Formula One talking points

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Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton begins his title defence Sunday

The green flag finally drops to start the Formula One season at Spielberg in Austria on Sunday with champion Lewis Hamilton chasing a record-equalling seventh title.

As the drivers prepare to roar past silent stands, AFP identifies five key questions.

Can Hamilton maintain focus?

The main threat to Lewis Hamilton's bid to land a seventh drivers' title is not Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas or Red Bull's Max Verstappen, but himself.

The sport's first black champion has admitted he is committed to racing for more than personal or team triumphs.

"I'm racing for all of you out there who may feel that you don't have a voice," he said. "I'm going to shine my light and make as big a noise as I can to try and affect change.

"The only way I can do that is by being in it and changing it from within."

He added: "In the world, in the society that we live in, I think making it as a young black kid from a council estate in Stevenage, making it to F1 through the tiniest window of opportunity -- that's a very, very important part of my journey and then staying there and continuing to deliver against adversity.

"You can have as many championships or wins as you want, but that is a challenge of itself and that's probably the thing I'm most proud of."

Asked where F1 should race, he added: "Africa. It's such an important place to go back. At the moment, F1 goes to countries and doesn't really leave much behind, if anything. Formula 1 has to shift into being a sport that does go to places and leaves behind something that can really help the communities."

Will Verstappen step up?

Having proved his speed and racing talent, this is the time for Max Verstappen and Red Bull to seize their moment and emerge from the opening trio of races as championship leaders.

A year ago, the young Dutchman bullied his way to victory at the Red Bull Ring and a double repeat of that plus a strong result at Budapest would see the Milton Keynes-based team on top of the embryonic title race.

Pre-season testing in Barcelona suggested their car is fast, but also 'skittish' and may face reliability problems.

Verstappen and team-mate Alex Albon have shown they can shine in challenging conditions and can beat Ferrari to take the fight to champions Mercedes.

Does Vettel feel free?

After confirming he is leaving Ferrari at the end of this year, Sebastian Vettel may feel freed and capable of delivering the consistency and speed that can inspire the team again despite the threat of Charles Leclerc.

The four-time champion has the speed and quality, but Ferrari have to deliver a car that can show immediate performance development.

Pre-season testing suggested that this year's machine had sacrificed some of last year's straight-line speed for improved pace in slow and medium corners.

To make the most of any jump forward, Vettel will first have to overcome the challenge from Monegasque Leclerc in his second year with the team and then try to impress any rival teams thinking of recruiting him for next year.

Can Williams and Russell heep rolling?

George Russell and Williams face a defining challenge after the famous British team was put up for sale during the lockdown ? leaving their young and talented English driver racing for his future.

Russell, a member of the Mercedes junior driver programme, has promise but needs a stronger team in 2021 to prove himself unless Williams find resurgent form and haul themselves off the bottom of the championship.

Russell made good use of the lockdown to become F1's 'virtual champion' during e-racing from his home computer and said recently he is "very excited" to return to the real thing.

"It's going to be surreal, but I can't wait for it," he said. "I just want to be back in a car."

Will Ricciardo be socially isolated at Renault?

Daniel Ricciardo is famous for his beaming smile and big hugs, but he has had to abandon his tactile approach as F1 returns in Austria.

Ricciardo decided during lockdown to leave Renault next year for McLaren.

The fact that McLaren are switching to Mercedes engines was a factor ? and one that may not have enhanced his standing with Renault as he starts his final season.

"I've got to keep my distance," he admitted in a team video call last week. "We're going to find some new ways to embrace each other, especially after a good result, but obviously we're going to do what we can to keep this thing out of the paddock."

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton begins his title defence Sunday

Last year an Orange Army roared Dutch driver Max Verstappen to victory at the Red Bull team's home grand prix in Austria