Preview: Hamilton looking to make it six of the best in 2019

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By sportswriter Michael Butterworth

BEIJING, March 14 (Xinhua) -- The 2019 Formula One season kicks off on Sunday 17th March in Melbourne, Australia, for what will be the first of 21 races to decide this year's World Drivers' and Constructors' championship titles.

2018 drivers' champion Lewis Hamilton will be looking to hit the ground running Down Under, but he and his Mercedes team are sure to face a tough fight to remain at the front, with Ferrari looking strongest in pre-season testing and Red Bull also likely to be fighting for victories. This year also sees some intriguing driver changes, with several debutantes and returnees to motorsport's elite single-seater category, and a couple of rising stars having their big chance in some competitive machinery. Xinhua takes a look at the runners and riders in the 2019 F1 championship.

Mercedes (2018: 1st, 655 points)

44. Lewis Hamilton (2018: 1st, 408 points, 11 wins)

77. Valtteri Bottas (2018: 5th, 247 points, best result 2nd)

With a clean sweep of the last five drivers' and constructors' championships, Mercedes remain the benchmark for all the other teams to aim at in 2019. Lewis Hamilton continued to drive out of his skin in 2018, hardly putting a foot wrong to once again put Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in the shade in what was probably his best year yet. With five titles now under his belt, perhaps the most ominous sign for his rivals is that the Briton shows no sign of slowing down despite his ever-expanding portfolio of off-track interests. Teammate Valtteri Bottas did not have such a happy 2018, failing to post a race win through a combination of bad luck and team orders. The affable Finn seemed to grow increasingly disenchanted as the season wore on, and may find his seat under threat if things don't take a turn for the better in 2019.

Ferrari (2018: 2nd, 571 points)

5. Sebastian Vettel (2018: 2nd, 320 points, 5 wins)

16. Charles Leclerc (2018: 13th, 39 points, best result 6th)

Heads tend to roll at Maranello when the scarlet cars don't deliver the goods, and team principal Maurizio Arrivabene paid the ultimate price at the end of a 2018 season in which Ferrari more often than not had the fastest car, but were unable to translate that speed into a title win. Pre-season testing appeared to indicate that the Scuderia will be the team to beat at the start of 2019, and Sebastian Vettel cannot afford a repeat of the driver errors that were all too evident last season as he seeks to become Ferrari's first world champion since 2007. Partnering the German this year is Charles Leclerc, who impressed many in his debut season at Sauber in 2018, but Ferrari is a new proposition entirely, and he will be under more pressure and scrutiny than ever as he seeks to establish himself as a frontrunner.

Red Bull (2018: 3rd, 419 points)

10. Pierre Gasly (2018: 15th, 29 points, best result 4th)

33. Max Verstappen (2018: 4th, 249 points, 2 wins)

A new dawn at Red Bull, with the cars now being powered by Honda units after the team lost patience with the perceived unreliability and underperformance of Renault. Designer Adrian Newey perennially produces strong cars, but it may be too early to think about the title in the first year of a new partnership. After the surprising departure of Daniel Ricciardo to Renault, the mercurial Max Verstappen steps up to the role of team leader, and will want to continue with the form he ended last season in after what had been an error-strewn start to 2018. After a year and a bit with Toro Rosso, Pierre Gasly gets his chance in a top-line car for 2019. The Frenchman has shown an impressive turn of speed, but his new-boy image threatens to go curly at the edges if the driver errors that were seen in pre-season are not eradicated.

Renault (2018: 4th, 122 points)

3. Daniel Ricciardo (2018: 6th, 170 points, 2 wins)

27. Nico Hulkenberg (2018: 7th, 69 points, best result 5th)

Renault were best of the rest in 2018 behind the big three, but were probably further away from the front than they had been expecting. Pressure is mounting on the team to make a tangible step forward, and they made a big statement of intent by persuading Daniel Ricciardo to move over from Red Bull for 2019. Unlikely to be fighting for victories this year, the Australian is clearly playing the long game, and Renault will be looking to him to drive the team forward and close the gap to the top six cars. Nico Hulkenberg has long been highly-rated in the F1 paddock but it will be interesting to see how he fares against a bona fide race winner in Ricciardo. The German also holds the dubious honor of competing in the most races without scoring a top-three finish, and will be itching to get that monkey off his back in 2019.

