The Delight, Danger and Devastation of Motorsport

Shock, utter shock. Sadness, unbelievable sadness. Denial, absolute denial.

These were some of the emotions I felt over the weekend as I watched the man who had become the driver I most actively rooted for killed in a tragic accident at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium on Saturday August 31st.

His name is Anthoine Hubert.


The weekend of the Belgian Grand Prix was a really exciting weekend in prospect.

Formula 1 was returning from its annual summer break and the weekend was littered with breaking news to begin the weekend — Esteban Ocon’s return to F1 with Renault for 2020 was announced, Nico Hulkenberg was left looking for a new drive, Valterri Bottas’ Mercedes extension was announced… These were just some of the breaking items, not to mention it was the weekend that marked Alex Albon’s debut with Red Bull, his promotion from sister-team Toro Rosso announced during the break.

Ferrari looked impressive — as expected — throughout the weekend and secured a front-row lockout in qualifying on Saturday, with Charles Leclerc leading the way ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel.

With how Formula 1 is these days, anytime Mercedes aren’t at the front is a win for the sport, so the prospect of Ferrari finally ending their 2019 win drought and possibly taking a victory away from Mercedes was an exciting one for many — just what F1 needed on its return.

But Formula 1 wasn’t the only thing to return from a summer absence — Formula 2 (Formula 1’s feeder/junior series) was also making its comeback.

For me, Formula 2 is a much better spectacle than Formula 1 and the F2 races are sometimes absolutely bonkers. I can’t count how many good races I’ve enjoyed watching Formula 2.

It’s great fun and I’d recommend it to anybody.

I started watching Formula 2 back in 2017, the year one Charles Leclerc made his name and absolutely dominated on his way to the title and to Formula 1 — it reminded me of when Michael Schumacher was racing in 2002-2004 in that Leclerc was just a step above the rest of the competition. No one came close.

In addition to just watching out of enjoyment, it’s also a great opportunity to see drivers emerge, the drivers that will eventually proceed to Formula 1. Of course, not every driver from F2 makes the cut but quite a number of drivers make the step-up these days, such as Leclerc, Lando Norris, George Russell and Alex Albon in recent years.

In fact, out of the current Formula 1 grid, pretty much half of the grid, has spent at least some time in the junior formula — either when it was formerly known as GP2 or F2 as it’s known as now: Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc, Pierre Gasly, Lando Norris, George Russell, Alex Albon, Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez all spent time in GP2/F2.

So, not only is F2 fun to watch but it’s also rewarding in terms of gathering information about potential future Formula 1 drivers.

With a trio of the F2 class of 2018 — champion George Russell, Lando Norris and Alex Albon — making the leap from F2 to F1 in 2019, the question, as it is pretty much every year, is who is next? Who’s the next one?

The 2019 F2 series has provided a ton of excitement and there’s a number of drivers to keep an eye on, such as F2 veterans Nyck de Vries, Nicholas Latifi (who I would say is an absolute shoe-in for Williams’ 2020 seat), Guanyu Zhou, Jack Aitken and of course Mick Schumacher.

But before all of the action on track began… I follow the official F2 account on Instagram, and throughout the winter, announcements of drivers confirmed for the 2019 came coming. One in particular caught my attention instantly: a young Frenchman who won the final GP3 title (before coming Formula 3) who carried — what I thought — an uncanny resemblance to my younger brother. His name was Anthoine Hubert, and he drew my liking immediately.

It doesn’t take much for me to take to a driver.

When I first started watching F1 in 2002, Felipe Massa was one driver I gravitated to straightaway. It had nothing to do with his ability but, at the time, his helmet — I loved his green helmet. Of course in time, Massa improved and became one of the best drivers on the grid (and should have won the title in 2008 but that’s for another time) but that’s all I needed to start rooting for him. And that never wavered across his 16 year career.

It was the same for Hubert.

The more I watched Hubert then on track and in media sessions, Facebook/Instagram live sessions, it became very easy to like him — more than a resemblance he carried with my family.

Heading into the season though, every bit of me wanted to root for Mick Schumacher more than any F2 driver this year. I had watched Schumacher win the title in the old F3, and he’s obviously the son of the greatest to ever do it (and Mick is obviously easy to like for his own personality). But yet, I found myself rooting for Hubert more.

Fast forward to Monaco and the sprint race in May…

Hubert found himself on reverse-pole position for the race that is the most difficult to overtake at… So no pressure then to convert pole to victory.

Except there was pressure.

Formula 2 is not easy and the cars are difficult to adjust to, meaning rookies — generally speaking, there are exceptions — struggle. In the race, Hubert found himself under pressure from an experienced F2 driver in Louis Delatraz. It was a tense race, I felt nervous, just praying that Hubert could bring it home. It was an unbelievably close finish but Hubert withstood the pressure to take home the victory. A very mature drive.

I was so happy. And then seeing Hubert celebrate afterwards was just as incredible.

Then came the French Grand Prix, and again, Hubert took reverse-pole and followed with a memorable victory at his home grand prix. To see all of those French flags wave in the stands after he took the flag — even though it wasn’t for an F1 driver — was incredible to see. I was a little emotional seeing it.

Hubert was firmly establishing himself as one of the better rookies in Formula 2, and I really believed he was going to build on these two victories and perhaps launch a proper title fight next year.

His future was looking up, and he was also part of the Renault driver programme, and given his matching nationality, it seemed like a perfect future marriage into Formula 1.

But Hubert’s luck began to turn for the worse at venues such as Hungary and Britain, and then in qualifying in Belgium where a red flag ruined a lap where he was set for a large improvement — the end result is that Hubert would be further down the grid than he should have been.

Hubert usually posts snippets like these onto his Instagram stories. I replied on the morning of the now ill-fated day where he lost his life, basically saying I hoped his luck would turn around.

Little did I know… Little did anyone know.

As an aside, I write about basketball for one of my jobs. I’ve been to NBA arenas and I’ve been inside NBA locker-rooms. I know how to be professional, which means I don’t — generally speaking — interact with players on social media. But for Hubert I made an exception, and I sent replies to his stories at various points in the season, which he saw and acknowledged.

So anyways, excitement. F2 is back, and back at one of F1’s iconic tracks at Spa.

As usual, I’m tracking the progress of Hubert and then a massive crash at Radillon occurs on lap 2. It was immediately horrific looking — Hubert’s car (though I didn’t know it was him at the time) was torn in half with another car skidding upside down — and the broadcast made the decision very early on that no replays would be shown. So, the red flag was waved and the race stopped. Anxiously, I scanned cars as they filed into the pitlane to see which cars were present, trying to see who was involved. To my worry, I didn’t see the pink, number 19 car of Hubert and I began to get nervous.

When it was figured that the main two cars involved in the horrific crash were Juan Manuel Correa and Hubert, I became very worried.

Rule of thumb: when the broadcast elects not to show a replay of a crash, that’s a very bad sign. A worse sign than that? The quick decision to announce that the race would not be restarted.

So, the anxious wait continued. I tried working on some stuff to try take my mind off of it, then another view from a camera track-side posted on social media showed the extent of incident. It didn’t look good…

But…hope. I had hope everything would be OK.

But a few hours later came the news that I had so dreaded… Anthoine Hubert was dead.

Shock. Disbelief. I couldn’t believe it. And then came the overwhelming sadness and the realisation of the fate my favourite young driver had suffered. 22 years old, chasing a dream, destined for the pinnacle of motorsport… A life dedicated to racing, to the dream. And it was all over. I had watched live as my favourite driver had his life cut far too short. A driver whose career I was so excited to watch unfold… Gone.

I was crushed. And I beat myself over the fact I was. I didn’t know Anthoine but I was crushed at his loss. I didn’t want to eat, I barely slept. I kept seeing the crash in my head, wondering what it must have been like inside the cockpit. It’s burned inside my head. I was distraught. I couldn’t believe it. And it sounds so silly, I know… I didn’t even know him. But I can’t control how I feel, and this is how I felt.

I asked myself if this is how people felt when Ayrton Senna died on the day of his accident… I had kind of dipped out of F1 when Jules Bianchi had his accident in 2014, before he passing away in 2015, so I wasn’t as close to that incident as some other people.

This was new to me.

I’ve seen so many incredibly bad accidents in F1 over the years and they all walked away just fine.

From Robert Kubica’s horror crash at Canada in 2007:

Mark Webber’s somersault accident at Valencia 2010:

To Fernando Alonso’s roll in Australia 2016:

These are just some of the massive accidents I’ve seen in my time watching Formula 1.

All of these guys walked away from these accidents (though, Kubica missed a race but was very much alive). F1 safety has come such a long a way and I think everyone just got used to the driver walking away. It’s a testament to the safety of the sport.

But Hubert didn’t walk away. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why… Why did this have to be the exception?

The FIBA Basketball World Cup is currently ongoing at the time of writing this. Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum injured his ankle during the USA’s narrow win over Turkey, prompting this response from Bill Simmons.

The way it came across was as if it was the worse possible outcome ever. I couldn’t help but laugh seeing that after what happened over the weekend. It’s so incomparable, so laughable. Hubert’s crash had put things in perspective. At least Tatum was alive…

People are divided on motorsport. Sure, maybe the athletic feats aren’t as incredible as some other sports (they are still very much athletes) but there’s a much greater sacrifice they make. Every single time they sit inside the cockpit they risk their lives, they face the danger that it could be their last ever day on this earth, that they might never see their family again. It’s the sacrifice that they’re willing to take. It’s the sacrifice that separates them from us.

