The rule change means 21 extra points will be on offer throughout the F1 season and therefore could have repercussions at the end of the campaign.

What difference will it make? It’s hard to know. Ross Brawn has said the idea is something that ‘improves the show whilst maintaining the integrity of our sport’, and it may result in a few drivers pushing hard towards the end of the race not for a podium, but for pride.