Haas (2018: 5th, 93 points)

8. Romain Grosjean (2018: 14th, 37 points, best result 4th)

20. Kevin Magnussen (2018: 9th, 56 points, best result 5th)

With the smallest budget in the pitlane, Haas punched above their weight in 2018 to finish in a 5th place that owed much to their strong start to the year. Teams with fewer resources tend to slip back over the course of a season as their more moneyed rivals edge ahead with development, and the American squad will need another quick start this year to ensure a repeat performance. Kevin Magnussen has drawn criticism from fellow racers for his elbows-out driving style, but enjoyed a more consistent 2018 than Romain Grosjean, whose disastrous start to the year was thankfully arrested by mid-season. Both team and drivers must eliminate the unnecessary errors that showed up on more than one occasion in 2018.

McLaren (2018: 6th, 62 points)

4. Lando Norris (2018: N/A)

55. Carlos Sainz (2018: 10th, 53 points, best finish 5th)

After a dreadful few years with Honda engines, McLaren switched to Renault units last season amid much brave talk of competing at the same level as Red Bull. As it was, the limitations in the car's chassis became painfully evident, and only the enduring talent of Fernando Alonso helped drag the team up to 6th in the points table when it was among the slowest cars on the grid. With the Spaniard having given up hope of McLaren producing a car worthy of his abilities, an all-new driver pairing sees Alonso's compatriot Carlos Sainz joined by British rookie Lando Norris. Once touted as F1's next big thing, Sainz will need to display leadership and authority to develop the car in his first role as undisputed senior driver. Norris has shown a good turn of speed in junior formulae, but has much to learn in his new surroundings, and 2019 will likely be a year of consolidation.

Racing Point (2018: 7th, 52 points)

11. Sergio Perez (2018: 8th, 62 points, best finish 3rd)

18. Lance Stroll (2018: 16th, 6 points, best finish 8th)

Having been rescued from bankruptcy midway through last year by billionaire benefactor Lawrence Stroll, the team formerly known as Force India are now on a stable financial footing and have reason to be optimistic for the future. Mexico's Sergio Perez is widely regarded as one of the quickest drivers outside the top three teams, and starts his sixth season with the Silverstone-based squad. His new teammate is Lance Stroll, who moves over from Williams to the team now owned by his father, and will be eager to show that he his deserving of his place after pushing out the highly-rated Esteban Ocon. Another season of solid midfield running beckons.

Alfa Romeo (2018: 8th, 48 points)

7. Kimi Raikkonen (2018: 3rd, 251 points, 1 win)

99. Antonio Giovinazzi (2018: N/A)

The Alfa Romeo name appears on the Formula 1 grid for the first time since 1985, after the Ferrari subsidiary increased their existing investment in the Sauber team to include naming rights. In a major coup, 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen elected to join the upwardly mobile outfit after being ditched by Ferrari, with his hunger to drive seemingly undimmed even as he approaches 40 years old. Completing the lineup will be Antonio Giovinazzi, who raced twice for Sauber in 2017 and will be looking to learn as much as possible from his experienced teammate.

Toro Rosso (2018: 9th, 33 points)

23. Alexander Albon (2018: N/A)

26. Daniil Kvyat (2018: N/A)

Assuming its familiar role of Red Bull's proving ground, Toro Rosso's familiarity with the Honda powerplant and its close relationship with its parent team should help it overcome any perceived weaknesses on the driving front. Daniil Kvyat's return to the squad he was dropped from in 2017 surely owes much to the lack of depth in the Red Bull talent pool, and this is surely his last chance to prove he deserves to be in F1. Partnering him will be debutant Alexander Albon of Thailand, who was a relatively late addition to the team but showed reasonably well in winter testing. Red Bull's management is notoriously trigger-happy, however, and a failure to meet expectations could see both drivers looking nervously over their shoulders at potential mid-season replacements.

Williams (2018: 10th, 7 points)

63. George Russell (2018: N/A)

88. Robert Kubica (2018: N/A)

After losing their title sponsor at the end of 2018, Williams' woes continued into pre-season, as the team suffered the ignominy of failing to have their new car ready for the start of winter testing. When it finally did appear, it proved to be the slowest of the 2019 contenders by some margin, a state of affairs that Technical Director Paddy Lowe paid for with his job. Robert Kubica's return to Formula 1 after a nasty crash had him sidelined for eight years is one of the feel-good stories of the season, but questions remain over whether the Pole can reach his former level with only partial movement in his right arm. 2018 Formula 2 champion George Russell gets his chance at the top table, but all the signs point to another season of struggle for the once-proud Williams team. Enditem

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