As his potential F1 exit looms, what is Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari, F1 legacy?

(Image: Creative Commons)

The end of 2020 Formula 1 season will mark the end of Sebastian Vettel’s six year partnership with Scuderia Ferrari, having joined from Red Bull at the end of the 2014 season.

Life at Ferrari will go on, with Carlos Sainz being announced as Vettel’s replacement for 2021, and what Vettel decides to do now is unclear: whether he decides to begin a new challenge with another team, like Renault perhaps, or if he retires from the sport altogether (which is I think is the more likely outcome).

Should Vettel retire at the end of the 2020 campaign, it would wrap up a successful 14 season career in which the German won four world titles, 53 Grand Prix victories, 57 pole positions, 38 fastest laps and many other accolades.

All of that sounds great, but Vettel’s F1 career isn’t as straightforward the stats make it seem.

In many sporting careers of the greats in various sports, there’s the first phase and then the second phase, maybe a third phase if you make it that far — the latter phases being the ones people usually build narratives on, where reputations are made. Normally, good turns to great. Sometimes it doesn’t.

For example, LeBron James spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers before leaving for the Miami Heat, with whom he won his first two NBA titles that had eluded him so long in Cleveland, the first of which came in 2012. LeBron has since returned to Cleveland, won his third title and is proceeding to write what I imagine will be the final chapter with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Michael Jordan’s career could arguably be split into pre and post retirement (with a third if you want to count the Washington Wizards but shhh…).

For an example in Formula 1, Lewis Hamilton was a champion and a winner of many races before leaving McLaren for Mercedes for the 2013 season. Since then, Hamilton has won over 60 races with the Silver Arrows and is now a six-time Formula 1 world champion — the first phase being his McLaren years, the second phase being his Mercedes years.

For an example that goes in the other direction, Jacques Villeneuve’s career and Lewis Hamilton’s career over their first two years in F1 basically mirror each other: victories in rookie season, title contention in rookie season, champion in their second season. After that though, they differ greatly. It’s better not to talk about what happened to Villeneuve’s career after those first two years…

Sebastian Vettel’s career, similarly, can be broken into two phases: his time with Red Bull and his time at Ferrari, both of whom Vettel will have spent six seasons with.

Having made his debut the season before, Vettel burst onto to scene during the 2008 season where he became F1’s youngest ever winner at the time — in a Toro Rosso of all things. Vettel rose to Red Bull in 2009, where it didn’t take him long to bring home the Austrian outfit’s first piece of silverware. Omens marked well for 2010 as Red Bull ended the 2009 season as the fastest car on the grid. The pace carried through to the 2010 season and Vettel did enough to keep himself in contention for the title by the final round in Abu Dhabi, and by winning the Grand Prix Vettel became the youngest driver to win a world championship.

Vettel went to win another three titles in a row after his 2010 success, with the 2011 and 2013 titles coming as formalities, while 2012 saw an epic showdown against Fernando Alonso which went down to the wire. The 2013 season in particular was one of the more dominant seasons in F1 history as Vettel won the final nine races of the season, 13 in total.

Things got a little tougher for Vettel in the 2014 season — his final season with Red Bull and the first in the new turbo hybrid era — as he was out-performed by his new teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, in a season where Vettel failed to win a race compared to his teammate’s three victories, leaving Vettel with a winless season for the first time since his rookie season of 2007.

Nevertheless, as he left for Ferrari in 2015, Vettel’s reputation in the sport was extremely high. No one other than Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher had won more titles than Vettel, and only Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher had registered more career victories.

Vettel was the most successful driver on the Formula 1 grid, the one everyone wanted to beat, the crown everyone wanted after 2013.

Vettel’s time at Ferrari is difficult to quantify. His first few years were hard to measure, as Ferrari — and the entire F1 grid — played catch up to Mercedes.

In 2015, Vettel didn’t have much to lose — with Ferrari coming off of what was their worst season of the century — but everything to gain as he helped Ferrari return to winning ways in Malaysia, Ferrari’s first victory since 2013 and one of three in 2015. Ferrari took the fight to Mercedes on a few occasions but not near enough to compete for a title against the might of the Silver Arrows over the course of a full season.

2016 was where the frustrations appeared to seep through as Ferrari and Vettel suffered their second winless season in three years…

I’ve always compared Vettel’s 2016 to Hamilton’s 2011 — that one year in a great career where things just didn’t work, frustrations boiled and mistakes were made. It just wasn’t a relevant year in what was a successful career.

The season started OK for Ferrari but by the summer break they were slipping, and were soon overtaken by Red Bull for second. Again — more than ever — the field was a long way off of Mercedes, the German outfit winning 19 of the 21 races of the season… The two that got away? Spain (where the two Mercedes cars crashed into each other) and Malaysia (where Vettel spun Rosberg, who would’ve been there to pick up the pieces when Hamilton’s engine gave way while in the lead).

Vettel’s 2016 is mostly known for his meltdown in Mexico, when Max Verstappen refused to give Vettel the position he felt was owed after Verstappen missed his braking point and missed the first corner complex. Vettel then proceeded to throw a tirade over Verstappen over the radio and then towards race-director Charlie Whiting. People often forget about Vettel’s clumsy error in Malaysia in the same season, sending Nico Rosberg around in the wrong direction, while ending his own race.

But along with that, Vettel’s 2016 was a disappointment because it was arguably the worst car that he has driven as a member of a front-running team (that 2014 Red Bull was better than the 2016 Ferrari), and how he handled that season was disappointing. While others in the past, such as Fernando Alonso, have absolutely dragged the heels off of a car that underperformed (2014, for example) and I don’t think Vettel showed a similar quality when things got tough in 2016.

Some of Vettel’s fault’s at Ferrari during those first two years could be forgiven. A four-time champion, a driver who wasn’t in a title winning situation, a man out of his element so to speak. This is a driver who is used to competing for race wins, competing for titles.

Vettel couldn’t be properly judged as a Ferrari driver until the consistent opportunity to win races, and contend for a title, came to the fore.

