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

Feature image: @ToroRosso

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

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

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

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

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

The first one is the constructors championship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firstly, I get it, I understand why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a risk worth taking.

 

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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.

Ricciardo to Renault and a 2019 lineup prediction

Image: Manuel Goria/Sutton Images via F1.com

We all knew the silly season was coming, but come on…

In what was expected to be a quiet week — with the F1 summer break upon us and the mid-season testing just finished with — Daniel Ricciardo and Renault blew everyone away on Friday afternoon when the rumours broke that the Red Bull driver had signed a contract with Renault for 2019 before the news was confirmed first by Red Bull (that he wouldn’t be with the team in 2019) and then by Renault who were obviously delighted to announce the deal.

This comes as a surprise for many reasons but mostly because, with Mercedes and Ferrari looking beyond Ricciardo for 2019, everything pointed to Danny Ric re-signing with the only F1 team he has considered home (I think that’s fair to say) — it really was a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’.

Heck, even Ricciardo himself gave a pretty strong indication that he would re-signing with Red Bull, telling reporters in Hungary that his extension with Red Bull “…will definitely be done by Spa,” and that “It’s just a little bit of fine tuning here and there…it’s all good.”

A pretty strong indication, you’d have to say.,,

It’s unclear right now (writing this the day the news dropped) what has caused this 180 turn but I have a few theories…

Firstly, I don’t think Red Bull’s decision to switch to Honda engines from 2019 onwards played that much of a role. Since Canada, where they brought a significant upgrade, that Honda engine has shown some solid competitiveness — how much worse, if at all, is it to Renaut’s engine now in terms of both pace and reliability? A lot more Red Bull-Renault engines seemed to have given up the ghost more than Toro Rosso-Hondas this season…

I do think finance has played a big part here. Being a works team, it’s no secret that Renault have a bit more disposable income at their discretion than a team like, say, Williams or Force India. I also think it’s no secret that Ricciardo is underpaid across the board, not only for what he delivers on track but off of it too — an extremely marketable (and fantastic) personality with the team itself and sponsors. We don’t know what the figures from the respective Red Bull and Renault offers were, but you’d have to imagine that the Renault offer was significantly more handsome than what Red Bull might have offered — who, it’s well documented and mentioned by team principal Christian Horner, already pay a handsome amount to Max Verstappen…

Speaking of Max Verstappen, I’m sure he played a part in this decision too. Not so much to do with Max himself (they seem to get on pretty well) but everything surrounding him — the hype, the attention (media and fans alike), Max’s growing position in the team (you can definitely sense small elements of Vettel-Webber) and possibly his salary compared to Danny Ric for all we know.

The reasons I’m sure will become a bit more clear when Ricciardo and the F1 circus arrives at Spa near the end of August but the fact of the matter is the Aussie will be donning yellow next season, leaving the team that have nurtured his 7-year Formula 1 career that started in the HRT at Silverstone in 2011…

I think it’s an extremely bold move to Ricciardo to make when he had a very safe option in Red Bull on the table. For sure, Renault have made gains in each season since their return to F1 in 2016 but they still have a long way to go if they want to be challenging Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari, and I don’t expect them to be challenging Red Bull next season either unless Renault make significant steps forward with their car and engine and Red Bull fall backwards with Honda power.

But there comes a time where every man has to make a change in his life, the bird must leave the nest at some stage in its life, and Ricciardo I think will do well with a new change of scenery — I’m just worried he’ll be fighting for P6’s, P7’s, P8’s next year instead of top 5 finishes, including race victories.

With this mega announcement, Renault have confirmed their driver lineup next year as Ricciardo joins Nico Hulkenburg, paving the way for what could be a lot of change down the paddock. The silly season had begun anyways but now it’s been ignited with jet propulsion.

And, really, it depends greatly on what Red Bull decide to do with their now vacant seat for 2019. A year ago, if this situation where Daniel Ricciardo leaves Red Bull had arisen, Carlos Sainz would’ve been the no-brainer to be his replacement. But it’s not that simple anymore.

Not only has Sainz, who has been in reported contract talks with McLaren, endured a difficult season at Renault (by his own standards) and has been outdriven by teammate Nico Hulkenburg, who many expected to trail the highly rated Spaniard, but the emergence of Toro Rosso starlet Pierre Gasly — who has performed brilliantly in his Toro Rosso this season, guiding his Honda-powered car to P4 in Bahrain and more recently P6 at Hungary — has thrown a spanner in the works when it comes to Sainz and Red Bull.

