Formula 2 Thoughts Post Austria/Styria: Ferrari’s Conundrum

I love Formula 2, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing drivers like Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and George Russell excel in F2, make the leap to F1 and show their capabilities at the top level.

Formula 2 in 2019…the crop of drivers who could make a realistic leap to F1 wasn’t great. While there were some exciting rookies, none of the F2 grid really had the star potential to make the leap to F1 in the same vain as a Leclerc or a Lando Norris, and only runner-up Nicholas Latifi made the leap due to his connections with the Williams F1 team. Champion Nyck de Vries was left to look elsewhere to drive.

F2 in 2020 has a much more exciting crop of young drivers to get excited about and a number of them could end up making the leap to F1 in the next few years. Not only have the rookies from last year made a step forward (Callum Ilott, Guanyu Zhou, Mick Schumacher to name some) but the rookies coming in from Formula 3 have injected great excitement into this season, such as Robert Shwartzman, Christian Lundgaard etc.

Now that we’ve seen four races over the two weekends, we’ve kind of got a glimpse of the names we’re likely to see towards the sharp-end of the F2 grid this year.

But before we get into some of those conversations, let’s talk about with the returning crop of drivers from last season (and beyond).

New to F2 this season are the 18-inch wheels, set to debut in Formula 1 next season. Normally, experience counts in F2 and, unless you’re elite, rookies generally struggle in their first season compared to those who are returning.

Tyre management is a crucial part of Formula 2 and rookies struggle with this compared to the more experienced drivers who have had some experience. This gap between the rookies and the rest hasn’t been the case as much this season as everyone has to adjust to the new 18-inch wheels and it has allowed the rookies to hit the ground running and take the competition to rest a lot more so than previous years.

The rookies returning from last year — Ilott, Zhou, Schumacher in particular — have taken a step forward and have found themselves competing near the front of the field. That probably isn’t surprising.

What has been surprising is how far some of the more experienced F2 drivers have struggled: the guys who have been there for more than two seasons.

Louis Deletraz, Nobaharu Matsushita, Artem Markelov, Luca Ghiotto, Roy Nissany, Sean Geleal… These the drivers with the most F2 experience and yet, this year, they’ve been relatively no where near the front as they probably should be with their experience — they’re nearly all genuinely struggling.

I was excited for the return of one of the ballsier GP2/F2 drivers in its history in Artem Markelov and he has been absolutely no where.

I’ve also been a little disappointed by Jack Aitken so far this season. Having left the Renault academy and signing for Williams in a reserve role, I thought he would be closer to the front but hasn’t shown the pace of a front-runner, often having to defend from cars following him.

But let’s not dwell too long on those who don’t have the pace and focus on those that do.

Let’s start with the drivers returning from last year.

Guanyu Zhou, arguably, should be leading the championship but car troubles in the feature race of the Austrian Grand Prix weekend denied him a certain victory before finishing out of the points. He has since continued to show pace and has finished ahead of teammate Callum Ilott in both races of the Styrian Grand Prix weekend: a solid 3rd and 4th.

Ilott appears to be much improved from last year, and though he inherited a straightforward feature race victory at the Austrian Grand Prix, his pace has been strong. We’ll talk more about Ilott later.

Mick Schumacher has shown he has the pace to finish on the podium but a costly error in the feature race in Austria cost him a podium after he was contending for the race-win, followed by an unfortunate fire extinguisher malfunction that cost him while he was running 3rd in the sprint race in Styria. Mick has shown he has the pace but just needs to put together a full weekend to show his credentials.

Let’s move onto the rookies, who have made an instant splash in F2 in 2020.

Probably no better place to start than Robert Shwartzman, the driver leading the championship after four races. He’s been very consistent in his pace and took a stellar victory in rain-soaked Styrian Grand Prix feature race. The only blot on his copybook is that he should be leading by more, a driver-error on lap 1 coming out of turn 1 in the sprint race as he lost the rear of the car and was unable to get back going forced him into a self-inflicted DNF. We’ll talk more about Shwartzman soon but he has impressed thus far.

Christian Lundgaard has been a steady performer but showed great pace in the wet in Styria before taking victory in the sprint race in Styria. The Renault academy driver was one of the contenders for the F3 title last season and is currently a just five points behind F3 title rival Shwartzman.