Then came 2017…

With the new regulation changes, Ferrari were back at the front and this time took the fight to Mercedes, with Vettel leading the way as he took an early lead in the title fight. What people actually forget is that Vettel had a hold of the championship lead until Monza, where a dominant display from Mercedes on Ferrari’s home turf finally put Hamilton ahead of Vettel for the first time in 2017 — leading by just three points — despite Vettel’s meltdown in Azerbaijan, his recovery drive in Canada after contact with Max Verstappen and his puncture problems late on at Silverstone.

Then it all unfolded into chaos, beginning in Singapore.

During the 2017 season, Ferrari held a significant advantage at tracks where downforce mattered a little more, seeing success in Monaco and Hungary earlier in the season. Singapore was set to follow the same path as Vettel produced, arguably, one of his best qualifying laps in his career to stick his car on pole position.

Rain struck moments before the start of the race, a race where Mercedes were third best and in real trouble of finishing behind both Ferrari and Red Bull. The rest, as they say, is history — Vettel’s sluggish start paled in comparison to Verstappen, and even more so, to teammate Raikkonen. Determined to defend his lead, Vettel’s attempt to cut off Verstappen (while blind to his teammate’s incredible start on Verstappen’s inside) ended up in a collision that eliminating all three of them, allowing Hamilton to seize the lead, win the race and establish a 28 point lead over Vettel. On a track that had everything going in Ferrari’s favour and everything against Mercedes, the damage done on that day was devastatingly damaging.

Reliability issues struck both Ferraris in Malaysia (where Vettel began at the back of the grid but recovered well to take fourth place, before colliding with Lance Stroll on the cool-down lap in a bizarre incident) — a track where it looked like Ferrari would’ve had the pace to win — and again in Japan (in the infamous ‘spark plug’ incident), this time forcing Vettel to retire as Hamilton took victory once again.

When Vettel lined up on pole position at Singapore, he trailed by just three points and was all but certain to take the lead of the championship once again. By the end of the Japanese Grand Prix — three races after Monza — Vettel’s championship bid lay in tatters, now trailing by 59 points to Hamilton and only 13 points ahead of third placed Valterri Bottas.

Hamilton would wrap up title number four, to equal Vettel, two races later in Mexico (a weekend, to Vettel’s credit, where he absolutely stole pole position away from Max Verstappen with a mega lapbefore making contact with Hamilton on the first lap).

The error Vettel made at Singapore was critical and who knows how much further the title fight could’ve been carried had things gone a little differently at that race, but I ultimately think 2017 was a case of Mercedes’ reliability outlasting Ferrari’s over the course of a season more so than Hamilton outlasting Vettel. Ferrari and Mercedes to-ed and fro-ed for superiority for much of the season but once Mercedes gained the edge over Ferrari, they never looked back — the better car won in 2017, but Vettel showed some signs of fragility on track during his first title quest in a Ferrari.

…Which is exactly what set up Vettel’s 2018 to be the most defining of his Ferrari career.

You could make a fair case as to the Ferrari being a closely matched car to the Mercedes in 2017 (and it was outright stronger at multiple tracks) but there was no doubt that the 2018 Ferrari was better than the Mercedes out of the box, and for a large chunk of the season, giving Vettel another shot at title contention with Ferrari

Vettel made multiple, key mistakes across the 2018 season as he and Hamilton both bid for a fifth world title.

In France, he out-braked himself and collided with Valterri Bottas on the opening lap, costing himself points as he finished fifth while Hamilton romped to victory. Multiple spins after contact occurred in Japan, USA and Italy (with Hamilton) cost him, but what proved most costly of all was the error he made in the changing conditions in Germany, a race he was leading before he skidded embarrassingly into the barrier in another race that Hamilton ended up winning (from P14, no less) and the Brit ended on the right side of a, at least, 43 point swing as Vettel crashed out from the lead.

While that was a devastating blow to Vettel psychologically I’m sure, Vettel still only trailed by 17 points after his victory at Belgium but those mistakes at Italy, Japan, USA and a poor result in Brazil (a weekend where he also broke the weigh-bridge) meant that he fell short in his title campaign, with Hamilton again sealing the deal in Mexico.

2018 was a significant season in many ways for Vettel. It not only represented Vettel’s failure in a title campaign for a second season — this one more glaring as the reliability issues that plagued Ferrari in 2017 weren’t present.

2018 was a defining season for Vettel.

First is the matter of Lewis Hamilton. Vettel and Hamilton both made their debuts in 2007 and their careers are largely similar in that they’ve both spent the majority of their careers in top-tier cars with race-winning potential. They’re both very successful drivers who have had very successful careers. They also entered 2018 with four titles apiece, so it really was a showdown season for the two in terms of their legacies versus one another as they competed for title number five. Vettel’s second successive loss in a direct title fight to Hamilton gives the Brit the authority over the German.

Secondly, Vettel’s machinery was equal, if not, better than Hamilton’s for most of the season. Granted, Ferrari’s upgrades fell flat on their face after Belgium (which they took away by USA) but Vettel had everything he needed to win the 2018 title. Ultimately, it came down to the driver. Hamilton was near faultless in 2018 while Vettel’s 2018 was error-ridden. Hamilton emerged victorious and took title number five.

Vettel’s reputation took a hit in 2018, and between the issues of 2017 (such as Baku and Singapore) and 2018 — and how Vettel performed in a title-competing sense — some people began to question Vettel’s legacy.

2019 only complicated matters, furthering the damage done in 2018.

Vettel picked up on his old ways as he found himself, again, facing the wrong way after contact with Hamilton in Bahrain while his new, younger, teammate, Charles Leclerc, took pole position and would’ve taken victory were it not for a spark plug issue. In Canada, Vettel made a mistake when being pursued by Hamilton, opening the door for the FIA to hand the German a (very unfair) penalty which cost him the race. Next came the British Grand Prix, where Vettel — one year on after taking a brilliant victory — made contact with Verstappen after the Dutchman had overtaken him into Stowe. Vettel was found to be at fault for the incident. Then came Russia, where Vettel reneged on the deal to swap positions with teammate Leclerc after giving Vettel the slipstream to take the lead, before retiring with an engine problem. Once again, Vettel found himself facing the wrong way at the Italian Grand Prix where he spun on his own at the Ascari chicane before rejoining in a matter unbefitting for a driver of Vettel’s calibre, making slight contact with Lance Stroll — forcing the Canadian into a spin — before finishing in a lowly 13th. And to cap it all off, Vettel was, in my opinion, at fault for the collision between himself and Charles Leclerc in Brazil, which would result in the two drivers subsequently retiring. 