But more than that, according to RaceFans.net (article linked above), Red Bull’s advisor and head of young driver programme, Helmut Marko, is reportedly against the idea of reuniting former Toro Rosso teammates Max Verstappen and Sainz again at Red Bull. With Red Bull already nailing their colours to the mast that is Max Verstappen, that would be a problem for Carlos Sainz and Red Bull, so it would seem unlikely based on that and performance this season compared to Gasly (which may or may not be a factor), that Sainz will reunite with Verstappen…

Sainz has been discussing a possible deal with McLaren, who rate Sainz highly.

“We think Carlos is an excellent racecar driver,” McLaren chief Zak Brown said. “Of course Carlos is potentially on the market, I don’t know his exact situation at Renault and Red Bull but he’s certainly someone as you go down the shortlist of drivers that you’d consider putting in your car.

“If he was free, and if we had a seat, he would certainly be high up the list for a racing seat.”

If it ends up that it’s not Ricciardo for Sainz in a like-for-like swap, it blows the driver market wide open.

Firstly, it opens up the Red Bull seat to, more than likely as discussed, Pierre Gasly. I’d love to see Fernando Alonso in that Red Bull seat but that seems unlikely given how Red Bull normally promote from within — usually from their young driver programme — and possibly Alonso’s relationship with Honda (given how he often threw Honda under the bus during their three-years together) could also play a part.

If Gasly is promoted, that opens up a spot at Toro Rosso and there could be two spots open should they decide not to bring back Brendon Hartley. I still think, if Alonso stays and Sainz joins his fellow Spaniard at Woking, McLaren and Toro Rosso could come into an agreement to send Lando Norris to Toro Rosso for a season/until Fernando Alonso calls time on his stellar Formula 1 career — especially if Norris wins F2, with F2 rules preventing champions from returning to the series. It’s beneficial for everyone: Toro Rosso get a quality driver for a year or two and McLaren have their man in an F1 seat (though the complications there are obvious, it’s just a theory of mine) And after that, I think Toro Rosso are better off sticking with Hartley over test driver Sean Galael… And as for the Red Bull junior driver programme, I think they’re a year or two from promoting another one to Toro Rosso.

At McLaren, there could easily be two spots going there too if the team elect not bring Stoffel Vandoorne back and Fernando Alonso either moves on to another F1 team or retires from F1. Vandoorne has had a terrible season compared to Alonso and he’s definitely under pressure for his F1 future. If Alonso retired, his McLaren career might be safe, depending on what McLaren choose to do with junior driver — and current F2 championship leader — Lando Norris and if they sign Carlos Sainz in the process.

With the Renault lineup confirmed, the Esteban Ocon-Renault rumours disappear immediately, leaving Ocon likely to spend another season with Force India. The other seat at Force India is up for debate, with Sergio Perez rumoured to be heading to Haas and who knows what else will go down there with the recent administration. And where Lance Stroll/Lawrence Stroll potentially figure into things remains to be seen in the midst of the administration/potential new ownership process.

I think it’s at this point in the driver market where the Ricciardo-Renault news begins to have less of an effect when it comes to drives. The likes of Ferrari, Mercedes Williams, Haas and Sauber…

With regards Perez, he’s rumoured for a seat at Haas, who don’t have anything lined up for 2019, though it’s safe to assume Kevin Magnussen has done enough to secure a seat. I personally believe Charles Leclerc would be best suited for that Haas spot rather than a promotion straight to the best seat F1 might have to offer if Ferrari move on from Kimi Raikkonen. Romain Grosjean is certainly still quick enough to be in F1 but his consistency has been left wanting this season — involved in a number of accidents/incidents this season.

Perez has also been rumoured to return to the team that gave him his first seat in 2011: Sauber. I’d be surprised if it happened but upon thinking about further, you can talk yourself into it. I certainly don’t expect rising star Charles Leclerc to remain with the Swiss outfit and I think time will finally expire on Marcus Ericcson’s Formula 1 career now that Sauber are in the points hunt again. With that said, and with Leclerc surely moving on, I expect another Ferrari junior driver Antonio Giovinazzi to take his place. That 2nd spot next to Giovinazzi could end up being the lifeline of drivers such as maybe Stoffel Vandoorne, Romain Grosjean or even Kimi Raikkonen, whose name has been mentioned with Sauber…

At Williams, I’d imagine Sergey Sirotkin will remain but Lance Stroll’s spot is a bit more questionable with this Force India link. Force India, obviously, need the cash and Stroll offers that. If Stroll moves on, I’d expect Mercedes to use their connection with Williams to try push junior driver George Russell into an F1 seat at Grove. Junior driver Olly Rowland would be a good shout for the second drive as is test driver Robert Kubica.

For Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas were signed to deals at Hockenheim, so nothing doing there.