Dan Ticktum is not a driver I particularly like (due to his past actions on the track, feel free to Google them) but the Brit has performed well, taking two podiums so far in F2 and sits in a strong fourth in the standings. Too bad this form wasn’t there in the old F3 where he lost the lead of the title to Schumacher, costing him his Superlicence and his all but certain drive with Toro Rosso for 2019…

Yuki Tsunoda showed great pace in the feature race of the Styrian Grand Prix and probably should’ve won had he not suffered radio issues. Would’ve been a nice way to make up for spinning his teammate, Jehan Daruvala, on lap 1 of the feature race in Austria but alas… Tsunoda is certainly a driver to monitor, we’ll talk about that more soon.

I think this season (as well as next season) of Formula 2 is a very important one.

I don’t think it’s groundbreaking to say that there could be a few seats in Formula 1 up for grabs in 2021, with a number of teams’ lineups yet to be confirmed. Williams could potentially have a seat available, Alfa Romeo may have an opening, Alpha Tauri may have an opening and Haas technically have two open seats (but haven’t wanted to fill it with a young driver as of yet).

2022 is its own conversation for another time but the sooner some of these drivers can lay down the groundwork this season, the better. Let’s stick with 2021.

Probably easier to break this down by driver academy, as all of these drivers we’ve talked about belong to an academy of some sort…

Let’s start with Renault, because this will be quick. While their two drivers — Zhou and Lundgaard — are impressing in F2 this season, their path to F1 is blocked for at least a year with Renault’s confirmed lineup of Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso for 2021. Should Zhou or Lundgaard win the F2 title (and, thus, unable to return to F2), it would create a problem in terms of finding somewhere to drive for 2021 but they’re basically set for another season in F2 should neither win the title as there’s just no way forward to Renault, and I don’t think any other F1 team is going to help nurture Renault’s talent.

Red Bull/Honda have an interesting duo of Daruvala (Red Bull) and Tsunoda (Honda). Both have shown promising pace, and I wonder if their battle as teammates in the standings will become a shootout for a potential drive at Alpha Tauri. It depends a lot on what happens with Pierre Gasly/Alex Albon/Daniil Kvyat and if any of them leave the Red Bull program to join another team (such as Haas, potentially). At this early stage, Tsunoda has shown a little more and Tsunoda is the first potentially promising Honda driver who could make the leap to F1 (no offense, Matsushita). However, it’s very early for that kind of talk yet but it’s out there…

The real conundrum comes with the Ferrari academy drivers: Robert Shwartzman, Mick Schumacher, Callum Ilott and Marcus Armstrong. We haven’t really talked about Armstrong (he’s been solid in F2 so far, sitting in 5th place), or fellow Ferrari academy driver Guilano Alesi, but Alesi won’t be part of what we’re talking about here.

Whether a seat appears at Alpha Tauri remains to be seen, but I think it’s very possible an opening appears at Alfa Romeo, maybe even two.

Kimi Raikkonen obviously has a decision to make with what he wants to do post 2020 and Alfa Romeo/Ferrari have a choice with Antonio Giovinazzi. Gio has closed the gap to Raikkonen since the beginning of 2019 but the star potential sitting in Ferrari’s academy cannot be ignored and Gio — who turns 27 in December — is not immune from being replaced. No one owes him anything in Formula 1.

If there is a seat or two up for grabs at Alfa Romeo, the competition between Ferrari’s academy drivers becomes a lot more significant, and the Formula 2 standings may end up being the deciding factor in one potentially being selected. The fact that there are four Ferrari drivers who are amongst the front-runners so far means that the competition between these drivers may become very intense as they understand the stakes.

I think Mick Schumacher is still probably at the front of this queue right now — he probably always has been, he just needed to show some front-running pace to validate that. He has the name and he has F1 testing experience (and experience driving some older F1 cars belonging to his father too).

Right now, Robert Shwartzman is the obvious threat to Schumacher as he currently leads the F2 standings, and if he were to win the title and unable to return to F2, it puts Ferrari in a tough spot. Shwartzman appears to be legit and Schumacher needs to close the gap and eliminate some of these errors that have cost him so far.