While 2019 had some positive Vettel moments — such as his victory at Singapore (which, to be fair, you can say Ferrari engineered after they refused to pit Leclerc immediately after Vettel, allowing Vettel to undercut Leclerc, giving Vettel the victory) and he should have had a victory to his name in Canada — there was more bad than good for Vettel in 2019, and that’s how it’s largely been for Vettel over the past three years.

The one thing you could forgive Vettel for in 2019 is that he never had the car to challenge for the title, unlike 2017 and 2018.

Now comes the announcement where Vettel and Ferrari part ways, giving the accomplished German one more season in red to see out on a high (whenever the season gets underway).

Whether Vettel continues in F1 remains to be seen, but with the closing chapter of his time in red now approaching, we can now evaluate Vettel’s time with Ferrari, where he stands in terms of past drivers and, then, his overall legacy in Formula 1.

The official F1 social media accounts posted Vettel’s stats with the Scuderia, reflecting a successful stint in red:

In terms of where that places Vettel in Ferrari history: 3rd in race wins (one off of Niki Lauda for second), 5th in pole positions, 3rd in podiums (one off of Rubens Barrichello for second) and tied for 4th with Felipe Massa for fastest laps.

One of the questions that has been posed is where Vettel ranks as a Ferrari driver. From looking at the stats, the drivers that feature in similar areas/ranking in Ferrari history to Vettel are Fernando Alonso, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen.

I don’t think there’s any need for Michael Schumacher’s nor Niki Lauda’s name to appear here in such a conversation — those are one and two in Ferrari history without a doubt.

Let’s lay out a table, shall we? See where Vettel ranks amongst that group of Ferrari drivers…

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This is the company Vettel is keeping, this is who he should be compared with in terms of a Ferrari career. The stats are of course impressive, especially with a season to go, but there a number of other factors to consider…

You look at that table and there is one very important fact to establish… With the exception of 2020, where Vettel will be basically equal with Leclerc in terms of status, Vettel was the undisputed number one in the team, something that Rubens Barrichello never was, nor was Kimi Raikkonen for his second stint at Ferrari, nor was Felipe Massa at any point, really, in his Ferrari career (with the exception, perhaps, of 2009, which Massa only got to complete half of).

Massa brought himself into the fold, giving Ferrari a reason not to make him a dedicated number two from 2007 to 2009 — it worked out well as Ferrari won back-to-back constructors world titles in 2007 and 2008.

So, in many ways, comparing Vettel with Barrichello, Massa and even Raikkonen isn’t going to be fair to those three — they didn’t get the treatment benefit of the treatment Vettel did while at Ferrari.

Fernando Alonso, on the other hand, did. So, perhaps Vettel’s fairest Ferrari comparison is to the man he who filled the vacant Ferrari seat from 2015 to now (worth noting that it was Alonso who wanted out of Ferrari, and Vettel then filled the seat. Common misconception).

Alonso’s greatest Ferrari “failure” was that he couldn’t bring a title back to Maranello… Vettel has the same failure, and more…

When you look at the machinery of the opposition, sure, the gap from Alonso to the Red Bull’s/McLaren’s wasn’t as large as the gap from the Ferrari to the Mercedes that Vettel had to deal with (more so for the 2015/2016 seasons) but the bottom line is for those two seasons in 2017 and 2018, Vettel legitimately had the equipment he needed to mount a serious title challenge, with the 2017 Ferrari being on par with the Mercedes for most of the season and the 2018 Ferrari marginally quicker than the Mercedes for over half of the season.

The bottom line is that Alonso never had the quickest car on the grid during his time with Ferrari and constantly dragged his machinery above what it should have been able to deliver. He didn’t have the luxury of having the quickest car. Vettel did, and did less with it.

Alonso led heading into the title showdown in 2010 but the Red Bull was easily a better car than that Ferrari, the double DNF of the Red Bulls in Korea giving Alonso a shot. I don’t think Ferrari had any right to win any Grand Prix in 2011 (they finished 3rd in the constructors and weren’t really close to second placed McLaren), yet Alonso dragged Ferrari to a victory at Silverstone. Felipe Massa was a good driver but he couldn’t achieve a single podium in 2011 — Alonso achieved 10, including five 2nd place finishes.

In 2012, Alonso somehow managed to win in Malaysia when that car just should not have been able to do it, holding off the charge of the quicker Sergio Perez. He won three races in 2012 yet was in contention for the title until the very end, despite being an innocent bystander by Romain Grosjean carnage that was Spa 2012. The last of those three victories in 2012 came in Germany, 10 races before the season finale in in Brazil…and Alonso was still in contention.

Vettel did far less with far better equipment than Alonso did at Ferrari. Despite having a slower car, Alonso made it to the season finale with a chance to take the title on two occasions. Vettel did not make it to the season finale in contention, and I think that was telling. When push came to shove, and Vettel found himself in a car that could actually contend, he folded under the pressure — Baku, Singapore, France, Italy (x2), USA, Japan, Germany, to name a few…

Before he joined Ferrari, Alonso had already proved he could drag more out of a machine than it should be capable of, and he continued to do so during and after his stint at Ferrari, including the awful 2014 Ferrari and the fair share of terrible McLarens.

There’s no evidence that Vettel did that with his, at times, troublesome machinery in his post-Red Bull career.

When the going got tough in 2016, Vettel struggled too. Two retirements in the final four races for Raikkonen allowed Vettel to finally overtake his teammate in the drivers standings, and Raikkonen was a clear number two. When Red Bull and Mercedes were on top in 2019, Vettel produced a lacklustre season compared to his much more inexperienced teammate Leclerc. In those difficult two seasons with new teammates, Vettel was outperformed by both Ricciardo and Leclerc.

Based on those factors — and looking past the stats somewhat — I don’t think you can rank Vettel’s Ferrari career higher than Alonso’s, which means placing Vettel elsewhere.