There’s a quote from Ernest Hemmingway which I think sums it up.

“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”

Everyone can go play football or basketball or tennis… All you need is a field, a hoop…whatever. In professional sports (mostly football and basketball) there’s hundreds, even thousands of jobs out there.

But in Formula 1, there’s only 20 seats. Only 20 people in the entire world can say they are a Formula 1 driver. Only these guys can do what they do, only they can make the choice to potentially forfeit their life in the relentless pursuit of speed, competition and success. This places a certain reverence over what they do, because there such a risk involved.

Motorsport is incredible and I love it. Formula 1 cars are pieces of engineering brilliance, always have been. As a kid, seeing them tear at 200 miles per hour, on the edge, fighting for every inch of track available, for every millisecond, for every point they can grab… They’re fighter pilots, heros in a do-or-die game where if they don’t perform, their career is over and they may never get another shot at the top. So they put their lives on the line.

The highs of motorsport are immense. Seeing Fernando Alonso win his two F1 titles, Kimi Raikkonen coming from behind to win the title in 2007, seeing Raikkonen win a race again in 2018… Seeing Nico Rosberg beat Lewis Hamilton to the 2016 title… Truly great moments in the sports history. Elation.

But the lows are as low as they come.

Saturday, August 31st was a heavy, heavy reminder that the lowest point of motor racing means that someone dies, something very other few sports have the grave price of admission, which puts motorsport a cut above the rest.

Yes, ACL injuries suck, Achilles injuries suck and you get the rare compound fractures and these all absolutely suck from career standpoint. But when you weigh that against the loss of life, and a life that was infectious in positivity, energy, potential, determination, there is no comparison.

We get so caught up in the potential of a driver and what his future looks like we forget about today… George Russell is probably going to drive a Mercedes Formula 1 car someday, but right now he’s still at Williams, even though we talk about his career as a Mercedes driver and what might look like…

We get so caught up in the future that we forget today, and that there’s a race today, and there are drivers that may not not even be in Formula 1 yet but talk as though it’s already going to happen. That your life — in the race you race today — could end today…

It’s a heavy reality but one every single racing driver accepts when they step into their car and pull that visor down. This is their life and the life of their choosing. The life that they love.

It might take a while before F2 will be fun for me again. It might be a while before I look at Spa the same way…I may never look at that track the same way.

That track, like Imola, like Hockenheim among others, has claimed a life… There’s such a heaviness to that. Maybe not for others, but certainly for me. As the overgrowth in Hockenheim runs wild where the old track ran into the woods once upon a time, I know the ghost (so to speak) of Jim Clark lurks, and his memorial lies. I feel the heaviness of that armco that Ayrton Senna collided with at the Tamburello corner at Imola, San Marino.

And now, at the top of the red river at Spa…

I feel immense sadness. I still, in some ways, just can’t believe what actually happened. Seeing the accident live and happen there and then… I can’t escape that. A friend told me to remember the best image of Anthoine, and when he said it I thought of the celebrations of Anthoine as he got on of his car and raised his arms upright above his head, tilting his head back slightly looking toward the sky. That’s how I want to remember Anthoine, not for the final moments.

The show must go on, F1 and F2 will carry on. Life carries on, with one less star in the sky to shine.

I may not enjoy motorsport itself for a while. Seeing the drivers out there, chasing/fulfilling their dreams will be a constant reminder of the likely opportunity Hubert had taken away from him. But none of that is comparable to the fact his life was taken away while doing what he loved. And maybe, in that sense, he was luckier than most of those whose lives are cut short far too soon…

Rest in peace, Anthoine Hubert.

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Assessing Alex Albon’s Red Bull Debut

Feature image: @RedBullRacing

The 2019 Belgian Grand Prix will go down as one of the more bittersweet weekends in Formula 1’s illustrious history.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc took his first (of many, you would imagine), long awaited and popular Formula 1 victory a day after his friend and Formula 2 driver Anthoine Hubert lost his life after an accident during the feature race of the feeder series on Saturday.

So much happened during this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix: Valterri Bottas’ Mercedes extension announcement, Esteban Ocon’s 2020 Formula 1 return with Renault at Nico Hulkenberg’s expense, Sergio Perez signing (what I personally think from a team perspective) surprising three-year deal, and none of it ultimately matters.

But while the F2 sprint race was cancelled out of respect, the F1 circus had to go on and it went on with a heavy heart.

Being honest, it was a brutal weekend and I honestly just wanted to write something to try take my mind off of what happened.

Thankfully, there is something to talk about…

This weekend marked Alex Albon’s Red Bull debut, which was the big talking point heading into the weekend after replacing Pierre Gasly after a poor run in his Red Bull career.

In these circumstances, I’m not going to say this is a good time to evaluate Albon’s weekend but I’m going to do it anyways because this weekend — as traumatic as it was — could be the first step towards one more seat on the F1 grid being filled.

Let’s start with qualifying.

One of Gasly’s big issues at Red Bull was the qualifying margin to teammate Max Verstappen (nearly half a second), not to mention he was out-qualified 11-1, and that one victory on Saturday for Gasly was at Canada where there was a red-flag situation.

Given Albon’s penalty situation, Red Bull decided not to push him into Q3, so we didn’t get a chance this weekend to see how Albon may have fared against Verstappen in Q3. Monza next week doesn’t offer Red Bull a ton of hope against Mercedes and Ferrari but it’ll be the first instance of Albon having a proper run at Verstappen in qualifying. It won’t be until Singapore — a track Red Bull should go well at — where we get a real sense with Albon in qualifying against the rest of the top six cars.

On Sunday, Albon was tasked with a tall order from P17 on the grid after taking a compliment of penalties for new engine components. It wasn’t most electrifying start for Albon on the medium tyres, his first stint spent largely in a DRS train and was unable didn’t really move the needle. In fact, losing positions to Hulkenberg and Giovinazzi at various points in the first stint.

But with the pitstops came some separation amongst the field and opportunities would arise in the second stint when Albon pitted for the softs.

With the field a little more spread out now and not in one giant DRS train spanning from Kevin Magnussen — and with the Red Bull now being on better rubber — Albon really impressed during the second stint, making multiple overtakes to climb through the field after emerging in P15 after his stop and into the points and eventually finished in P5 to complete a very impressive debut for Red Bull on a difficult afternoon for everyone involved.

One of the criticisms with Gasly’s performances at Red Bull was his lack of willingness to overtake but Albon showed no such fear as he went for the jugular with moves on Lance Stroll into the Bus-Stop chicane and then on Daniel Ricciardo through the No-Name corner. Granted, Ricciardo was on ancient tyres from his Lap 1 adventures and Albon on fresher softs but even still, that’s not a frequent overtaking spot at all, especially around the outside of it.

And then came the last-lap battle with Sergio Perez.

To reach Perez in the first place in the way he did was impressive but then when it came to overtaking him… He had a go firstly at the Bus-Stop chicane which didn’t work out and when Perez intentionally went wide and begged, not invited, begged Albon to go through so that Perez would be the one with the DRS heading up the Kemmel Straight instead of Albon — so that Perez could attack rather than defend — Albon was savvy to it and refused to overtake Perez out of La Source, before taking to the grass up the Kemmel Straight with DRS to seize what would end up being fifth place (and his best finish in F1) after Lando Norris’ last-lap heartbreak.

It was a great end to Albon’s race, in which he displayed determination, good race-craft, wits and ultimately pace to overcome a difficult start where there wasn’t a ton he could do to progress in the DRS train.

“I’ve been very impressed with Alex’s performance all weekend and he put in a great recovery drive from 17th on the grid to finish fifth in his first race with us,” said team principal Christian Horner. “He was pretty cautious during the first half of the race as he felt his way into the Grand Prix, but things started to come alive for him on the softer compound tyre and he put in some great overtakes…”

In what looked like it was going to be a throwaway weekend of sorts for Albon, he salvaged 10 points out of it — the maximum that would’ve possible from where he began the race.

All-in-all, a great debut for Albon, who is still learning the ins-and-outs with his new car.

“I’m very happy. P5 is an amazing result and we’ve got off to a great start,” said Albon post-race. “I had some good fun out there and I enjoyed this race a lot. I started off the weekend very nervous and if you had told me I’d finish the race fifth I’d be very happy, but I’m a bit more relaxed now.

“It was actually a difficult race and in the first stint I struggled with grip in the dirty air and couldn’t overtake anyone. But then once we pitted for the soft tyres, the car came alive and I was like – now we can do something! The last lap was really good, I had a good fight with Sergio where we were both on the grass and it made for some good racing.

“There are definitely some areas I need to improve on and over the next few days I’ll get my head down, do some homework and address them for Monza. I will sit down with the Team and understand why I struggled at the start, but I am still finding out the car’s little tricks and adapting to it. I didn’t really feel too much pressure coming into the weekend, I think the media thought I was going to, but I’ve enjoyed my week with the Team…”

Will history repeat with Red Bull’s Gasly-Albon switch?

Feature image: @ToroRosso

Formula 1 news has been pretty quiet as the one week mark passed on the summer break but that all changed on Monday morning as Red Bull announced that Toro Rosso’s Alex Albon will be making the jump to Red Bull while Pierre Gasly will return to Toro Rosso for the remainder of the season.