Ilott was an underwhelming Ferrari junior at times last year but has taken a step forward so far this season, and that keeps all of the other Ferrari members on their toes. He’s seemingly a force to be reckoned with and is one of the quickest drivers on the F2 grid so far and an early contender for this F2 title. He may not be a favourite to land an F1 seat, but he can certainly give Ferrari a headache and that’s all he can do in his position.

Marcus Armstrong is certainly on the outside looking in, as is Alesi, but Armstrong has had some solid performances already in F2 and he has shown he has the pace, which will always give him a chance to contend near the front (whether it’s in the feature or sprint race with a strong starting position on the reverse grid). That said, he has a lot of work to do to put himself ahead of Schumacher, Ilott and Shwartzman.

Ferrari/Alfa Romeo certainly aren’t helped by having a straightforward option to choose from, should a seat open up at Alfa Romeo. Often in the races, three of the top six consist of Ferrari Academy drivers.

It’s going to be absolutely fascinating to watch that championship in its own right unfold as an opening in Formula 1 potentially presents itself.

Ferrari certainly has a lot to think about…

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…

F1 2019 Season Preview

Feature image: Twitter – @F1

It’s finally here, Formula 1 2019. It’s taken a long time to get here but we are here, the start of it all again.

And it promises to be a fascinating season in prospect, with the gap between the top three teams seemingly as tight as ever, if testing is to be believed (always a dangerous thing).

Let’s break this title down between the top three, the midfield and then those near the back. In the process, I’ll touch on the drivers and the such, before making a few predictions and the such.

We’ll have fun.

The Top Three

Everything in testing should be taken with (many) grains of salt but, listening and reading the thoughts of people — well-informed people — who were there at Barcelona and the experts that were there, it would seem that Ferrari are the early team to beat.

It’s tough to gauge Mercedes in testing because they generally stick to their own programme and tend not to really care about what anyone else is doing, but when you hear the quotes from the drivers being unhappy with the balance and Mercedes bringing a heavily revised car to Week 2 of testing and another revised car to Melbourne, it would seem to suggest they’re on the back-foot (something Lewis Hamilton reaffirmed on Thursday).

I do think Mercedes are closer than people think but if they haven’t fixed their balance issues, it’s going to be a difficult opening for them in Melbourne if they can’t get on top of that quickly.

Ferrari, in comparison, seemed pretty happy with testing — at least in Week 1, all smiles with Vettel and company, though, the second week wasn’t as good as the first, they still set the fastest lap in testing and, according to those who are in the know, Mercedes’ fastest lap of testing wasn’t a true reflection of the gap between the two teams — the lap times suggesting that things are closer than things would appear.

We’ll see what happens but the Scuderia look good.

Red Bull look really intriguing, they’re a team that could easily spring a surprise at Australia, and some think they could be right there with Mercedes.

It’s hard to say where they will fall, we didn’t really see their true pace during Test 2.

They always build good cars but have been left wanting in the power department since 2014. Now armed with Honda engines, they enjoyed good reliability (Pierre Gasly letting them down in Spain more so than Honda) and I think there’s some genuine optimism for the Red Bull outfit.

It’ll be one of two things for Red Bull — they’ll either spring the biggest surprise in the paddock if they can turn up quicker than Mercedes, or we’ll see how much sandbagging has actually taken place between Ferrari and Mercedes and Red Bull will, again, be a distant third.

We’ll see.

Out of the top three teams, only Mercedes retained their driver lineup of Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas.

Hamilton comes in as a five-time champion and coming off one of the most consistent seasons I’ve ever seen — I’d imagine he’s in a good place.

It’s a different story for Bottas, who — from race number one — I’d imagine will be under pressure. He’s technically out of contract at the end of this year and Esteban Ocon is lingering, waiting for a seat to present itself. F1’s infamous politics kept Ocon — a member of the Mercedes driver programme — out of a seat in 2019 but a repeat of last season for Bottas would surely result in a change of drivers for 2020.