You can cross Kimi Raikkonen off of that last too, he’s still the last person to win a driver’s title with Ferrari…that matters significantly, especially in lieu of the fact no titles came by way of both Alonso and Vettel. Raikkonen also won two constructors titles.

Both Raikkonen and Felipe Massa found themselves in title contention by the final round of a season, Vettel has not. So, while Vettel has a few more victories in red, Massa and Raikkonen have that over Vettel.

But you do have to draw the line at some point.

While Raikkonen has won a title with Ferrari and Massa may as well have, Vettel is a better driver then both them (as much as I love prime Raikkonen) and has more victories than both of them. Only for the fact Raikkonen has a title, I think you can slip Vettel in between Raikkonen and Massa/Barrichello in terms of a Ferrari career.

Fifth, basically. I’m putting Vettel fifth, behind Schumacher, Lauda, Raikkonen and Alonso in terms of his career at Ferrari. Schumacher and Lauda are obvious, Raikkonen because he has a drivers title and Alonso because he at least came damn close on two occasions despite his machinery being every reason for him not to be in those situations (more so 2012 than 2010), something Vettel did not do.

That’s where I think a fair ranking for Vettel’s Ferrari career looks like, what about Vettel’s F1 career as a whole, assuming this is to be his final season?

Vettel’s career is one you can very clearly split in two: Red Bull and Ferrari.

His Red Bull years were obviously very successful, but I think the reasoning as to why as become a little clearer now that we’ve seen Vettel in other, non Adrian Newey, machinery and title contending machinery that wasn’t a Red Bull.

Maybe the reason Vettel won those four titles in a row had less to do with him and maybe more the machinery he was in, who it was designed by, how much of advantage it truly had over other cars and who his teammate was. I don’t think there is any doubt that Red Bull had the best Formula 1 car on the grid from the mid-section of 2009 through to the conclusion of the 2013 season.

Nico Rosberg, thankfully for the sake of competitiveness, showed that though a car is dominant, you can at least still fight your teammate for a world title. Things at Red Bull…were a little different.

Once Vettel emerged as a race winner with Red Bull, it was clear that he was the future, that he would be the team leader and Mark Webber would fill in as the number two. Webber wasn’t having this, and forced Red Bull to reconsider as the Aussie thrust himself into contention for the 2010 title. While he had a shot at the title, Webber found himself in the same boat as Alonso in the season finale at Abu Dhabi: tucked up. However, Webber’s accident at Korea proved to be more decisive than being stuck in a queue behind Vitaly Petrov’s Renault in Abu Dhabi.

That title went to Vettel, and Webber’s approach after the 2010 season changed. In his book, Aussie Grit, Webber talks about how he wasn’t the same after the 2010 season, that his approach for 2011 wasn’t the same. While he wrote that he was ready for the 2012 season (compared to 2011), ultimately Webber finished a lowly 6th place as his teammate took home title number three. In 2013, Vettel won 13 races while Webber won none, finishing third in the standings behind Alonso and Vettel.

Webber, I don’t think, was the same driver he was after the heartbreak of 2010 and having come so close, not to mention his accident in 2009. Added to that, the issues within the team, Webber’s unhappiness about how the team had revolved around Vettel from 2010, the Helmut Marko factor (all of these are discussed in Webber’s fantastic book) and, naturally, Vettel moving into his prime and Webber moving out of his from 2011 onwards before retiring at the end of 2013… There wasn’t much challenge for Vettel for the title from within Red Bull from 2011 onwards. I loved Mark Webber but that was the reality: Vettel defeated him.

Vettel’s 2013 was absolutely dominant, no one could touch him. It’s one of the most successful seasons in F1’s history. But it does say something that your teammate, while enjoying an equally winning machine, didn’t register one win to his teammate’s 12. That’s a reflection on Webber, but also a little bit on Vettel’s achievements too — it has to be. Perhaps if there had been a more competitive teammate…maybe all wouldn’t have been as it seemed during those 2011-2013 seasons. I’m not saying Vettel doesn’t win in 2011 or 2013, but perhaps maybe not 2012. It’s certainly closer than it was.

It’s been pretty telling that on the two occasions when a new driver joins a team that Vettel has been established at for a few years — even if that driver has been designated before the start of the season as a backup to Vettel (as was made clear with Leclerc last season before the 2019 season began) — they’ve immediately taken the fight to him…and beaten him.

Webber and Raikkonen — who, it’s worth pointing out, were past their primes in their time as teammates to Vettel (Webber from 2011 onwards) — became clear number two drivers to Vettel. Ricciardo and Leclerc didn’t allow it to happen.

Vettel’s, seemingly, inability to drag the heels off of his struggling Ferraris raises questions. If you put Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg or Jenson Button in those 2011-2013 Red Bulls alongside Vettel…what could they have done? Do they beat him? Perhaps not. Is the gap closer to Vettel than it was with Webber? I think that’s pretty likely. Are they still in a title fight with a Ferrari that had no business to do so in 2012 by the final round? I genuinely believe no, they probably wouldn’t be.

Vettel’s disappointing spell at Ferrari not only tainted his career as a whole but it’s arguable that they’ve also tainted his achievements at Red Bull. Had he had a teammate that pushed him from 2011 to 2013, is he a four-time champion? I don’t think so… Because Vettel just hasn’t shown the same qualities at Ferrari than he did at Red Bull. How important were those others factors at Red Bull?

During the 2018 season, I questioned whether Vettel’s failed title challenges against Lewis Hamilton would damage his legacy. With the end for Vettel’s F1 career now seemingly in sight, the answer would definitely lean toward ‘yes’. With history repeating itself with Charles Leclerc as it did Daniel Ricciardo? That only complicates things further, and not in a good way.

I need to add to everything I’ve said with this: Sebastian Vettel is a great driver. He is definitely one of the greats of this century and F1 history. He’s in that tier alongside Hamilton and Alonso as the greatest of his generation. He is one of the best qualifiers in F1 history (there have been often times even during his Ferrari stint where his car should not have been on pole) and his pace has been relentless at times. He is a deserving Formula 1 champion. He doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone, and that’s one reason I’m sure retiring would be easy for him.

