A decade into their Formula One track rivalry, the sport’s best two drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, share an unusual distinction: They are yet to have a no-holds-barred battle on the track.
Apart from a low-speed clash behind the safety car in Azerbaijan in 2017, the two multiple world champions have reserved their on-field stoushes for others – even their own teammates.
Overtaking moves between the pair have been rare, and even after 125 grand prix wins between them, F1 fans are yet to see them battling it out late in a race for the win.
Part of the reason for that has been the frustrating technical rules, and that might change this season.
New regulations for 2019, designed to reduce the cars’ aerodynamic wash, should allow drivers to follow the car in front more closely and, hopefully, permit more overtaking. The bad news for Australian fans is that Albert Park is one of the more notorious circuits on the schedule for its lack of overtaking.
That apart, the Hamilton-Vettel match-up remains F1’s headline act. Britain’s five-time champion is at the height of his powers and Mercedes-Benz is still the sport’s gold (silver?) standard.
That said, after pre-season testing, Ferrari appears to have a speed edge with its new car.
Hamilton goes into the season with his long-time teammate, Valtteri Bottas, alongside, but for Vettel there is a change.
Ferrari has thrown out its policy of paying a fortune to recruit another team’s world champion, to promote Charles Leclerc. The 21-year-old from Monaco is a graduate of Ferrari’s Driver Academy and had a dazzling debut season with the Sauber team last year.
But the message looks clear: If Vettel can’t win the title in his fifth season with Ferrari, it may turn to Leclerc to do it in 2020.
If F1’s main act is still Silver vs Red, third place looks like Red Bull’s. After a switch to Honda engines in the off-season the team has worked hard to get the most out of its car, and is expected to bring to Melbourne a technical update that was scheduled for China next month.
With the team parting ways with Daniel Ricciardo over the summer, the speedy and controversial Max Verstappen is the No.1 driver. But to make an impression on Hamilton and Vettel, he will need to eliminate the mistakes that have dogged previous campaigns.
The Dutchman will also have to deal with his new teammate, Pierre Gasly, who, like Vettel and Ricciardo before him, graduates to Red Bull after an impressive apprenticeship with their ‘junior’ squad, Toro Rosso.
Sunday's #AusGP will finally see Robert Kubica's racing return 🙌
— Formula 1 (@F1) March 12, 2019
The battle for the fourth team looks like one to watch.
Ricciardo’s move was one of the off-season’s biggest stories and on paper his new team, Renault, does not yet have the speed to challenge the big three teams. But Ricciardo is a dogged racer.
Even if the tiger-coloured car will lack that last half-second to get on to the podium, expect Ricciardo to be at the forefront of a pack of cars chasing the leaders.
The battle for the midfield looks to be intense, with Racing Point (formerly Force India), Haas, a rejuvenated McLaren and perhaps Red Bull’s ‘second’ team, Toro Rosso, fighting with Alfa Romeo for places on the edge of the top 10.
Williams, once the sport’s most successful and innovative team, looks set for a tough season, in spite of the return of Robert Kubica, whose F1 career was ended temporarily when he nearly lost his arm in a 2011 rally crash.
Sports fans did get to see Ali v Frazier, Nicklaus v Palmer, Evert v Navratilova. All eyes will be on Hamilton v Vettel.
As the cars and drivers assembled for the start of the season, Ferrari appears to have the edge. But Hamilton has never been one to let that stop him from winning before.
The four days of racing at the Australian Grand Prix starts on Thursday, with the F1 race scheduled for 4.10pm on Sunday.