The Formula One season fires up again in Belgium this weekend following its traditional summer break.
Lewis Hamilton holds a 24-point advantage over Sebastian Vettel with nine of the 21-round campaign remaining.
Here, Press Association Sport takes a look at the key talking points heading into the 13th race of the season.
1. Hamilton holds the aces in battle for fifth crown
Aside from a series of videos cleaning washed-up plastic on a Mykonos beach, it has, on social media at least, been a quiet summer for Lewis Hamilton, and it’s not often we have said that. The 33-year-old Briton, who is bidding to become only the third driver in Formula One history to win more than four championships, will renew his rivalry with Sebastian Vettel at Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday with a comfortable lead in their title shoot-out.
Hamilton is 24 points clear of Vettel compared to a 14-point deficit at the same stage last season. Hamilton’s record is traditionally much better after the summer break, and Spa has been kind to him in recent years, too, winning in the Ardennes for two of the last three seasons. A cautious Mercedes boss Toto Wolff earlier this week warned against making any predictions, but it would take a brave man to bet against Hamilton going on to win this year’s title.
2. Red Bull bemused by Ricciardo switch
Daniel Ricciardo sent shockwaves around the sport by revealing he will leave Red Bull to join Renault next season. Prior to Ricciardo’s announcement, a senior F1 figure claimed the Australian was unhappy at Red Bull, but his decision to quit for the inferior Renault outfit still came as a huge surprise. Did he move for a hefty pay rise?
Did he fear Red Bull will flop with a Honda engine next year? Does he believe team-mate Max Verstappen is getting preferential treatment? Has he been convinced by Renault that they can break into the top three in 2019? For their part, Red Bull had been convinced that Ricciardo was ready to sign a new deal, and were caught on the backfoot with his apparent U-turn. Ricciardo’s decision will have left a sour taste at Red Bull, and, as such, it could be an uncomfortable second half of the season for both parties.
3. Driver merry-go-round in full swing
Ricciardo’s switch to Renault, and Alonso’s decision to retire has sent the 2019 driver market into full swing. Pierre Gasly has been confirmed as Ricciardo’s replacement, which leaves at least one vacancy at Toro Rosso. Ferrari are yet to confirm whether they will retain Kimi Raikkonen or sign the highly-rated Sauber driver Charles Leclerc. Force India – recently taken out of administration by a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll, the fashion billionaire father of Williams driver Lance – have not announced their 2019 line-up.
Could Stroll follow his father to Force India to bump out one of Sergio Perez or Esteban Ocon, and leave at least one seat to fill at Williams? And will 20-year-old Englishman George Russell take up that seat at Williams? With Haas and Sauber also to announce their 2019 plans, the second half of the year promises to be as fascinating off the track as it does on it.
4. Lauda continues to recover from lung transplant
Three-time champion and Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda is set to be absent from the F1 circus for the foreseeable future following a lung transplant.
The 69-year-old underwent the operation in Vienna earlier this month. Mercedes boss Wolff, who regularly travels to and from the races on board Lauda’s private jet, said: “The recovery Niki now faces is not a race. We wish him a safe and speedy recovery – in that order.”
5. British teenager Norris handed 2019 audition by McLaren
Fernando Alonso would have jumped at the chance to replace Ricciardo, but Red Bull, like Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault before them, had no interest in hiring the incredibly talented but problematic Spaniard. As Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said: “Fernando’s tended to cause chaos wherever he’s gone.” Disillusioned by the prospect of plodding around in a desperately under-performing McLaren for another year, Alonso, 37 last month, was left with little choice than to leave F1.
His retirement creates a vacancy at McLaren, and while Carlos Sainz has already been snapped up for 2019, doubts over Stoffel Vandoorne’s future means British teenager Lando Norris could land a seat for next season. The 18-year-old will be given the chance to impress on Friday when he deputises for Alonso in opening practice.