It’s easy to forget Germany’s F1 success pre-Schumacher… There’s not a ton. Vettel picked up the torch that Schumacher left — the torch that Alonso, Raikkonen, Hamilton and Button passed around — and held it, ushering in the next phase of F1 dominance after Schumacher. And Vettel wanted to do the same with Ferrari but, for a multitude of reasons, it didn’t come to pass…

I honestly think Vettel’s failings at Ferrari has been damaging to his reputation. I find it hard to believe people will hold Vettel in the same esteem, knowing how the second phase of his career unfolded and how Hamilton beat him… When the playing field was evened in 2017 and (heck, went in his favour) 2018, when things got tough in 2016 and 2019, the four-time champion only showed flashes of his old self while Hamilton excelled.

When the dust settles, I do think those, like myself, whose view of Vettel has been damaged in these last few years, will look at Vettel a little kinder than we are right now. Recency bias is strong. When the dust settles, he’ll still be a four-time world champion who dominated the latter stages of the V8 era, a driver who at times was unrelenting in his dominance, even if the second half of his career failed to match the first. We might remember a little more fondly the driver who would gun for the fastest lap when he just didn’t need to, the radio messages from Rocky telling him to slow down.

A title with Ferrari would’ve cemented his status as one of the all-time greats but it wasn’t to be for Vettel and Ferrari. And so the next era for Scuderia Ferrari begins, as they continue their search for their first drivers title since 2007… For Sebastian Vettel, time will tell…

Vettel’s Ferrari departure opens door to 2021 driver market

(Image: @ScuderiaFerrari)

F1 2020 isn’t even in action and the driver market is already hitting its pinnacle as it was announced on Tuesday — after reports surfaced late on Monday night — that Ferrari and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel would end their partnership at the end of the 2020 season…whenever that may be.

Vettel and Ferrari had been talking about a new contract for a while now but those talks yielded no fruit, with Ferrari effectively made the decision to build with Charles Leclerc, signing him to a multi-year contract in December leaving Vettel’s future as the team’s number one option in doubt as he entered the final year of his contract.

Leclerc appeared to challenge, if not, usurp Vettel’s number one status in the team as the Monegasque driver basically outperformed Vettel in nearly all facets last season, Leclerc’s first with the Scuderia. Many drew parallels from when Daniel Ricciardo joined Red Bull in 2014 and outperformed Vettel — the reigning four-time world champion — in his first season. Vettel then left Red Bull at the end of 2014 to join the Scuderia as Ricciardo rose, and many believed the same situation would arise again with Leclerc.

But all of that aside, it leaves a very, very coveted seat open for grabs. Unlike the previous instance where a seat was up for grabs, that seat very clearly belonged to Charles Leclerc, the reigning F2 champion and the rookie was turning everyone’s heads in his first season in Formula 1 with Sauber.

This time, however, there’s no starlet in the waiting for Ferrari.

Antonio Giovinazzi was better than his placement in last year’s standings showed, but he’s not ready — or possibly talented enough — to take on that Scuderia drive. Other Ferrari academy drivers include Giuliano Alesi but more notably, Mick Schumacher and current F3 champion Robert Shwartzman.

Shwartzman I think will be a contender for the F2 title this season but you don’t go from F2 straight to a drive with the Scuderia, and while Schumacher has experience in an F1 car, it’s only from a testing point of view and it would appear unlikely that Ferrari would promote an F2 driver straight to Maranello.

So, this leaves Ferrari looking almost certainly at an external hire and basically everyone not under a Mercedes driver affiliation (George Russell, basically) or a current Red Bull should be queuing up and phoning until Mattia Binotto is sick.

The name coming to the fore at these very early stages — according to the reporting out there — is McLaren’s Carlos Sainz. The other name out there is Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo, but Sainz appears to be ahead at this early stage.

I think Daniel Ricciardo would rip your arm off and jump at the chance of a Ferrari seat and get out of his Renault mistake. Carlos Sainz is in a bit of a trickier situation.

McLaren is a feel-good story right now. They had a great 2019 where they were best of the rest and did it with a refreshing, fun and gutty duo of Sainz and rookie Lando Norris. They’re a team clearly on the up, and that’s before the new regulations — now set to be introduced in 2022 — and, perhaps more importantly for the near future, a Mercedes power unit from 2021.

Ferrari is ultimately Ferrari and an offer from the Italian outfit is usually too much to turn down no matter what your situation, but it spoke volumes when Fernando Alonso got out of his contract two years early to leave, believing that he could not win a title at Ferrari — can you blame him, after the atrocity that was the 2014 car, the worse Ferrari since the early 90’s at least?

If Sainz truly believes in the McLaren project (and there’s a lot of reasons to do so right now), would he leave what is a great situation to be in, and do so easily? There’s a fun dynamic at McLaren now, that does not exist at Ferrari. Being a Ferrari driver comes with so much more than just driving the famous red car. I think it’s fair to say Sebastian Vettel didn’t cope with that as well as drivers like Fernando Alonso and Michael Schumacher. I’m not saying Sainz wouldn’t, but it’s something to consider when joining Ferrari. Added to that, Sainz is only 25 years old. I’m sure there’s time in his career for a shot at a top seat, if that doesn’t transpire with McLaren.

I just don’t think it’s a straightforward yes from Sainz to leave for Ferrari, there’s a lot to consider.

There’s a lot less to consider from Daniel Ricciardo’s side.

Firstly, Ricciardo is 30 years old which means and has been part of F1’s grid since 2011 which, sadly, means he more than likely has less time remaining in F1 than he has already been a part of. He has less time to aim for a world title than Sainz does. Danny Ric a proven race-winner with a killer instinct who has tasted success and is incredibly keen for more. His ambitious switch to Renault simply hasn’t worked so far, and I don’t think 2020 is going to be the year Renault make that jump, which means another year of watching Ricciardo toil in the midfield — where he doesn’t belong. Most importantly, I think Ricciardo knows that fact too: that he shouldn’t be in the midfield. He’d take your arm for a chance to swap that situation for one with Ferrari — I have absolutely no doubt about that.

There’s no doubting his ability to drive and there’s no doubt that he would be deserving of a drive with Ferrari. Added to that, he has a fantastic personality that I think would be different to anything Ferrari have had, and I don’t think the pressure would get to him as easily as it would others. He has hunted and has been hunted for race wins, Ricciardo knows how to deal with the pressure.

