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…

 

F1 2020 Lineup Prediction

Feature image: @MercedesAMGF1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Esteban Ocon

Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Charles Leclerc

Red Bull: Max Verstappen & Daniil Kvyat

Renault: Daniel Ricciardo & Nico Hulkenberg

Racing Point: Sergio Perez & Lance Stroll

Haas: Kevin Magnussen & Valterri Bottas

Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen & Antonio Giovinazzi

Toro Rosso: Pierre Gasly & Alex Albon

Williams: George Russell & Nicholas Latifi

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

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Esteban Ocon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those are…interesting comments.

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

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

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

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

Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Charles Leclerc

Not much to say here.

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

Red Bull Racing: Max Verstappen & Daniil Kvyat

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

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

Now then, the second driver spot…

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

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

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

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

If not, where do they go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renault: Daniel Ricciardo & Nico Hulkenberg

I don’t see much changing here.

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

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

“We have a two-year contract with Daniel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McLaren: Carlos Sainz & Lando Norris

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

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

Racing Point: Sergio Perez & Lance Stroll

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

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

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

Haas: Kevin Magnussen & Valterri Bottas

Right, now this is going to be interesting spot…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toro Rosso: Pierre Gasly & Alex Albon

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

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

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

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

Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen & Antonio Giovinazzi

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

Williams: George Russell & Nicholas Latifi

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

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

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

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


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

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Valterri Bottas

Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Charles Leclerc

Red Bull: Max Verstappen & Daniil Kvyat

Renault: Daniel Ricciardo & Nico Hulkenberg

Racing Point: Sergio Perez & Lance Stroll

Haas: Kevin Magnussen & Esteban Ocon

Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen & Antonio Giovinazzi

Toro Rosso: Pierre Gasly & Alex Albon

Williams: George Russell & Nicholas Latifi

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

Bottas or Ocon? We shall see…

Assessing Max Verstappen’s 2019 title chances

Feature image: @RedBullRacing via Vladimir Rys 

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

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

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

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

Can Max Verstappen launch an unexpected title challenge?

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

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

In 2019 his hot form has continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Red Bull’s Driver Conundrum – Today and Tomorrow

Image: @redbullracing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Red Bull suffered a minor setback.

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

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

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

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

There were high hopes for 2019.

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

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

Pierre Gasly…hasn’t enjoyed the same success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the question would be ‘with who?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where do Red Bull go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.