|Hamilton is the front runner. — AFP/VNA Photo|
PARIS — Lewis Hamilton will finally launch his bid to equal Michael Schumacher's total of seven world championships and break a clutch of other F1 records when the Austrian Grand Prix opens the coronavirus-disrupted 2020 season on Sunday.
AFP Sport looks at the drivers due to fight it out in the condensed championship:
Lewis Hamilton (Britain)
- After 84 wins from 250 starts and six titles, including the last three in succession, the 35-year-old defending champion starts out as favourite again and shows no signs of age or easing off.
He is eight wins from overhauling Schumacher's record 91 wins entering his 14th year and has an untouched combination of pure speed, race-craft, consistency and tactical guile that, in a near-perfect team, can at times make him untouchable. Vociferous in his support for anti-racism protests during the lockdown, Hamilton will now want to have his say on the track.
Valtteri Bottas (Finland)
- Fast, focused and battle-hardened after three years alongside Hamilton, Bottas should be his nearest rival if he can find his best form and remain consistent.
Now 30, he has to add to his seven wins and find the mental strength required after a difficult 2019 in which his marriage broke up and perennial doubts over his future with the team had a negative affect.
Sebastian Vettel (Germany)
|Vettel has struggled lately. — AFP/VNA Photo|
- The four-time champion, who turns 33 next Friday, announced in May he was quitting the scarlet scuderia at the end of this season. He has struggled to find the magic formula to land Ferrari's first drivers' crown since 2007 and faces a daunting challenge to leave with the title following Charles Leclerc's emergence as a star with sensational natural speed.
Charles Leclerc (Monaco)
- Entering his third season in F1 and second with Ferrari, the 22-year-old has already demonstrated prodigious talent by taking seven poles, winning twice and outpacing Vettel in his maiden year at Maranello, including an emotional triumph at Monza.
That positioned him as a real contender who, along with Red Bull's Max Verstappen, can unsettle the old guard and give his own team boss Mattia Binotto a difficult task in managing his fast and sometimes furious (with each other) pairing.
Max Verstappen (Netherlands)
- Despite 102 race starts, the erstwhile "Mad Max" is still only 22, but has found a maturity to justify his billing as the man most likely to unseat Hamilton from his throne. Much will depend on the power supplied from the team's Honda engines this year.
He had nine podiums and three wins last year, enlarging his total to eight, when at times he looked unbeatable, on tracks that suited his car. An improvement on that, allied to a focus on the ultimate prize and just the immediate race, could see him run the champion close in this shortened season.
Alex Albon (Thailand)
- The London-born softly-spoken Thai driver, aged 24, was one of last year's surprise success stories as he turned from Toro Rosso rookie into a threat to Verstappen's hegemony.
This season should see more improvement as he collects his first podiums and possibly a maiden win to elevate himself among the leading contenders for regular top-six finishes. His gentle demeanour hides a determined and accomplished racer with a big future.
Carlos Sainz (Spain)
- After five years in F1 and at the age of 25, Sainz is poised to realise his potential and continue McLaren's recovery from dismal also-rans to leading mid-grid runners with a chance of snatching podiums.
His third place in Brazil, awarded retrospectively, supplied the team's first podium in five years and more look certain. He moves to Ferrari next season to replace Vettel, and will want to show his new employers at Maranello the wisdom of their decision.
Lando Norris (Britain)
- Only 20, fast and focused, Norris enjoyed a very strong rookie season alongside his Spanish team-mate and they formed a very solid partnership. He matched Sainz's pace and often out-qualified him.
With a full season under his belt, he should improve his weaknesses in starts and race-craft and can take another step towards establishing himself among those drivers at the head of the chasing pack.
Daniel Ricciardo (Australia)
- Still ambitious he turns 31 on Wednesday and after eight full seasons, the Australian faces a new in-team challenge this year in the form of the highly-rated Esteban Ocon.
Ricciardo's 2018 move from Red Bull, where he had outpaced Sebastian Vettel before the arrival of Max Verstappen, has been followed by only flashes of his dashing best form. Restricted by Renault's under-performance - they have recruited Pat Fry to improve the chassis - Ricciardo has to step up and challenge the top six. He replaces Sainz at McLaren next season.
Esteban Ocon (France)
- Back after a year's sabbatical 'on the bench' at Mercedes, Ocon will give Ricciardo a serious test this year. Fast, determined, unafraid of tough battles, he proved himself with Manor and Force India and has completed 50 races.
Aged 23, he is hungry for action and success. He was GP3 champion in 2015 and has risen to the top on merit after his garage mechanic father Laurent made huge sacrifices to ignite his karting career. Clever and controlled, he is tipped for the top. AFP