Added to that, according to RaceFans.net, Ferrari have an option on Ricciardo, signed last winter. That doesn’t mean he’s a lock but that’s very interesting.

It comes down to who do Ferrari seek first, and if it’s Sainz, does Sainz turn them down? Because I absolutely believe Ricciardo does not.

What about other drivers? Well, the the majority of drivers on the grid are out of contract at the end of this year (what a bad time for Sergio Perez to lock himself into a contract, unless it has an out), so they’re in the correct position for that Ferrari seat in that their contract expires at the end of the season, and there’s still no telling what happens at Mercedes with their drivers, who are both out of contract at the end of the year.

This Hamilton to Ferrari talk, I don’t think it’s going to happen — and the reporting out there seems to say the same thing right now.

Valterri Bottas is extremely interesting.

He would be, without doubt, the most disappointing choice to the sport if he ended up in that Ferrari seat. I think it’d be a shame for the sport if Bottas ends up in a Ferrari. That’s harsh, I get it, but I think it’s true. But you can see why Ferrari would think about it…

Bottas has already proven himself capable as a number 2 driver, he can pick up some victories, easy to get along with and is a good team player. Now, Bottas may say he has higher aspirations than a number 2 driver and that may be true, but you’re not turning down an offer from Ferrari if it comes, especially if Mercedes don’t offer an extension, and with someone like George Russell waiting in the wings for a Mercedes drive. That’s going to happen at some point. If Mercedes decide that time is 2021, Bottas is left in a tough spot. And if an offer from Ferrari comes, you’re going there with the knowledge that you are behind Charles Leclerc in the pecking order, until you give them a reason not to. Again, I don’t care who you are and what your aspirations are: you’re taking a drive from Ferrari if it’s offered to you, and if you don’t…I hope I’m you’re not close to me in the event of a shipwreck, because your balls are going to force you to sink to the bottom of the ocean and I don’t want to drown.

There’s a few options outside of F1, but I don’t see Fernando Alonso nor Nico Hulkenburg being seriously considered for Ferrari. Unless Ferrari decide they want something short-term next to Leclerc while they get a look at either Shwartzman or Schumacher in F1 (maybe in a Haas or Alfa Romeo possibly?) but I don’t see that happening.

It’s something to think about though, because if you sign Carlos Sainz, that’s a longer-term thing. Ricciardo, not so much and obviously Alonso/Hulkenberg/Bottas not as much of a long-term thing as Sainz. And if Sainz performs and help bring success, they may end up blocking a route for one of their drivers to break into the senior team if Shwartzman or Schumacher show that potential — it could leave them trapped in a similar way that George Russell could end up if Bottas continues to perform.

Kimi Raikkonen would be an absolutely hilarious choice, if they went back to him for a third spell. They obviously know what they have in Raikkonen but I don’t see it happening. Would be absolutely amazing though.

I think that effectively covers Ferraris options, now let’s turn to what Sebastian Vettel does and it largely revolves around one question: does he want to continue in Formula 1?

If the answer is no, then that settles that. If the answer is yes, then things are a little more complicated.

According to the reporting out there at this time, Mercedes aren’t interested in Vettel and Red Bull won’t pair Max Verstappen and Vettel together — that’s an obvious given for both monetary reasons and, well, everything else. Those two wouldn’t be good teammates, as fun as it would be for everyone else. So, I think it’s fair to rule out Mercedes and Red Bull.

It may come down to which driver ends up taking that Ferrari seat, whether it’s Sainz or Ricciardo.

It’s fair to say Vettel has less years in front of him in his F1 career than he has behind him, but he can stick around for a number of years if he so chooses. Renault…I wouldn’t like to see for Vettel — I’m not sure Vettel would be interested in that. McLaren would be a fascinating opportunity. If Sainz left, I’m sure McLaren would love to have a four-time champion in their ranks and if their fortunes continue to rise, they could find themselves back at the sharp-end in a few years and that would be Vettel’s ticket back to the front-end of the grid, which is the only thing that would interest him at this stage.

I would imagine that Vettel feels that he has nothing left to prove in F1 as a four-time world champion and as someone who has won over 50 Grand Prix. He’s also a family man and a pretty private person, and I can see him leaving this circus behind and leaving F1 at the end of this season — I think that’s what’s going to happen. It’d be sad to lose Vettel from the paddock, he’s got a good personality and on his day, he’s up there. I would love to see him at McLaren though. He could change the entire narrative of his post-Red Bull career if he could lead McLaren back to the front of the grid.

Should Sainz accept an offer and Vettel retire, I imagine Ricciardo will whizz his way to McLaren fairly quickly and that leaves a spot at Renault, whether that’s Fernando Alonso or perhaps Nico Hulkenberg, or maybe Guanyu Zhou — it’s about time Renault showed some faith in their young driver academy.

Whatever direction Ferrari end up taking, the sharp-end of the F1 grid is losing one of its star players of the last decade in Vettel. Is it finally someone else’s turn?

Assessing the F1 2019 season

Feature image: @F1

It came and it went: the 2019 Formula 1 season has come to a close, and it’s a season where Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes both won a sixth world title as the British driver and German outfit continued their partnership and dominance of the hybrid-era.

F1 saw an unfortunate throw-back to the beginning of the hybrid-era as it was a two-horse race between the two Mercedes drivers — Lewis Hamilton and teammate Valterri Bottas — after it became evident very quickly that Mercedes were just a cut above the rest of the field. Though Red Bull and Ferrari made strides during the season to get back in contention to win races, they came too late and, thus, the title was left between Hamilton and Bottas to contest.

By the time Hamilton took victory in France — his sixth win of the season in just eight races (Mercedes victors of the opening eight races) — the nearest non-Mercedes challenger in the form of Sebastian Vettel was already 76 points adrift.

With Ferrari out of the picture for the title, realistically, at that stage, it was Hamilton vs. Bottas, and though Bottas enjoyed a significantly better 2019 compared to 2018, Hamilton was always going to be the favourite in that duel.

And, thus, there were your 2019 drivers and constructors title winners.

While the title fight was a formality for much of the season, the 2019 season should be remembered for much more than number six for Hamilton and Mercedes, though, the F1 season didn’t start very well.