Bottas was unlucky in many spots last year (Baku, France etc.) but he was poles apart from Hamilton when it counted. If he’s in the title hunt after seven, eight races, Mercedes will probably let them at it — as they’ve historically done when their two drivers have been in genuine contention for the title. But if Hamilton has a significant advantage — as he did last year — you can only see it swinging as it did last year with Mercedes giving their backing to Hamilton.

Bottas says he’s ready and raring to go but we’ll see how he responds in Australia — a track where, of course, he binned it in a major way in Q3.

At Ferrari, it’s a case of ‘out with the old, in with the new’ as Kimi Raikkonen makes way for Charles Leclerc.

Where Mercedes let their cars race — for the most part — Ferrari have held preference in terms of drivers for a while now: it’s Sebastian Vettel > teammate.

Ferrari have been back and forth in their comments about letting the two race and whether Leclerc is a number two or not… It’s all words at Ferrari but until we see it in action for sure, nothing that has been said matters — that’s the reality of it.

If Leclerc gets off to the dream start and beats his teammate in Australia and is ahead of Vettel in the standings, say, after Spain, it’ll make for a fascinating situation at Maranello.

I ultimately think that Vettel’s savviness and experience will edge Leclerc in his first season at Ferrari, and I think this year could prove a learning experience for Leclerc about what it means to be a Ferrari driver, what it means to win races and it means to have every mistake/inconsistency scrutinised.

It’s a pressure he’s never faced before.

That’s not to say he can’t be in the hunt and take it to Vettel — I’m sure he will at times. But over 21 races, everything would point toward Vettel edging Leclerc — experience, savviness and his position in the team, which matters massively at a team like Ferrari.

Their car looks incredibly promising but the issue with Ferrari is their development throughout the season. They had to go backwards to go forwards, shedding the upgrades they had placed on the car from Singapore onwards off at USA and boom, the car was back at the front.

Mercedes, in recent history, have been able to out-develop Ferrari over the course of the season, so if Ferrari have an advantage they need to maximise it in the first few rounds before Mercedes bring those upgrades. Ferrari having their upgrades actually work would also help…

Red Bull officially made Max Verstappen their number one driver as Daniel Ricciardo moves on to Renault. Pierre Gasly arrives from Toro Rosso very much as a number two driver.

I’m not a huge Gasly fan and I think he will struggle against Verstappen.

That pairing is going to be explosive and not in a good way. Danny Ric was great for Max and those two personalities got on well even after a clash or two, they could at least exist but if Max and Gasly come together, you’d fear the worst, and I think those two aren’t going to like each other and it’s not going to take long for that happen.

A personality clash waiting to happen.

Red Bull themselves are an interesting prospect. We have no idea what to expect other than they’ll probably be in the top three. After that, who knows? They do develop quite well historically, so if they’re close to Ferrari and Ferrari have another development disaster, it’s going to be interesting.

The Midfield

The midfield battle looks as tight as ever, and it’s hard to say who’s leading the way.

It’s very unpredictable.

McLaren went for some headline laps in testing, so it’s hard to say where they’re at whereas Racing Point’s car in testing is going to be very different to one we see at Australia — so it’s tough to say where those two teams will figure amongst the pack.

Haas had a mixed winter but whispers are they’re looking decent but I’d imagine the top two in the midfield will come between Renault and I think Alfa Romeo could be in the mix. Their front wing design is one that everyone is talking about and I think they could easily mix it up with Haas and maybe Renault but I’m a bit skeptical about that one.

Toro Rosso, I’d imagine, will be in the lower part of the midfield but there’s optimism for them after a strong testing. Perhaps they could be duking it out with McLaren, we’ll see.

Speakng of, McLaren is where arguably the most change has occurred as both Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne exit, and Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris come in. Sainz will be fine, he’ll do well. I don’t think there’s any need to worry there. It’s Norris where the unpredictability lies. I like Norris’ superstar potential. I think his ceiling is higher than George Russell’s but I think his floor is lower.

What I mean by that is I think there’s a greater potential for stardom in Norris but more chance of Norris being a bust. There’ll be ups and downs for Norris in his rookie season but I think he’ll be OK — I do expect Sainz to better him in his rookie season though.

