Second-placed Lewis Hamilton and winner Sebastien Vettel spray each other with champagne after the Australian GP on Sunday. Photo: REUTERS/Brandon Malone
CAPE TOWN - Gentlemen, start your engines. We’re headed for the most exciting, action-packed season of Formula One ever. Cars are going to be faster, with quicker lap times of between three to five seconds, thanks to wider bodywork and tyres, which increases downforce and grip.

Before I come across as knowing what I’m talking about, here’s a disclaimer: I don’t.

As Australia’s Grand Prix launches the season, us armchair fans have been bombarded, yet again, with plenty technical changes for 2017 as the sport starts life without Bernie Ecclestone pulling the strings from his gold-crusted office chair.

One of the changes that caught my attention is when it comes to a wet track and the safety car is involved. The race resumption will now be from a standing start on the grid, which could make for some sliding around and close racing heading into the first corner again.

But, for the main, it will all depend on the superior car and not necessarily the driver when one runs a finger down the list of potential champions.

There used to be a resignation amongst English football fans when they used to play Germany. “At the end of the day it will come down to penalties and the Germans will win.” How often did that ring true, as history repeats.

Similarly, in F1 vein, at the end of this season you’ll probably find that Lewis Hamilton is crowned world champion for the fourth time. In the build-up to 2017, there has been much excited banter relating to Ferrari and Sebastien Vettel and the German is being seen as the biggest threat to the Brit’s chances.

Predictably, both have been quick to assume the role of underdog, although in Hamilton’s case it’s taken with a pinch of salt.

Heading into the first corner in Melbourne this weekend, Mercedes had won 51 of the last 59 races.

The domination of their two drivers, Hamilton and Nico Rosberg was almost complete, and that’s the way the landscape was for the past three years.

Before that it was four years of Vettel in his Red Bull.

In the past 19 years the drivers’ championship has been shared amongst eight drivers and at the end of this season that figure will be eight in 20 because it’s virtually impossible to look beyond the Mercedes of Hamilton or the Ferrari of Vettel coming top. Sure, Hamilton’s new teammate Valtteri Bottas might feed off some of the scraps, seeing as he’s replaced Rosberg, but you can bet your last rand that Hamilton will have made it clear in no uncertain terms that he is the No1 driver and must get the royalty treatment from Team Mercedes.

Yet, even though we are assured that Hamilton will probably claim the drivers’ title and that Mercedes will lift the constructors’ championship once again, we will tune in and get sucked into the drama and the hype. There’s an addition to F1 and it’s a billion dollar industry.

The drivers are rock stars, surrounded by beautiful women and spraying expensive champagne into the crowds. They rub shoulders and shake hands with royalty and with political leaders. They are a rare, elite breed.

And Hamilton embraces that lifestyle, in a way that his countryman James Hunt used to. It’s good for the sport, to have someone whose results match his huge ego and his salary.

But, as the season unfolds, my eyes won’t necessarily be fixed on the front of the grid. I’ll be looking for the Red Bull of the 19-year-old Max Verstappen who is a most exciting young talent. He is already the youngest driver and youngest points scorer in F1 history and also the youngest to lead a F1 race and to actually win one.

He has an old head on young shoulders, as the saying goes, but is is also one of the most natural “racers” to have emerged on the F1 scene in decades. Verstappen won’t challenge Hamilton or Vettel this season, but imagine if he were in a Mercedes and Ferrari and how different things might be. And that, in a nutshell is F1. The driver has to be good, but the car is what separates the men from the boys.

Weekend Argus