The news shouldn’t be surprising given how poor Gasly has been this season, but ultimately it is, it is a surprise.

Everything that had come out of the Red Bull camp — comments made at various times and various publications from both team principal Christian Horner and advisor Helmut Marko — said that Pierre Gasly would be given until the end of the season to try and turn things around, that they wouldn’t switch their driver lineup mid-season.

Comments like that aren’t thrown around for the sake of saying it and people don’t just ‘lie’ like that — it’s unprofessional and in poor taste, so I believe they were genuine at the time they were made.

But circumstances change, and I think there are a few reasons why Red Bull have decided — in spite of making those comments — that to ultimately make the switch mid-season.

The first one is the constructors championship.

It’s no secret that Red Bull have made a step recently, taking two wins in the last four races before the break at Austria and Germany, while almost taking victory at Hungary were it not for a masterclass strategy call from Mercedes. With their improvements and results through Verstappen, Red Bull are within striking distance of Ferrari in the constructors standings — sitting just 44 (blessed) points behind the Scuderia.

In all reality, Red Bull should already be ahead of Ferrari. While Verstappen has been in the form of his life and dragging that Red Bull probably further than it should, Gasly has severely let down Red Bull by scoring just 63 points to Verstappen’s 181 — just a hair over 25% of Red Bull’s total points so far this season.

With second place now a realistic target for the second half of the season, it makes sense for Red Bull to make this move, now that they are within touching distance of Ferrari and their car seems like it’s the next best after Mercedes (though, there are some power circuits coming up for Ferrari such as Spa where they have a chance to be closer).

The second reason was kind of highlighted by the Hungarian Grand Prix and some of the comments Christian Horner made after the race with regard being able to ‘protect’ Verstappen.

In the past, Mercedes have been able to use both of their cars to mix up strategies and force Ferrari into doing something that isn’t in their comfort zone. An example of this was last year’s Italian Grand Prix, where Mercedes were able to use both Hamilton and Bottas to engineer a Mercedes win from the sole Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, a race where Lewis Hamilton’s tyres outlasted Raikkonen’s.

In Hungary, there was nothing and no one to protect Verstappen from anything Mercedes wanted to do and with Gasly being no where in that race, Verstappen was left exposed.

Let’s talk about Gasly very briefly… He forced Red Bull’s hands with this one — he’s just been awful, sitting on 63 points in the standings and only five ahead of Carlos Sainz in a McLaren. Gasly has been no where near Verstappen in qualifying or in the race all season long, and the one time he finished ahead of Verstappen was Silverstone when Verstappen was rear-ended by Vettel. This move was coming, one way or another.

Gasly now enters a very dangerous part of his career back at Toro Rosso, because now he’s fighting to show he still belongs in Formula 1. How he handles this situation and how he responds to it on the track are going to be incredibly key to his F1 future because Red Bull have shown that they are not afraid to cut ties with their drivers — whether it’s academy drivers (Dan Ticktum) or F1 drivers (Daniil Kvyat).

Unlike Kvyat’s situation, there’s no driver, really, in the Red Bull academy waiting for an F1 seat as Gasly was in 2017 when Red Bull moved on from Kvyat. Pato O’Ward is too raw yet and unless Red Bull want to thank their engine partner Honda by promoting their junior driver, Nobaharu Matsushita, from F2 then who is going to take Gasly’s Toro Rosso seat for 2020? (And for a disclaimer, sorry, I don’t really believe in Sean Galael)

The only other driver I can think of would be Sebastian Buemi, and that’s not a big of a reach as you may think. You remember Brendon Hartley after all, right?

So, in that regard, Gasly should be safe for 2020, because as bad as he has been this season, he’s still better than any other option Red Bull have outside of F1.

Let’s talk about the switch from the opposite perspective… Red Bull ultimately went with Alex Albon for the remainder of 2019 and not Daniil Kvyat.

Firstly, I get it, I understand why.

Gasly may have been able to turn it around before the season ended but 12 races is a large enough sample size to read between temporary struggles and who he is this season, and things weren’t getting better near the summer break to warrant Red Bull waiting to see if a corner had been turned.

It’s a great decision by Red Bull — harsh as it may be — to give up on Gasly this season and start getting their ducks in a line for 2020.

Regardless if they kept Gasly for the rest of the season, Red Bull had a big decision to make with their second driver seat and it was probably going to involve them replacing Gasly anyways. You can understand why they may have shown hesitation promoting Alex Albon to a full-time seat for 2020, given how this Gasly experience just ended. But with Red Bull promoting Albon for the last nine races — with no guarantee for 2020 — they can get an eye in with Albon in that Red Bull seat and see what’s what, and this will only help in their decision making process for 2020.

And look, let’s get this out there. Albon has been impressive this season and deserves this shot in his own right — he’s been so much better than anyone, including Toro Rosso and Red Bull, could’ve ever imagined. For someone who, I still think, was a stopgap for Toro Rosso because Dan Ticktum failed to acquire his superlicence. And I said prior to the season he was probably the worst F2 driver coming up this year (and I still think that’s the case) but the gap is considerably smaller than I thought it would be.

But as is the case with Red Bull, they’ve opted for upside in their decision making rather than who is the better driver right now.

They lost out on a better driver in Carlos Sainz and got caught up in the potential of Gasly. Had they had Sainz from the beginning, none of these headaches would be bothering Red Bull… But alas…

Are Red Bull about to go down the same path and make the same possible mistake again by choosing Albon over Kvyat for these remaining nine races?

I think Kvyat is a better driver than Albon right now and I think he’s unlucky not to have been chosen for that seat for the remainder of the season.

I know, I know… People will say Kvyat had his chance etc. etc. but the reality is he’s not the same driver now than he was then: he’s better (not that he was ever bad to begin with) and I think deserves a second chance at Red Bull, I think he’s going to feel hard-done by that he wasn’t chosen and Albon was.

In their indecision last year, Red Bull lost Sainz to McLaren and while there aren’t as many open seats this year as there were last year, there’s a chance the same could happen this year with Kvyat.

Like Sainz, I’m sure Kvyat is ready for life outside of Red Bull and there’s a potential opening, maybe even two, at Haas. If Kvyat feels undervalued by Red Bull in light of this decision, Haas — or another team — can make their pitch and secure Kvyat, and that would take that option off of the table for Red Bull for 2020.

And if Albon, like Gasly, underperforms, where would Red Bull look for 2020 in the event Kvyat doesn’t want to wait for Red Bull to make their mind up, now that they’ve shown possible preference to Albon going forward by giving him this shot?

At first, I wasn’t sure Red Bull made the right decision but having thought about it, I think they’ve made the right decision for their team long-term by giving Albon this Red Bull trial, as much as I think Kvyat should’ve had it. And while they risk losing Kvyat in the process, I think Albon will impress enough to earn a 2020 seat.

For Kvyat, the worst case scenario is he’s at Toro Rosso next year again, but that isn’t awful because, most importantly, he’d still have a seat for 2020 before the absolute circus that’s going to be the 2021 driver market, where Kvyat has a chance at another seat. Best case for Kvyat, Albon flunks his test and Kvyat is promoted.

Once again, Red Bull are banking on upside (Albon) instead of experience and, right now, the better driver (Kvyat). What Red Bull are doing is risky but Albon surely can’t do any worse than what Gasly was doing and I think there’s more chance this move succeeds than fails — despite Albon’s limited experience — even if it means losing Kvyat.

It’s a risk worth taking.

 

F1 2020 Lineup Prediction

Feature image: @MercedesAMGF1

With the Hungarian Grand Prix now in the rear-view mirror the F1 summer break is here, and while the action on-track will stop for a few weeks the action off of it will certainly ramp up.

During the break, teams are required to lock up the factories — so to speak — for a couple of these weeks, and it’s here where a lot of the movement for next year’s driver lineup will take place.

There’s a couple of seats already set for next season, such as Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen some of those with a contract in hand for 2020. McLaren are the only team so far who have both drivers confirmed for next year, with the team announcing recently that they would retain both Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris for 2020.

Speaking on Thursday ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, Sergio Perez says he’s close to agreeing a new deal with Racing Point, and that’ll sure-up the Canadian outfit’s 2020 lineup with Perez and Lance Stroll.

The key to last year’s driver market turned out to be Daniel Ricciardo’s shock move to Renault, which pissed off Mercedes as it seemed Renault had to back-track on their agreement who appeared to have Ocon set to go in that second Renault seat. Red Bull had Carlos Sainz and Pierre Gasly to choose from, the Spaniard signed with McLaren shortly after, leaving Pierre Gasly to fill the Red Bull vacancy and created another one with his departure from Toro Rosso.

I thought the key to last year’s market may have been what Ferrari were going to do with Raikkonen’s seat, should they have decided to replace Raikkonen — which I was still surprised by when they ultimately did — and that that decision would snowball to Alfa Romeo (with the outgoing of Charles Leclerc), Haas (maybe taking on Leclerc?) and maybe Racing Point (if the Perez to Alfa Romeo rumours were to be believed)…

It could have gone in so many different directions but it ended up being just a straight swap in the end.

So, like last year, I’m going to attempt to predict the driver lineup for next year. Last year I had some good ones, like Carlos Sainz to McLaren (Gasly to Red Bull, by extension of Sainz going to McLaren), Kubica to Williams.