Alfa Romeo have also changed their lineup, replacing the outgoing Leclerc and Marcus Ericsson with Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi — old and young. Raikkonen is a great addition and I think he’s going to enjoy a somewhat resurgent season, even though I thought he had a good season last year. But he’s free of Ferrari. Free of ‘number two status’, free of the awful strategies Ferrari put him on to help Vettel/hamper Mercedes. As a team leader, I think Raikkonen will have a strong season.

Giovinazzi is already under pressure due to his past. He filled in in 2017 for the injured Pascal Wehrlein and binned it on both occasions when it mattered, as well as binning it in Hungary too in a test with Haas. He’s got to build some consistency and I have no idea what to expect.

All change at Toro Rosso too, as Daniil Kvyat returns and Alex Albon is promoted from F2. I like Kvyat and I think he can have a bounce-back season but I think Albon has a tough season ahead and, with the exception of perhaps Lance Stroll, there’s a chance Albon is the worst driver on the grid — never even setting foot in an F1 car until testing.

Speaking of Lance Stroll, he joins the newly named Racing Point team alongside Perez. Perez should smoke him, I don’t believe in Stroll at all but let’s see. Their car is going to be interesting, let’s see where they’re at with this new car in Australia, again, vastly different from the one we saw in Spain.

Haas were one of the few teams to stick with their driver lineup, in fact, the only Haas and Mercedes are the only teams to retain their lineups in 2019 with Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen. Magnussen is in good shape but there’s a lot of pressure on Grosjean after his mixed 2018. He’s a good driver, for sure, but is prone to mistakes so if he can iron those out, he should have a good year because the car I think could be promising out of the box.

Renault are an intriguing prospect and I think boast one of the better lineups in Nico Hulkenburg and Daniel Ricciardo.

It’s going to be an interesting year for Hulkenburg.

Many thought (myself not included) that Sainz would come and slap Hulkenburg but it never happened, Nico acquitting himself very well in that battle, besting Sainz in the end. But Ricciardo will be a different beast. As long as he can match, even if he finishes a few point behind Ricciardo (reliability depending, of course), that’s a successful season for Hulk.

In terms of Renault themselves, even if they don’t start out fourth quickest, I thoroughly expect them to end fourth quickest. How close can they get to the top three? I think they’ll be closer but not close enough to compete for podiums on raw pace.

The Rear

Williams, I’m afraid, look a long way off everyone else after their disastrous start, missing the majority of the first test in Spain.

Robert Kubica returning to F1 is a great story but it’s probably not going to be a great year for him in terms of the machinery he has underneath him to work with — he already seemed fed up with the car in Spain in testing. It might be tough to measure Kubica’s season against rookie George Russell, given that Russell, well, is a rookie.

If Russell completely out-paces him, it’s going to be tough to say whether Russell is legit or if coming back to F1 was one step too many for Kubica, faced with physical limitations no other driver has to deal with after his rallying accident in 2011.

I’m hopeful Williams will be better than advertised but it’s not looking good. The car looks great in terms of its livery but in terms of performance… Yeah… Sorry.

Awards/Predictions

Let’s get into the fun stuff. Awards and predictions.

Driver’s Champion: Sebastian Vettel

Constructors’ Champion: Ferrari

Best of the Rest: Renault

Surprise of the Season: Alfa Romeo

Best Rookie: Lando Norris

Most Improved: Daniil Kvyat

Most Disappointment Driver: Pierre Gasly

Most Disappointing Team: Williams

Best Livery: Ferrari, their matte finish and the added black really stand out. What a gorgeous car.

Worst Livery: Racing Point. I like the pink but the blue they added is in the wrong places, and it just doesn’t look great.

Best Helmet:

The most important one of the lot. Here are the helmets, put together fantastically by Racefans.net:

racefansdotnet-f1-drivers-helmets-2019.jpg

Lewis Hamilton’s is great this year, Lando Norris’ is great too as is Charles Leclerc’s.

I’ll say Danny Ric though — just way off the beaten path but looks fantastic — the most wild one out there.

Worst Helmet: Pierre Gasly. Hands down. Awful. There’s 1000 better ways to incorporate the French flag in your helmet, Romain Grosjean does a good job if it but this is awful…


I can’t wait for it to all unfold.

F1 2019 promises to be the most exciting season in recent memory. May she live to the hype.

Let’s go.