And, lastly, at Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel is secured for another season whereas Kimi Raikkonen’s seat is not guaranteed. Raikkonen has had a strong 2018 (certainly better than his 2017 season) and I think has done enough to earn one more season with the Scuderia. Charles Leclerc is the obvious replacement — and he will be one day — but I think it’s a year or two too soon for him. There’s a lot of pressures and expectations that comes with a Ferrari drive and I think the experience at Haas for a year or two would help round him out, improve as a driver and help iron out some of those little errors he makes at times that may not mean much in a Sauber but mean everything in a Ferrari — the difference between pole position and the second row. Plus, it’s not in Ferrari’s nature to promote young drivers to their seats, especially ones heading into just their second season — they just don’t do it. So for those reasons, I’d be very surprised if Ferrari actually went through with it — it would be incredibly un-Ferrari.

So, with all of that said, I’m going to (horribly) predict the F1 2019 grid.

Mercedes: Lewis Hamilton & Valterri Bottas

Ferrari: Sebastian Vettel & Kimi Raikkonen

Red Bull: Max Verstappen & Pierre Gasly

Renault: Daniel Ricciardo & Nico Hulkenburg

McLaren: Fernando Alonso & Carlos Sainz

Haas: Charles LeClerc & Kevin Magnussen

Force India: Esteban Ocon & Lance Stroll

Toro Rosso: Lando Norris & Brendan Hartley

Sauber: Sergio Perez & Antonio Giovinazzi

Williams: Sergey Sirotkin & Robert Kubica

Should be fun to see how wrong I am, but hey…always fun.

Winners and losers on Renault, McLaren, Honda and Red Bull agreement

Image: Sutton Images 

On Saturday 15th of September it was announced that the multi-team deal between Renault, Red Bull/Toro Rosso, McLaren and engine providers Honda was done. Here’s the lowdown:

Renault get: Carlos Sainz on a years loan from Red Bull

McLaren get: Renault engines from 2018

Toro Rosso get: Honda engines from 2018

So, who won in this flurry of activity?

McLaren (for now)

We’ll start with McLaren, the reason this deal happened in the first place.

They’re finally free of Honda and, with a Renault engine for 2018, might stand a chance of returning to where they belong.

They had to act because everyone was losing in this situation because of Honda’s poor performance: the team, sponsors, the fans and, of course, the drivers. The move also all but ensures that Fernando Alonso hangs around for at least one more season at Woking, ensuring that a world-class driver remains with the team.

There is an issue though. Sure, Honda are gone from the lives of McLaren, but how far will Renault push McLaren? Will that gap to Mercedes and Ferrari ever close up before the new engine regulations expected for 2021? How much happier will they be?

Time will tell.

Red Bull

Red Bull are also winners but not from an engine point of view. Sure, having Honda supply Toro Rosso keeps Red Bull’s options open but from what Red Bull team principal Christian Horner hinted at the end of FP1 that Red Bull could be running Aston Martin engines in 2019.

No, Red Bull are winners from a drivers perspective.

They haven’t lost Carlos Sainz in all of this — he’s loaned to Renault for a year. This is huge for Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen can both hit the driver market for the 2019 season and, if rumblings are to be believed, both drivers are considering leaving — both have eluded to wanting a race winning car and Red Bull haven’t been providing that. Should one, or both of Ricciardo or Verstappen leave, Red Bull could slot Carlos Sainz into the Red Bull, something Sainz has always wanted to do.

The idea of loaning Sainz was an excellent idea and keeps at least one ace card in Red Bull’s driver deck for 2019 should things go wrong with either Ricciardo or Verstappen.

Renault (at least for 2018)

Renault are winners because they now boast a very interesting driver lineup for 2018 with Carlos Sainz joining up with Nico Hulkenburg.

While this is a great lineup to have for 2018, it might only be for that — 2018.

Sainz is loaned from Red Bull and who knows what’s going to happen with Ricciardo and Verstappen from 2019 onwards. What happens at Red Bull will be integral to Renault’s ability to keep Sainz long-term. In an ideal world, Sainz would’ve been locked up for the long term by Renault but that’s not the reality of the situation.

Long term, who knows, but for 2018 Renault look promising.

Losers

Toro Rosso

What did Toro Rosso gain out of this?

They lost their best driver in Sainz and they’re stuck with Honda engines from next year. If that Honda engine anything like it is this year, Toro Rosso are going to be right at the back. Toro Rosso have been used to scrapping for points for years now, it’s been a long time since they’ve been a back-marker team — 06, 07?

Unfortunately, those are the breaks when you’re a B-Team, but at least there’s a seat for Pierre Gasly next year? Yay?