That said, I completely bombed on Toro Rosso’s lineup, as well as reading too much into Perez’s link to Alfa Romeo, was convinced Kimi Raikkonen was going to be retained by Ferrari and that Leclerc wouldn’t be promoted to Ferrari after one season. You win some, you lose some.

Once again this season, it looks like it’s going to be a top tier seat that’s going to dictate the market, and this year it’s Valterri Bottas’ Mercedes seat, for the sole reason that if Bottas departs, his seat is more than likely going to be filled by Esteban Ocon — a driver who is currently not on the grid, which always throws the cat amongst the pigeons for driver movement…a space has to be created somewhere.

So, let’s have a shot at this shall we? Here’s how I think the 2020 F1 grid will shape up and why…

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Esteban Ocon

Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Charles Leclerc

Red Bull: Max Verstappen & Daniil Kvyat

Renault: Daniel Ricciardo & Nico Hulkenberg

Racing Point: Sergio Perez & Lance Stroll

Haas: Kevin Magnussen & Valterri Bottas

Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen & Antonio Giovinazzi

Toro Rosso: Pierre Gasly & Alex Albon

Williams: George Russell & Nicholas Latifi

Some bold stuff out there, but let’s go through it team-by-team.

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Esteban Ocon

So, starting with Mercedes, I think they pull the trigger on Esteban Ocon and pair him alongside Lewis Hamilton, leaving Valterri Bottas with a home to find.

Things started well for Bottas this season with two wins in the first four races but things have unravelled somewhat since, including crashing out while trying to overtake Lance Stroll in a race it where Lewis Hamilton was outside the points.

Before that race, however, Toto Wolff had some interesting comments with regards their future lineup, saying their decision would be coming soon.

“For us, it’s not only about making the right decision for next year but it’s also about looking ahead and this is why we agreed we would take the decision in August going forward,” said Wolff.

“We want him (Valterri Bottas) to end the season before the shutdown in a good place and put in two solid performances in Hockenheim and Budapest, and then spend some time thinking about the driver line-up for 2020 and beyond,” Wolf added.

“It is pretty unusual to announce drivers in July. If you want to take all the time, you properly need to assess and you can even drag it into the winter like we have seen in some other teams and it was a standard in the past.

“As we all know it was an unfortunate situation last year that Esteban fell between the chairs. He could have chosen between two seats and in the end nothing came out.

“From our perspective everyone knows about his driving capabilities for Mercedes. Valtteri is showing some very strong performances and merits the seat but equally Esteban has shown that in the past and is a great addition to the team.

“He contributes a lot a lot behind closed doors, he drives the sim overnight on race weekends, he comes in here Saturday and gives us input and he is a great kid overall.

“Putting a Mercedes young driver in the car would be interesting as well. Having said that, there is interest for Esteban among other teams and we need to carefully make a decision for ourselves and with the other interested parties, not only for our own benefit but also for Esteban’s benefit.

“If it would be that we were taking a decision in favour of Valtteri it clearly also means that somebody else would continue to develop him [Ocon] and would mean we would lose our hand for a year or two or more on Esteban. These are the consequences of that decision.”

Those are…interesting comments.

Looking at those, I tend to think that Mercedes are probably leaning towards Ocon. Wolff mentioned the importance of both Hockenheim and Hungary and they ended up being two grand prix where Bottas didn’t perform. Hungary wasn’t really his fault but crashing out while chasing a Lance Stroll for a podium in Germany — on a day where title contender Hamilton was outside of the points — was a massive failing.

With Bottas saying that he has a ‘plan B’ in case Mercedes roll with Ocon, I think that highlights how serious this situation is and how seriously Bottas’ camp are taking this — they’d be foolish if they weren’t looking at their options (and we’ll touch on some soon).

Equally, if Mercedes retained Bottas instead, it honestly wouldn’t surprise me. Either way, it seems likely that Esteban Ocon will be in an F1 car next year whatever does/doesn’t happen at Mercedes.

If it isn’t in a Mercedes, there’s a few options for Ocon out there and we’ll go over those. I rebelled against the idea that Leclerc would replace Raikkonen but I’m not doing that this year with Ocon — so, naturally, Mercedes will retain Bottas just to spite me.

Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Charles Leclerc

Not much to say here.

There are some Vettel-Verstappen swap rumours out there but I don’t see it happening. What an awful year for the Scuderia after 2018… The Hungarian Grand Prix showed how far off they really are and how it’s fallen apart this year.

Red Bull Racing: Max Verstappen & Daniil Kvyat

Here’s where things get interesting, I’ll start with Verstappen…

Red Bull, with Honda, have done a good job giving Verstappen a car he can win some races with, and I expect that to only improve heading into the second half of the season. The Ferrari and Mercedes rumours will be out there, but I think for 2020 Verstappen will be at Red Bull.

Now then, the second driver spot…

I think everyone is in agreement that Gasly will be replaced at the end of the season. Helmut Marko has been fairly clear in that Red Bull will give Gasly the season and will not be replaced mid-season, so he has an opportunity to turn it around.

In the event he doesn’t turn it around, where do they go?

I covered this topic recently, and it’s a tough one…

The question is do they choose from within? Do they see this Gasly experiment as reason not to do the same thing with Alex Albon and promote him to the Red Bull seat after one good season in F1? Do they want to roll the dice with Kvyat again? These are legitimate questions and you can see why they wouldn’t be feasible for Red Bull.

If not, where do they go?

Do they go with Sebastian Buemi (which is an option I didn’t originally cover), who, I know is technically in their programme in that he does some of their demo-runs. I think, many people wouldn’t mind seeing Buemi F1 again, it seems like some people are coming around on that idea?

Do they go with someone like Nico Hulkenberg for a season or two as their younger drivers mature/continue to gain experience? I can’t imagine Mercedes will allow Esteban Ocon to join their rivals and I can’t imagine it suits Red Bull either…

But…if Mercedes decide on Ocon, and if none of the internal prospects at Red Bull make sense for them for 2020 (maybe wanting Alex Albon to gain a little more experience), why not Valterri Bottas?

Bottas would bring race-winning experience to the Austrian outfit and seems very easy-going — he brought some much needed stability to Mercedes after the fiery Hamilton-Rosberg years — which would be beneficial for a team like Red Bull, who know all about fiery driver lineups in the past.

Not only that, but in the event Verstappen leaves in 2021, it still leaves Red Bull with a solid driver to carry on. In terms of actual driver quality, it would probably be the best Red Bull could do for a driver for 2020, depending on how you feel about Nico Hulkenberg. And it doesn’t have to be a long-term thing either if Red Bull decide that Bottas is their best bet for 2020, but then again it kinda goes without saying that any driver moves are probably going to be made with the short-term in mind ahead of the 2021 season and regulations overhaul.

I originally had Bottas here at Red Bull and I was going to stick with it but I changed my mind last minute — I just don’t see it happening. I can’t see Red Bull doing it, I can’t see them going outside their walls.

So based on that, I’m going with Kvyat, just based on the fact that Red Bull will probably look to avoid a possible similar situation with Albon as what happened with Gasly this year.

Renault: Daniel Ricciardo & Nico Hulkenberg

I don’t see much changing here.

Daniel Ricciardo is under contract for next year, so it’s the second Renault seat where there could be an opening, with Hulkenberg coming to the end of his original deal with the French outfit.

Renault team principle Cyril Abiteboul was asked about Nico Hulkenberg’s chances at a seat for next season — here’s what he had to say.

“We have a two-year contract with Daniel.

“Nico’s contract, the initial term is coming to an end at the end of this year but there is some mechanism of options as has been commented on press which I’m not going to disclose in the details that can kick in, so it’s maybe that we continue our journey with Nico.

“Frankly, Nico has delivered for the team, clearly, and if you look at where we were when Nico joined us and where we are today, it’s crazy and the change to the team, to the buzz, and clearly the drivers are no stranger to that, it’s not just engineers.

“So I think we need to give credit to that but also we need to look at the options, like everyone is doing, like I’m sure Nico is doing.

“So, it’s a long answer to tell you that things are open for him and for us but there is also an option in place so that we can possibly continue our journey together.

“We will see, we’ll see probably after the summer break will be the right time to sit down, discuss it on the basis of fact and desire also.”

You can read into that what you will — and I’m sure if the option to sign Ocon for a year or two will be tempting — but I think Hulkenberg makes a lot of sense for them. Like Cyril has said, Hulkenberg has delivered for them and has helped transition from latter midfield to where they are now (including a fourth place finish in 2018) and it makes sense for them to continue.

Again, it doesn’t have to be long-term and it’s in Renault’s interest to keep their options open for the future — they have two impressive young drivers in their academy and both performing well in Formula 2: Chinese driver Guanyu Zhou and Frenchman Anthoine Hubert.

Zhou has been the best rookie this season and I think has a legit chance to win the Formula 2 championship next year, and I think Hubert is fantastic too. Renault have promising options but it’s probably a little soon for either right now in F1, and something short-term with Hulknberg makes sense for all parties — and unless Hulkenberg gets a Red Bull offer, I can’t imagine the German wants to go elsewhere.

McLaren: Carlos Sainz & Lando Norris

Nothing to say here — Norris has been great and Sainz is showing Red Bull why they should’ve given him the drive.

Fun lineup, on and off the track. Long may it continue.