2018 was a great season. The Ferrari vs. Mercedes duel was enjoyable but there were a number of legitimately great races — the bonkers nature of Baku, the nail-biting US Grand Prix, the rain-filled drama at the German Grand Prix to name a few.

2019 did not start well.

With, perhaps, the exception of Canada, the first eight races of this season — as a whole — were bad. Mercedes were dominant, and in the few races they seemed to be second best, some circumstance found a way to sneak in and ensure they won (see: Bahrain and Canada).

That Canadian Grand Prix was especially contentious after Vettel’s victory was taken away, and it painted F1 in a very poor light.

After one of the worst races of the season in the form of the French Grand Prix came, the Austrian Grand Prix followed. It was a weekend where F1 desperately needed a good show off of the heels of a poor first eight races where Mercedes and Hamilton were already running rampant, and not in an entertaining way.

Fortunately, F1 got the race it needed as Max Verstappen claimed a brilliant win in Austria ahead of Charles Leclerc. And more and more entertaining races came.

Though the title race was effectively over when Bottas stuffed it in the wall in Germany, the season as a whole was very enjoyable from Austria onwards, capped off with a madness-filled Brazilian Grand Prix that saw Max Verstappen exact revenge for 2018 and saw Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz (eventually) take the other podium spots.

Perhaps this was fitting, as Gasly and Sainz were two of the season’s main talking points — one starting the season in Red Bull, the other leaving the Red Bull nest for McLaren.

Gasly…was awful at Red Bull and no one should have been surprised when the announcement came that he and Toro Rosso rookie Alex Albon would be swapping seats after the summer break. In the end, both drivers did well to end their respective seasons at Toro Rosso and Red Bull, Gasly’s mid-season turnaround obviously highlighted by that P2 in Brazil.

Following Brazil came the underwhelming Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in which Lewis Hamilton cruised to victory to close the curtain on an enjoyable 2019 season.

Now that it’s all said and done, let’s do a few end-of-season awards and use those to talk further about the season itself.

Best driver: Carlos Sainz

Yes, Lewis Hamilton was the champion. Yes, Max Verstappen was brilliant this season but, for me, Carlos Sainz was the driver of the year.

He became the first driver not in a Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull to finish inside the top six since 2015 and the first driver since 2014 that finished inside the top six in a car that did not finish in the top three in constructors standings (Fernando Alonso did it for Ferrari in 2014). A five-race stretch (beginning from France, ending in Hungary) of P6, P8, P6, P5 and P5 helped send Sainz on his way to a very well deserved P6 in the standings in a year he emerged as the ‘Smooth Operator’.

Highlighted by a podium in Brazil, Sainz was not only one of the most enjoyable talents on the track but his off-track humour and relationship with Lando Norris meant that Sainz was an entertaining watch on and off the track.

Sainz displayed his fighting spirit to the very end as he overtook Nico Hulkenberg on the last lap to sneak into the points and guarantee himself P6 in the standings — a truly remarkable achievement.

Best victory: Max Verstappen – Austria

There’s a bunch of races you could put in this spot (Leclerc’s Italian victory in front of the Tifosi, Bottas’ charge in USA etc.) but what better victory than Verstappen’s first of the season and Honda’s first victory in the hybrid-era?

Starting P2 behind Charles Leclerc, Verstappen stumbled off of the line and was behind his teammate Gasly and in P9 by the time the first lap came to an end. Verstappen made his way back towards the top six and was in fourth place to begin lap 50, where he dispatched Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari to return to the top-3.

After that, Verstappen hunted down and overtook Valterri Bottas for P2 on lap 56, leaving the Dutchman to chase the leading Leclerc. The tension rose, as Leclerc was chasing his first race-win but Verstappen — lap by lap — was hunting him down. Verstappen did indeed catch Leclerc and had his first attempt to overtake him on lap 68 of 71 but Leclerc fought off Verstappen well. However, he could not prevent the mist from descending as one lap later, Verstappen muscled his way by Leclerc and went on to take a memorable victory at the Red Bull Ring.

Overtaking, tension for the win and a remarkable comeback made this Austrian Grand Prix one to remember.

Best rookie: Lando Norris

Personally, I ranked Norris to be the best of the rookie trio entering F1 from F2, so it was no surprise to me that Norris performed well. That said, I expected Carlos Sainz to comprehensively have the better of Norris and that wasn’t always the case.

While Sainz did finish with nearly double the amount of points that Norris did (both suffered DNF’s when in strong point-paying positions, but Norris seemed to be a little more unlucky in that department), the battle between the two was much closer than one would have envisioned heading into the season. And with Sainz arguably the driver of the season, their closeness only highlights the excellent job done by Norris across the season.

Norris ramped up his aggression as the season progressed but let his guard down at times, highlighted by Sergio Perez’s last lap overtake in Abu Dhabi, a situation where Norris, really, should’ve been able to see that through.

Norris also prevailed in the qualifying battle between himself and Sainz, edging the Spaniard 11-10 in the final race of the season, having almost thrown his significant advantage away.

His inexperience showed at times but he now forms a fascinating and fun pairing alongside Sainz, one everyone will have their eyes on next season.

Most improved: Valterri Bottas

Valterri Bottas was a joke, in the eyes of many, heading into 2019.

Having gone winless in 2018 (harshly denied victory in Russia), Bottas began 2019 with a bang with a dominant performance in Australia and furthering his early title credentials with a redemption victory in Azerbaijan, with the internet dubbing this new, bearded, porridge version of Bottas ‘Bottas 2.0′.

While Bottas dropped off after those highs — and returned to the old Bottas at times — he stepped up his game near the end of the season with victory in Japan and a very impressive victory in USA. His fight-back against Lewis Hamilton in Silverstone down the inside of Copse was inspiring, as he showed increased boldness in his wheel-to-wheel combat this season.

Adding to that, Bottas’ qualifying performances in 2019 were vastly improved compared to 2018. Impressive pole positions at Spain and Silverstone, Bottas really stepped his game up against Lewis Hamilton in qualifying in 2019. He may not have won the qualifying battle, but he certainly closed the margin between himself and the six-time champion, taking five pole positions on the season — the same as Hamilton.