Racing Point: Sergio Perez & Lance Stroll

Again nothing to say here other than Perez’s impending deal takes away one landing spot for Bottas should Mercedes choose not to retain him.

Stroll may be useless in qualifying but is now gaining the reputation of being able to make some of it up in the race.

They should be fun next year, the first car with the Lawrence Stroll money from Day 1 of their car development, having taken over mid-way through last season when the 2019 car would’ve already been in development.

Haas: Kevin Magnussen & Valterri Bottas

Right, now this is going to be interesting spot…

I don’t think it’s any secret that Haas aren’t exactly happy with the partnership of their drivers right now. The issue is that the driver who has consistently butted heads with other drivers is their better driver — Kevin Magnussen.

Romain Grosjean hasn’t really gotten into it too much with his former teammates but with Magnussen, it’s kind of hard to avoid and the pair have come to blows on multiple occasions this season (with Magnussen having come to blows with other drivers too).

Change is coming at Haas, and it’s going to be interesting which way they lean: performance or team chemistry? One suggests Magnusssen, Grosjean the other. Or, do they do away with both?

As graining as Magnussen can be, he has shown he can get the job done and scores the bulk of points for his team — I imagine he stays. Besides, it’s been Grosjean who has stuffed it more, the one who hasn’t been getting it done on track and I think his time in Formula 1 has run its course.

A replacement certainly isn’t easy to come by — there are a lot of candidates.

This would be a prime landing spot for Esteban Ocon should Mercedes choose to retain Bottas. Yes, they’re supplied by Ferrari but they have no bearing on their driver choices and do not have as close of a relationship than Alfa Romeo, who do employ a Ferrari academy driver.

When trying to predict these, you need to ask the question: ‘Who does it benefit? Does it benefit all parties involved?’

It seems to tick all the boxes. It’s a move that benefits Mercedes (they get Ocon back in F1), it benefits Haas (who get a quality driver) and it obviously benefits Ocon (who gets an F1 seat).

Again, it comes down to what Mercedes do, and Toto Wolff has said that they are open to Ocon joining other teams and ‘that there are offers out there’ for Ocon and Haas makes a ton of sense.

F2 championship leader Nyck de Vries is also an interesting option here. He has shown improvement this season and has had some very mature drives. He also comes without the baggage and politics of being an academy driver for an F1 team, having been released from the McLaren programme last year. The opportunity to sign a potential F2 champion without already being tied to an F1 team is a rarity these days, and Haas could get in the front door with de Vries at a time Dutch Mania is at an all-time high and the Dutch Grand Prix returning.

Haas also presents a possible — and most likely — opening for Valterri Bottas, if Mercedes give their seat to Ocon. It obviously benefits Haas (they get a race-winner) and it would be a benefit to Bottas too, who stays in F1. It would obviously be a step down from Mercedes but so long as Bottas has a seat for next season, that’s all that matters and if Haas can offer him that lifeline, even if it’s just for a year, that’s all he needs.

It’s a game of musical chairs that’s about to finish — you just need a seat for 2020 and your options for 2021 are much more plentiful with everyone lining their ducks for the 2021 overhaul — most contracts expire after 2020. If you don’t have a 2020 seat, it could be difficult to get back in for 2021. There’s going to be a ton of openings for 2021 that gives Bottas some choices, but in the meantime he certainly could do worse than Haas.

With Racing Point set to retain their lineup, McLaren retaining theirs, Red Bull an unlikely option, as well as Renault, Haas would probably end up being Bottas’ best option for 2020, so it makes sense for Bottas as a temporary stop-gap. It’s certainly more realistic than Red Bull.

This could also be a spot if Ocon actually ends up at Renault and Nico Hulkenberg is in need of a drive. The only awkward aspect would be Magnussen’s and Hulkenberg’s relationship which is, shall we say, a little tense.

Haas could also present an opportunity for Daniil Kvyat. If Kvyat isn’t considered for that Red Bull seat, it makes sense to think that he may not want to spend his entire career at Toro Rosso and that he may be ready — like his former teammate Carlos Sainz — for life outside of Red Bull. He has shown great maturation and his recent podium in Germany has highlighted that. Haas presents him with that opportunity. And Haas would do well to secure his services too.

Haas are certainly not short on options, it’s going to be a coveted seat.

Toro Rosso: Pierre Gasly & Alex Albon

Toro Rosso are in an interesting bind because their lineup isn’t in their control, and they have Pierre Gasly to thank for that.

Red Bull could go in so many directions for their seat and neither Albon or Kvyat have helped in that regard — in a good way.

Albon has surpassed all expectations so far for being a driver that was promoted mostly because Dan Ticktum failed to acquire a superlicence (in my opinion). Similarly, Kvyat has proven he belongs in F1 again after a year on the sidelines and is still only 25 years old with four full seasons of F1 experience.

Ultimately, I see Gasly being demoted and if he is, then I think Red Bull will ride with Kvyat again.

Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen & Antonio Giovinazzi

Nothing to say here, really. Raikkonen is contracted for next year and Giovinazzi has been performing better of late (though, Hungary was a shambles) and I expect that to continue into 2020.

Williams: George Russell & Nicholas Latifi

Everyone wanted Robert Kubica’s return to F1 to be a success story but it just hasn’t worked out.

While he has Williams’ sole point so far (by way of both Alfa Romeo’s being handed post-race penalties in Germany), he has been consistently been a long way off of Russell in qualifying and the race.

George Russell has been as good as you can expect in that Williams — his exploits in Hungary have only added to that perception — and I have no doubts he’ll still be with the Grove outfit next year.

As for their second seat, I fully expect that their junior driver and F2 title contender Nicholas Latifi to fill that seat. Not only has Latifi shown improvements in F2 but he also brings with him financial backing, which is obviously important for Williams right now. It just seems like a complete no brainer for Williams.


For me, a lot of all of this is based on what Mercedes do with Bottas/Ocon, so I’ll have another list in the event Bottas is retained by Mercedes.

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Valterri Bottas

Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Charles Leclerc

Red Bull: Max Verstappen & Daniil Kvyat

Renault: Daniel Ricciardo & Nico Hulkenberg

Racing Point: Sergio Perez & Lance Stroll

Haas: Kevin Magnussen & Esteban Ocon

Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen & Antonio Giovinazzi

Toro Rosso: Pierre Gasly & Alex Albon

Williams: George Russell & Nicholas Latifi

With the summer break now here, expect the F1 circus to return at the end of the month with more than a few shocks, with that second Mercedes seat the main topic of discussion.

Bottas or Ocon? We shall see…

Assessing Max Verstappen’s 2019 title chances

Feature image: @RedBullRacing via Vladimir Rys 

Sunday’s race at Hockenheim for the 2019 German Grand Prix was utterly wild for a number of reasons — Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crashing out, Lewis Hamilton crashing, Mercedes’ minute pitstop, Lance Stroll leading the race, Daniil Kvyat’s podium…these are just some of the occurrences that made the German Grand Prix a classic.

Ultimately, it was a race won by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, the 7th of his career, 2nd of the season and his second in three races, with his stunning victory at Austria not too far in the distant past.

After Lewis Hamilton’s horror show saw him finish outside of the points in 11th (promoted to 9th after post-race penalties to both Alfa Romeos) and Valterri Bottas’ crash, it leaves Verstappen 63 points off of Hamilton’s lead and just 22 points off of Bottas for P2.

With Red Bull making a clear step with their car in the recent races, Verstappen’s incredible run of form (finishing in the top five in every race since Belgium 2018), Honda’s gains, a track that possibly favours Red Bull over Mercedes in the form of Hungary coming up and Red Bull’s good track record of development in the second half of the season the question has to be asked…

Can Max Verstappen launch an unexpected title challenge?

Let’s start with Verstappen himself: he has been on a tear of form — and it’s a large sample size now.

Barring a reliability failure in Hungary and the problems in Silverstone in 2018, Verstappen has been on fire since effectively Canada last year after taking a lot of (in some cases, warranted) criticism after his shaky start to 2018 that featured accidents in Bahrain (colliding with Lewis Hamilton, resulting in eventual retirement), China (colliding with Sebastian Vettel), Azerbaijan (clashing with his teammate, resulting in a double DNF) and qualifying in Monaco.

In 2019 his hot form has continued.

Verstappen willed his Red Bull to an unlikely podium in Australia and has just driven the wheels off of his car all season — whether Pierre Gasly really is as bad as advertised or Verstappen has been performing above and beyond of what that Red Bull should be operating at (a combination of both, I suspect), Verstappen has been brilliant in 2019 so far. And you would already know he wouldn’t back down in a side-to-side confrontation with Lewis Hamilton. Whether he’d emerge on top is another thing, but Max isn’t afraid of anyone.

Honda deserve a lot of credit for their role in 2019 too. When push has come to shove and Verstappen has needed to make an overtake, he hasn’t been limited by his engine. And Honda have been reliable so far this season too, though, I’d have my reservations about being able to out-gun Mercedes in terms of reliability across a full season.

The F1 circus moves to Hungary as the first ‘half’ of the season comes to a close and F1 disbands for the remainder of the summer.

It’s early, but it should be a track that suits Red Bull and if Verstappen can claim another victory before the break, it would narrow Hamilton’s championship lead to at least 56 points (assuming he finishes 2nd in the race) and the momentum would be firmly with Verstappen and Red Bull — winners of three in the last four should they take top honours at Budapest.

It would also certainly see more people beginning to question if Verstappen could actually challenge Hamilton heading into the second half of the season.

Red Bull have been closing the gap and previous evidence would suggest that they could continue that trend after the break — their track record of development in the second half of the season is extensive.

Prior to the hybrid years, Red Bull outscored all of their opponents in the second half of the season, crucially doing so by 28 points over Ferrari in 2010 as Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull took maiden titles, and then convincingly in 2011 by 50 points over McLaren in 2011 to take them to back-to-back titles.

2012 was one of the best instances of Red Bull’s ruthless development taking over in the title race. They narrowly outscored Ferrari in 2012 by four points after the summer break but in the Vettel vs. Alonso title fight, Vettel took four consecutive wins at Singapore, Japan, Korea and India as Ferrari failed to keep pace with their development, their last victory of 2012 coming before the summer break at Germany. Ultimately, it was a title Vettel won by three points (but it’s also a title where you can get into the conversation of ‘If Romain Grosjean hadn’t torpedoed into T1 at Spa…’).

2013 saw Red Bull’s ruthlessness continue as they scored more points after the summer break (319) than they did heading into it (277) as Vettel won nine consecutive races to close out the season — in other words, winning every race after the summer break.

Since the hybrid era, things were a little different as everyone tried to find their feet as Mercedes romped to consecutive titles in 2014 and 2015.

Heading into 2016, initially, it was Ferrari who were second best after Mercedes, with Red Bull only taking second place in Germany (the last race before the summer break in 2016) after a double podium saw them overtake Ferrari and take a 14 point lead into the summer break. But after the break, Red Bull continued to progress and they soon left Ferrari behind in the standings, outscoring them 212 points to the Scuderia’s 156 points after the summer break to take second place in the constructors standings by a convincing 70 points in the end, in addition to picking up the two race wins Mercedes didn’t pick up that season in Spain and Malaysia.

Again, heading into 2017 Red Bull continued to make strong gains in the second half of the season. After Ferrari had (finally) produced a potential title-winning car and outscored Red Bull 318 points to 184 points by the summer break, Red Bull stepped up their game, didn’t give up on that year’s car and scored a very respectable 184 points to end the season, just 20 off of what Ferrari scored from the summer break (204). And if Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull hadn’t DNF’d in three of the last four races due to reliability, there’s a good chance Red Bull would’ve outscored Ferrari after the summer break. In addition, Ferrari only went on to win one race after the summer break (Vettel taking top step in Brazil) whereas Red Bull went on to take two convincing wins with Verstappen in Malaysia and Mexico.

2018 wasn’t what Red Bull wanted it to be, but they still closed the gap in the second half of the season compared to the first half — being outscored 112 points by Ferrari before the break, only being outscored by 40 in the second half of the season. Again, had Ricciardo not suffered five DNF’s in the second half of the season, who knows how much closer this could’ve been. Red Bull won one race after the summer break — again seeing convincing success in Mexico — compared to Ferraris two victories after the break.

The point of all of that is to illustrate that Red Bull have good history of development in the second half of the season, and if that trend continues, who knows how close they can get to Mercedes and, by extension, Verstappen to Hamilton.

Of course, it’s not Ferrari who Red Bull would be racing to a potential drivers title this season (Ferrari just being an illustration to compare post summer break form) but Mercedes.

Mercedes are as relentless with their later-season upgrades as Red Bull are, and when push came to shove last season, their upgrades worked, Ferrari’s did not and that was the difference in the championship last year. Their track record is well documented but so is Red Bull’s. In addition — and an advantage swinging towards Mercedes — Red Bull have done all of that with Renault in the past, they venture into unknown territory with Honda, so the reliability over the course of the second half of the season will be very interesting to monitor.

Ultimately, I think Hamilton is a little too far away for Verstappen to get ahold of this year.

It’s possible that Red Bull could bring Verstappen close to Hamilton, and they may steal a few victories, but Mercedes are still firmly the team to beat it’s going to take more than that ultimately for Verstappen to catch and pass the Englishman.

It’s going to take another race like the one we saw in Germany where Hamilton makes a mistake (good luck getting multiples of those in one season) and some Mercedes unreliability to give Verstappen his chance. In addition, Verstappen needs impeccable reliability from Red Bull and Honda, and that hasn’t always been in the case for either in the hybrid era. And even after that, if Verstappen emerges as a legitimate contender, Mercedes has Bottas to serve as rear gunner (who, I’m sure, will do whatever is asked amidst his uncertain Mercedes future) whereas Red Bull have no chance in that regard with Gasly.

P2 is much more attainable for Verstappen, and I have no doubts that he will nab that away from Valterri Bottas eventually. But in 2019, the title is asking a lot of Verstappen, Red Bull and Honda

How close can Red Bull and Max Vertappen get? We shall see, but the gains are there for all to see.

It’s not as farfetched as it would seem, but it begins at Hungary…

 

Why Refuelling Should Return to F1

Image: Creative Commons

For years now, Formula One has been gearing towards 2021 and the impending regulation changes — probably the most important changes to the sport in its history.

A lot of has been discussed to improve the state of F1, to improve racing and the competitive balance. So many things have been on the table with regards possible changes, but for the longest time refuelling wasn’t one of them.

For the uninitiated, in-race refuelling has been banned since 2010 and strategy in Formula 1 hasn’t been the same since.

Pirelli introduced high-degrading tyres in 2011 and while these added some drama to F1 strategy for a few years, patience with them fell thin and change was desired.

Now, most races these days are 1-stops bore-fests and have largely been so since 2017, with a few exceptions.

In a hand-full of examples, strategy has been a deciding factor for some race wins (it’s certainly played its part in midfield battles, less so for the race win) but for the most part with 1-stop races limiting strategy options, it’s been about pure race-pace which obviously plays to Mercedes’ advantage in the last few years, being the class of the field.

Despite diverse strategies amongst the top teams being fairly non existent for years now (though, Red Bull were sometimes willing to try something different as the third fastest team and Ferrari…well, being Ferrari), the prospect of refuelling never really came up as a means to add to the strategy. Which was always a great shame because it added a strategy dynamic that F1 has missed since it was banned.

But in recent weeks the topic has come up in conversation and, it seems, there’s a possibility that refuelling could make a return in the future.

Refuelling has had its opposition in recent years, and I understand why.

We’ve all seen the famous pitlane fire of Germany 1994 and most F1 fans are fairly familiar with Singapore 2008, amongst various other refuelling related incidents across the years of refuelling.

People said F1 had outgrown refuelling. That these 2 second/sub-2 second pitstops are the new pitstop identity of F1. And for years it hasn’t been necessary. But it is now.

Look, those pitstops are great, don’t get me wrong. They are absolutely clockwork and they’re fantastic to watch. But they can’t become a reason why F1 doesn’t go back to refuelling, they can’t be the reason why F1 doesn’t have a greater strategy element, which in turn, creates better races. We’re only seeing a few of these per race anyways because of the crappy Pirelli tyres we have making the majority of races 1-stoppers.

If we’re stuck with Pirelli as F1’s sole tyre supplier for the foreseeable future and these are the type of tyres F1 is stuck with, then refuelling needs to return — there has to be more to strategy than there currently is. When Pirelli ran the high degrading tyres, there wasn’t a need because this new element was creating 2, 3 sometimes even 4 pitstops per driver per race. But that dynamic doesn’t exist anymore.

But what refuelling would also do is jumble up the grid a bit and create a bit more unpredictability.

Every weekend for years now we’ve gone into it knowing it’s more than likely going to be a Mercedes on pole position — and it’s probably going to be Lewis Hamilton. And heading into the race then, you know it’s probably going to be a Mercedes victory, because they’re on pole position and they just run away from everyone else — which, sadly, has been largely the case in 2019.

Of course there are exceptions but that’s generally how it’s gone over the years.

In the past, driver’s would start the race on the fuel load they qualified on. Bringing back refuelling would at least add some spice to Saturday’s again, even if the race itself ends up with Mercedes being on top. Let’s wander down a potentially dangerous rabbit hole…

The classic early 2000’s Ferrari vs. hybrid Mercedes debate is one that’s difficult to quantify (given the different time eras) but when it comes to refuelling, qualifying-to race, there’s a few things you can compare — one era had refuelling, one did not.

So… for reference we’ll go from 2000-2004 for Ferrari and 2014-2018 for Mercedes — both represent 5 year stretches of F1 dominance (a little less so in 2003 for Ferrari and 2018 for Mercedes, both years where both teams won about half of the races instead of, roughly three-quarters).

In 85 races from 2000-2004, Ferrari took 60% of the pole positions and won 67% of the races in that span. In 100 races from 2014-2018, Mercedes have taken 84% of pole positions and have won 74% of the races.

In addition, only 43% of pole positions were converted into wins from 2000-2004, while 53% of poles have been converted into wins from 2014-2018, so read into that what you will (there isn’t as much of a correlation to refuelling vs. no refuelling with that stat).

There’s a ton you can read into and take away from that (you can get into the whole, ‘Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t have so many poles if there was refuelling allowed’ conversation if you want) but I believe there is a correlation between the winning percentage for Ferrari being higher than their pole position percentage from 2000-2004, and I think a certain amount of this has to do with the fact there was refuelling, allowing other teams to have banzai runs to pole position, such as Jenson Button’s 2004 San Marino pole position, Fernando Alonso’s maiden pole position at Malaysia 2003, and Jaguar often got Mark Webber far up the field using a similar ploy.