While he had the benefit of enjoying the grid’s best car, Bottas certainly upped his game all across the board, and you certainly couldn’t fault him for his effort at times, even it ended with him in the barriers, such as Germany (probably Bottas’ worst moment of 2019) and the final moments of qualifying in Mexico.

Whether we get ‘Bottas 2.77’ as Valterri himself claims he needs to be in 2020, we’ll find out but heading into 2020, he’s certainly taken his reputation a long way forward from where it was this time 365 days ago.

Shoutout to Daniil Kvyat too for his comeback season.

Best race: Brazilian Grand Prix

It had to be, didn’t it?

Overtakes galore, Verstappen vs. Hamilton, multiple safety cars, a collision between the two Ferraris, drama after safety car restart and two surprise podium finishers.

Brazil has produced some mad races in the past but 2019 may have been the most bonkers grand prix in recent memory.

Anytime you get to see Verstappen and Hamilton go wheel-to-wheel, you should appreciate those moments — there really is a Alonso/Raikkonen vs. Schumacher feel to it, the new guard taking it to old guard (and it’s the same when Leclerc races Hamilton). To see the two jostle for the lead, back-and-forth, was incredibly entertaining.

Verstappen’s revenge for the win he should’ve had in 2018 was sweet, and in the end convincing, as Mercedes elected not to pit Hamilton after the safety car, whereas Red Bull pitted Verstappen. Hamilton ended up getting involved in a scrap with Alex Albon, making contact with the Red Bull and earning himself an eventual penalty, leaving Albon searching for that first podium in 2020 and handing Carlos Sainz his first F1 podium finish having started from the back of the grid, highlighting the nature of this race and how well Sainz drove (his overtake on Perez into T1 could’ve easily ended in contact but it was a great overtake).

The collision between the two Ferraris was incredible — truly amazing how such minimal contact could have such a catastrophic effect on both cars, both being forced to retire. It’s absolutely Vettel’s fault but who could’ve imagined how much damaged could’ve been caused for minimal contact?

And last but not least was Pierre Gasly’s drag race with Lewis Hamilton for, at the time, was second place (before Hamilton’s penalty) — signifying Honda’s progression with their engine as they won out over Mercedes heading to the line.

A mad race, and a race that’ll live in the memory of all-time Brazilian Grand Prix for years to come — and that’s saying something coming from Interlagos, home of many a-great grand prix.

Best overtake: Carlos Sainz on Nico Hulkenberg, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

You can go in a few different directions for this — you can argue, contextually, what the best overtake was (e.g. Max Verstappen’s overtake on Charles Leclerc for the win in Austria) or in terms of technicality, what overtake was simply the best regardless of context.

There’s also some overtakes that I just personally really loved, such as Valterri Bottas’ move on Lewis Hamilton into Copse and Kimi Raikkonen’s move on Kevin Magnussen in Germany, where he could’ve easily just conceded T1 to Vettel but chooses to sweep in and turns defense into attack, passing Magnussen into T2.

The one I’m going for though is the one that ultimately gave Carlos Sainz P6 in the championship after a last-lap overtake on Nico Hulkenberg in Abu Dhabi:

The last lap of the last race of the season for the last point to seal P6 in the standings to cap off an almost race-long battle between McLaren and Renault — brilliant.

Honestly, you could go in several different directions and it’s all about personal preference, but I’m going for this one.

Surprise of the season: McLaren’s resurgence

Switching from Honda to Renault engines in 2018 didn’t solve a ton of problems for McLaren in 2018.

Sure, they started the season off well but by the time the Spanish Grand Prix arrived, they were already heading backwards and by the time the French Grand Prix arrived, Q1 exits became a pattern for the rest of the season.

Armed with a fresh driver lineup in 2019 and a restructuring of sorts, McLaren enjoyed their best season in hybrid-era, finishing in fourth as ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull, and ahead of the works Renault team.

The question many people had after the early start to the season was ‘could McLaren keep this up?’ and bar a few races (such as Monza), they were generally the best of the midfield, ultimately reflected in their 54 point margin between themselves and 5th placed Renault.

F1 is better when McLaren is good and while they aren’t genuine contenders for podiums on pure pace, they’ve taken strong steps in the right direction to do that. Whether that comes in 2020, we’ll see, but a hugely impressive 2019 for the Woking outfit.

Biggest disappointment: Ferrari

Sigh…

Where to even begin?

It all seemed to be going so well, as Ferrari appeared to be the clear front-runner as teams emerged from preseason testing but, once again, were no where to be found in Australia. Now, that isn’t necessarily something new — they were behind Mercedes heading into Australia 2018 but managed to squeak home a victory thanks to a VSC and then went on to have a strong opening to 2018 where they were quicker than Mercedes at various stages.

And it seemed like this was repeating in 2019 — having been no where in Australia, Ferrari struck back in Bahrain through Charles Leclerc, who took his first pole position in the desert.

Ferrari should have had their first win of the season in Bahrain but it wasn’t meant to be, as technical issues prevented Leclerc from taking his maiden F1 victory. As disappointing as it was to see a victory just fall into Mercedes’ lap, you assumed — now that Ferrari had shown the pace many expected from testing — that the Scuderia would come back another day.

This…did not happen.

Ferrari continued to underperform as Mercedes ran away with both titles and by the time the French Grand Prix came and went, both titles were, effectively, already heading back to Brackley.

Eventually, Ferrari made steps with their car to bring them closer to the front but it wasn’t until the Belgian Grand Prix where Ferrari finally notched their first win of the season and would only take two more victories to their tally on the season in Singapore and, memorably, in Monza.

Now, to be fair, they should’ve already had two victories on the season by then at Bahrain and Canada, but they were still far too far away from Mercedes and while the season of Charles Leclerc can be considered a success, Ferrari’s season as a whole can only be seen as a failure. And the less said about Sebastian Vettel’s season the better: it just wasn’t good.

Shoutout to Renault, who were thoroughly underwhelming this year too and were a close contender for most disappointing after effectively beginning their season at Monaco. And shoutout to Haas for inexplicably retaining Romain Grosjean at the expense of Nico Hulkenberg.

Pierre Gasly’s tenure at Red Bull is probably the runner-up, however… The less said about it the better…

 

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.

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…