There were some instances where this actually worked, such as Hungary 2003 where the short-fuelled Alonso was able to getaway in the lead while the chasing pack was stuck behind Mark Webber’s similarly fuelled Jaguar.

Refuelling also gave the high-tiered midfield teams a chance to go for a glory pole position and gave us different and surprising pole sitters/unpredictable grids — which again, helps create some excitement on Saturday’s and Sunday’s. Ralf Schumacher’s 2005 Japanese Grand Prix pole position, Toyota’s front row lockout in Bahrain 2009 — these are just some examples (coincidentally, both from Toyota).

It created more fun, and gave F1 different pole sitters — change is always good.

On the Sundays, the true pace was revealed and it was Ferrari who usually won out, but at least Saturday’s were more entertaining and at least we were left guessing somewhat heading into a race: was the qualifying pace pace or was it just a banzai run? At least it’s not a forgone conclusion that a Mercedes was going to win. At least fans weren’t resigned to their fate before lights out…

And if the top teams have to come through the field somewhat to get to where their pace is reflective of, at least there’s a few more overtakes to be had than there would be otherwise and, who knows, maybe some drama is created by an accident coming through the field?

Alternatively, refuelling adds such a dynamic on the pit-wall, and some great races have been decided in such a manner. The 2004 French Grand Prix comes to mind, where Michael Schumacher used a 4-stop strategy to beat Fernando Alonso to victory at Magny-Cours.

One of my personal favourites was the 2005 Hungarian Grand Prix, the one race where Ferrari and Michael Schumacher were on the pace in what was a dismal 2005 for the Scuderia, with McLaren’s Kimi Raikkonen using a 3-stop strategy to beat Schumacher to victory on the day.

It also means drivers can push if they know they’re coming in — they don’t have to save massive amounts of fuel and tyres if they’re coming in multiple times. One of the gripes F1 drivers have is the excessive fuel saving and tyre saving — refuelling helps take some of that away.

Again with these current Pirelli tyres, F1 should absolutely consider the return of refuelling. It adds more danger to the pit-crews, yes, and it would mean the sub-2 second pitstops are a thing of the past, but needs must if F1 wants to improve their product. And besides, if anyone is in F1 because it’s a safe place to be, then I’m not sure why they’re there.

While refuelling doesn’t solve all of F1’s problems, it certainly would help some. On its own, refuelling does not solve the competitive balance issue, but in conjunction with the 2021 regulation changes where the ultimate goal is to balance the field, I think it would help diversify the strategies and, thus, create better races and racing which is what Liberty have been wanting to do since the day they took over F1.

 

 

 

 

 

Red Bull’s Driver Conundrum – Today and Tomorrow

Image: @redbullracing

From 2016 to 2018, Red Bull has been been able to make a legitimate case to make when they say ‘We have the best driver lineup on the grid with Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.’

Sure, perhaps for some Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in 2016 may have topped that fresh lineup — with Verstappen obviously joining Red Bull after Russia in 2016 — but certainly for 2017 and 2018 Red Bull certainly boasted the best driver lineup on the grid in Ricciardo and Verstappen.

But even when that partnership was beginning to come under threat in 2017 — when rumours of Verstappen possibly leaving came to the fore — Red Bull still had options available to them in the event Verstappen left.

Carlos Sainz was still part of the Red Bull programme driving for Toro Rosso at the time and the highly rated Pierre Gasly was a potential option down the road having won the final GP2 title in 2016 before it became F2.

But those fears were allayed as Verstappen penned a lucrative new deal to stay with Red Bull until the end of 2020. Red Bull enjoyed a solid 2017 season with Ricciardo triumphing amidst the madness of Azerbaijan but saw much more convincing victories in Malaysia and Mexico, both won by Verstappen.

The partnership again came under threat in 2018 as Ricciardo entered the final year of his contract, with possible openings at Mercedes and Ferrari in the offing amidst the uncertain futures of Valterri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen.

But similar to 2017, Red Bull were still in good shape should Ricciardo choose to leave.

Carlos Sainz had been loaned to Renault in 2017 as part of an agreement in the whole McLaren-Renault-Toro Rosso-Honda deal that saw McLaren ditch Honda for Renault, with Honda heading to Toro Rosso, Sainz heading to Renault for 2018 (which was eventually brought forward to the remainder of 2017).

It was made very clear at the time that Sainz — who was ready for something larger than Toro Rosso after nearly four seasons — was on loan from Red Bull, so the cards were still in Red Bull’s hands when it came to his future and provided an insurance policy should Ricciardo leave.

Sainz’s departure at Toro Rosso allowed Red Bull to finally bring Pierre Gasly to F1 in late 2017, and after some very average showings in the latter stages of 2017 Gasly turned heads with his 4th place finish in Bahrain in 2018 before enjoying a successful first full season in F1.

When the shock decision from Ricciardo to join Renault for 2019 was announced, Red Bull were still in a good place with both Sainz and Gasly to choose from as well as highly rated youngster Dan Ticktum waiting in the wings for a Toro Rosso drive — all three gave Red Bull the choice to choose from within their own programme, which is what Red Bull prefer to do and were always going to do for their 2019 vacancy (as fun as Fernando Alonso would’ve been in that car).

While Sainz had proven himself as an F1 mainstay in his first four seasons, Gasly had shown superstar potential in his first full season, regularly outperforming what his car was capable of and in some cases beyond that — finishing 4th in Bahrain, 7th in Monaco and 6th in Hungary to name a few.

While Sainz had more experience than Gasly, that was exactly what separated his case from Gasly’s for the Red Bull drive: experience, history.

Having entered F1 together back in 2015 with Toro Rosso, the whispers were that Helmut Marko was reluctant to pair Verstappen and Sainz together again at Red Bull after their difficulties as teammates at Toro Rosso — Sainz’s history playing to Gasly’s advantage — i.e. Gasly’s lack of history.

In the end, Red Bull chose Gasly for their 2019 vacancy.

A supposed (and I want to emphasise that word) clause in Sainz’s contract with Red Bull that stated that if Sainz was not racing with Red Bull by 2019, he would be free to choose his own team. With Red Bull wanting to block Sainz’s permanent move to Renault — the French outfit enduring very tense relations with Red Bull — it not only allowed Renault to sneak Ricciardo away from under Red Bull’s nose but left Sainz without a seat for 2019, Ricciardo replacing Sainz and Red Bull obviously choosing Gasly for its vacancy. This left Sainz free to pursue the vacant McLaren drive left by Alonso and with confirmation of that deal it freed Sainz from the Red Bull programme.

So, Sainz was gone but Red Bull had the promising Gasly to look forward to pairing with Max Verstappen in 2019 with new Honda engines and with Dan Ticktum coming along, things seemed to be progressing at Red Bull. There were no regrets, not from Red Bull and not from Sainz, who was indebted to Red Bull for his career.

But Red Bull suffered a minor setback.

Ticktum’s road to F1 was proving to be tricky, with the Englishman finding difficulty  acquiring a super licence, with matters not being helped after he intentionally took another driver out in a junior category race in 2015.

After recovering from that after being handed a two-year race-ban (with the second year being a suspended ban), Ticktum found himself leading the Formula 3 championship in 2018 but saw his title challenge slip into Mick Schumacher’s hands, with the German eventually winning the title and securing his road to Formula 2 at the expense of Ticktum’s hopes for a super licence.

It all ultimately meant that Red Bull turned to Alex Albon to fill one of their Toro Rosso vacancies for 2019, which seemed less than ideal to Red Bull at the time, who were very high on Ticktum and wanted him in an F1 car, their hopes of having him participate in mid-season testing in 2018 shot down by the FIA.

Still, plenty of reason for optimism ahead of 2019 despite that minor setback — new promising driver in Pierre Gasly, new Honda engines…

There were high hopes for 2019.

But things…haven’t gone according to plan.  Well, they have from Max Verstappen’s side.

While Red Bull are further from Ferrari and Mercedes than they would like to be, the Dutchman has consistently punched above his car’s weight and has been mixing it up with the Ferraris are more than a few occasions this season, recently taking a stunning victory at Austria.

Pierre Gasly…hasn’t enjoyed the same success.

Gasly has been consistently a long way off of Verstappen’s pace and has often found himself either eliminated in Q2 or Red Bull having to use the soft tyres (and probably their Q3 party modes in other instances I’m sure, which they would never admit) to advance to Q3 whenever the top two teams and Verstappen have used mediums to advance to Q3.

In the races themselves, again, Gasly has been nowhere — not only finishing behind his teammate in every race they have finished so far this season, but has found himself at times behind the likes of the McLaren’s, Renault’s, Sergio Perez and even Dany Kvyat’s Toro Rosso in Australia. Not all at once, mind you…he’s not that bad.

Now, to be fair, Gasly had a few good races — well, two, really, come to mind. He finished 5th at Monaco and was on course for a good result in Azerbaijan before retiring with a mechanical issue.

Most recently in Austria, Gasly looked like he was on the pace in practice, and though, it was only in practice, he showed signs maybe that this weekend was going to be the one where he could at least finish 6th again.

In other words, back where he always should’ve been.

But when it came to getting the job done in qualifying, with P5 up for grabs with Sebastian Vettel’s problems in Q3 and with everyone running on the same soft compound, Gasly qualified P9 — last in Q3 since Vettel never got to set a time — behind Lando Norris, both Alfas and Kevin Magnussen.

And when the race came and Verstappen’s awful start allowed Gasly to pass his teammate on lap 1. This was, of course, very temporary and Verstappen quickly re-passed him and then only went and won the race, lapping Gasly in the process in what was, emphatically, the worst result of Gasly’s disastrous season so far — a lap down behind the race-winner (that wasn’t a first for Gasly this season) but his teammate in the same breath.

Austria is a short track, mind you, but there is no excuse for such a result.

Why Gasly has struggled so much is hard to say but what’s easier and fair to say is that Gasly has, so far, failed to live up to expectations after his stellar 2018. In fact, there probably hasn’t been a disappointment bigger than Gasly (well, besides maybe Mercedes having dominating again at the front).

If this was 2016 and there was a Max Verstappen or a Carlos Sainz waiting in the wings at Toro Rosso, Gasly might have lost his seat already. It certainly took a run of form that wasn’t nearly as bad for Daniil Kvyat to lose his seat after four races, despite a podium at China. Though, to be fair, Kvyat already had a full season where he found himself behind his teammate too.

But between having no ready replacements at Toro Rosso — and Red Bull extending some grace — it seems Red Bull are going to continue with Gasly, at least for the moment and for 2019.

But should he continue on as he has all season so far and shows no sign of picking up the P6’s that he should be collecting at the very least (let alone ever hoping to challenge Verstappen), Gasly is going to leave Red Bull with no choice other than to replace him, whether it’s at the end of 2019 or a situation similar to Kvyat where a quick change occurs after a few races into 2020 should things not go to plan.

But the question would be ‘with who?’

Carlos Sainz is no longer an option, enjoying a fine season with McLaren so far (while enjoying some of the company perks along the way), having finished ahead of Gasly on multiple occasions this season despite the McLaren being slower than the Red Bull on outright pace.

Incidentally, can you imagine how Red Bull’s season would be going if Sainz was in that car instead of Gasly from the start? I’m not saying Sainz is banging through the field to take the win at Austria or beating Verstappen, but you’d imagine he’s certainly finishing 6th at the very, very least. With Verstappen ahead of both Ferraris in the championship standings after Austria, it begs the question how close could Red Bull be to Ferrari in the constructors standings if they had a competent driver in their second car?

Anyways, Sainz is no longer an option for Red Bull — the best option Red Bull would’ve had but they made their choice. Hindsight is 20-20 but alas…

Both Toro Rosso drivers are enjoying solid seasons — despite the car sliding back on the grid somewhat of late — but do Red Bull really roll the dice with Kvyat again? I like Kvyat but long term in the Red Bull? I’m not sure Red Bull goes down that road again.

Alex Albon has looked good in his rookie season — better than I think pretty anyone could have expected — but Red Bull are surely going to be wary with rushing into early promotions. In both previous examples their hands were forced as Kvyat and Gasly were probably promoted a little sooner than planned as both Vettel and Ricciardo surprised Red Bull with their exits.

Gasly has clearly shown he isn’t ready for the big-time right now, and him falling flat on his face so far can’t have inspired any confidence for Red Bull to just replace him with Albon after one season of experience. They could, but having seen how this Gasly experiment has gone so far, it surely doesn’t help decision making

I’m not saying Albon couldn’t go in to Red Bull after one season and perform, just that Red Bull will surely be wary, especially seeing Gasly just slide. So, perhaps Albon could be an option down the line if he continues to impress but perhaps not as soon as next season? If Gasly is kept for 2020 but replaced after a tough start, Albon would have similar experience as Verstappen did when he made his jump to Red Bull in 2016, which is an interesting thought.

Dan Ticktum’s future as a Red Bull driver has also seemingly gone down the drain as he was released from the Red Bull Driver Programme in late June, having lost his backing for his Super Formula drive where had been hoping to earn the final few points he needed for his super licence.

So, that avenue for the future is now seemingly gone with Ticktum’s place in the Red Bull programme seemingly now taken by Pato O’Ward — in addition to O’Ward taking over Ticktum’s Super Formula seat, who recently debuted in Formula 2 as a one-off and is making more and more noise within the Red Bull academy.

Red Bull had been keen to get Ticktum into F1 but after a poor start to his Super Formula season, maybe saw too much of a hurdle for him to acquire his super licence? Either way, they have to take a step backwards with driver readiness with, O’Ward seems to be a ways off of Formula 1 — we’ll see what his Formula 2 situation is later this season, if he participates any other events this season.

So, where do Red Bull go from here?

Their prospects from within maybe aren’t viable in short-term. Albon is probably the closest thing to being ready but maybe not as soon as 2020.

If Red Bull wanted to do go in a different route for the future, they could perhaps groom Nobahru Matsushita — Honda’s junior driver (aged 25) in Formula 2, recently taking a great race win in Austria — for a Toro Rosso drive, and maybe see how that goes? Certainly an interesting option — and that link now exists between Red Bull-Toro Rosso-Honda — but not one that solves Red Bull’s problems today…or for 2020.

Again with Kvyat, is that something Red Bull want to go with again? He’s only 25 years old with plenty of F1 experience, but do Red Bull roll the dice with him again?

Maybe Gasly can turn it around, whether it’s this year at Red Bull or back at Toro Rosso if he is sent back. For all Gasly’s faults this season, he’s still young. There’s always time to bounce-back, Daniil Kvyat is showing that — even after a year’s absence.

Red Bull’s best option both short and long-term was Carlos Sainz, and I would be hesitant to say he’ll come running back to the Red Bull family — he’s very happy at McLaren, and why wouldn’t he be, especially with McLaren back on the rise.

So, the options within perhaps don’t suit for 2020 and Red Bull, generally speaking, don’t hire drivers externally — it’s obviously happened at Toro Rosso with Brendon Hartley (who had some previous ties with Red Bull) and Kvyat technically wasn’t part of the Red Bull programme when he was signed for Toro Rosso for 2019, but generally speaking it doesn’t really happen.

Mark Webber was the probably the last instance, and even then he had some history — racing for Jaguar, which later became Red Bull.

But they might have to go the external route this time around. And if they are going the external route, it makes sense for them to hire a driver who is a bit more experienced, a bit more short term if they want to either wait a bit on Gasly to return to what Red Bull signed in the first place/Albon or O’Ward down the line.

Nico Hulkenberg fits the bill perfectly — even if it’s just for a year or two until Albon/Gasly are ready. No one doubts Hulk’s abilities and there wouldn’t be a single person who wouldn’t be happy to see him in a car that can finally deliver him that elusive podium.

Valterri Bottas — a race winner — wouldn’t be an awful choice either should Mercedes decide they need Esteban Ocon back in F1/should they want to move on from Bottas. Unlikely but interesting to throw out there. Throw in Checo Perez too as another unlikely possibility.

If Red Bull decided to go somewhere in between mid/long term, (possibly preparing for a Verstappen exit), Kevin Magnussen would be a really interesting choice. It provides Red Bull with a good option to go with Verstappen right now and also leaves them in a decent spot should Verstappen leave and they promote Albon/Gasly to replace him.

Again, it’s worth saying that none of these are likely because Red Bull do not like going outside their walls if they can avoid it for drivers but their need may force them to… And it’s going to be fascinating if they do, who do they select?

Whatever Red Bull decide to do, their choice has been so much harder for themselves because they got caught up in one year of Pierre Gasly and forgot about the consistent, steady and quality performances over the last four years from Carlos Sainz — with multiple teams.

Four years is a large sample size — Sainz proved he belonged in Formula 1, that he deserved to stay not because he was part of someone’s programme but because he’s a damn good racing driver.

But look, it’s obviously worth saying that Gasly is even half the driver Red Bull chose to promote last year, their choice will be justified and everything I’ve mentioned above completely pointless…but that just hasn’t materialised yet with Gasly.

Christian Horner has been on record saying that they want to support Gasly and that there won’t be a change this year but you can tell that patience is wearing thin, and that was before Austria.

What Red Bull do with their second driver is a problem for them to think about in the short term, their long term future may also extend to their first driver too — Max Verstappen.

If Verstappen leaves after 2020 — and Gasly doesn’t recover/become the driver Red Bull hired him to become — Red Bull are in real danger, for the first time probably since 2008, of not having an elite driver partnership and this is something they need to be thinking about right now and thinking about hard, because 2021 is not far away.

O’Ward might become something and be ready by 2021 — for Toro Rosso at the very least — but outside of him and Albon, what do Red Bull do if Verstappen leaves? What is their driver future long term? What was once a nice clear reflection is now a murky labyrinth.

What if Gasly never becomes the driver Red Bull envision him to be? What if Verstappen, a super competitive driver, decides that he’s sick of not competing for titles, swaps Red Bull for Mercedes or Ferrari? Is Red Bull’s long-term driver future dependant on Alex Albon becoming a far better F1 driver anyone everyone could have ever anticipated? That’s a question that Red Bull certainly won’t have asked themselves in early 2018, when they had both Ricciardo and Verstappen, Pierre Gasly on the rise and Dan Ticktum — spoiled with choices in the present and the future.

They may be celebrating a fantastic victory at Austria but Red Bull have a lot of questions to ask themselves when it comes to their driver lineup for 2020, and possibly beyond…