In the summer break of the 2019 Formula 1 season, it would be to easy to admit that the current season has been about expecting the unexpected. Although till about four races ago, it would be difficult to make such a judgement. From Ferrari’s fading away in the championships to Max Verstappen’s meteoric rise and from delivering snooze-fest races to the humdinger the last four races before the summer break, the current season has placed Formula 1 on a crescendo — one that not many expected the sport to reach after the boring-as-hell French Grand Prix in June.
Whether one likes the classification or not, that Formula 1 operates as an unofficial and unplanned two-tier championship is real. In 2019 too, it has been Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing leading the challenge at the front. Mercedes, who scored consecutive 1-2 finishes in the first five races of the season, stand atop in both the championships. In fact, their dominance was paused thanks to the heat-wave in Europe, the might of Red Bull Racing-Honda and sometimes, the pace of the Ferrari.
For the sixth season in a row, Mercedes have been the class of the field in all aspects — car, drivers and race management. Season after season, Mercedes have worked hard to eliminate the shortcomings of their package and 2019 seems to be their best yet. Be it a high-speed circuit like Canada or a twisty road circuit like Monaco (usually their Achilles heel!), Mercedes’ package has been the one to beat. On the driver front, the Lewis Hamilton-Valtteri Bottas pairing has delivered record-breaking results and a significant chunk of points at every Grand Prix weekend despite the two drivers being locked in a battle for the Drivers’ Championship themselves. In fact, Mercedes is one of the few teams (other being Mclaren?) where both drivers have delivered consistently at almost every race of the season.
Bottas’ Best Season
While in danger of being dropped for 2020, Bottas’ claim that 2019 has been his best Formula 1 season till date is true. The Finnish driver, who went winless in 2018, has seemingly upped his game to match and try and beat Hamilton in the first 12 races. Hamilton, who only recently claimed to not be entirely satisfied with 2019 till date, has won eight out of the 12 races. He’s also added to his existing pole position record (87 career poles) and is 10 race wins away from Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 career wins. Statistics and records aside, Hamilton has also delivered some standout performances — his masterstroke of a tyre strategy in Great Britain, pressure-filled chase in Canada and Hungary, to name a few. And of course, with the 62-point lead, it is a matter of when, and not if, Hamilton could claim his sixth Drivers’ Championship title.
Where Ferrari have failed, Red Bull Racing have delivered — with regards to challenging Mercedes. After the topping the pre-season tests, Ferrari were expected to lead the championship challenge in 2019. However, all the team can boast about in the summer break would be of two pole positions (Bahrain and Austria, courtesy of Charles Leclerc) while ruing the four possible race wins that got away thanks to mechanical gremlins, driver errors and the sheer pace of their rivals. In Bahrain, it was Leclerc’s engine that saw him lose to Hamilton. In Baku, it was the Monégasque’s crash in qualifying that compromised his race. In Austria, it was Verstappen’s late race overtake on Leclerc and finally, in Canada, it was Sebastian Vettel’s time penalty that cost him the win despite crossing the finish line in first place.
Leclerc Yet To Challenge Vettel
Mattia Binotto, Ferrari’s fourth team principal in five years, has labelled this phase as the one for him to build on. However, despite new appointments and hires, the Italian team seems to suffer from the same issues as they historically have — primarily their race management. On the driver front, Vettel’s racing has been patchy — spinning in Bahrain, going off while under pressure and in the lead in Canada and finally, ramming into Verstappen in Great Britain.
Leclerc’s arrival gave the Tifosi much hope and this was further fuelled after his maiden pole position in Bahrain, only his second race as a Ferrari driver — not to mention his defiance of Ferrari’s team-orders at several races this season. Has Leclerc’s arrival put further pressure on Vettel? At the moment, it doesn’t seem so, because Leclerc’s also made many unforced errors, like his Q1 spin-and-hit in Hungary. Like Verstappen and Red Bull Racing, Leclerc and Ferrari will have to patiently see-off the initial ‘teething period’ as the young Monegasque goes through the experience of driving a race-winning car every weekend.
After starting the season as the second-fastest team, Ferrari are increasingly under pressure from Red Bull Racing for second place in the Constructors’ Championship. In fact, Red Bull Racing’s two wins in the last four races are testimony to the team’s development with Honda and further proof of Verstappen’s phenomenal talent. The team’s brutal-but-wise decision to swap seats between Pierre Gasly and Alexander Albon indicates the team’s seriousness in chasing down Ferrari while also evaluating a long-term team-mate for Verstappen.
Verstappen vs Hamilton
At the start of the season, Helmut Marko’s lofty target of five race wins for Red Bull Racing-Honda was laughed upon, especially since it is only the first year of their partnership and given Honda’s embarrassing struggles with McLaren in the recent past. However, history has shown that Red Bull Racing have only gotten faster and stronger after the summer break and the five-win target may well be beaten, especially given the form that Verstappen is in.
Though not in evenly-matched cars (and they may never be so), 2019 could well be remembered as the season when the Verstappen-Hamilton rivalry commenced and enthralled crowds world over. As with their wheel-to-wheel battles, it is fun to watch their respective pit-walls add the element of tyre strategy to outwit the other.
At the start of the season, the mid-field battle was touted to be closer than ever — and it has been so, in qualifying and in the race. Renault and Haas were expected to be fighting for the ‘best of the rest’ (fourth place) while everyone else squabbles and settles for all positions after. In the mid-season break, Renault are placed sixth, while Haas is languishing in ninth place. The standout team in the mid-field has been McLaren — in fourth place, nearly double the points haul of Toro Rosso, who lie in the fifth spot.
McLaren, who will definitely be wondering what they did wrong with Honda from 2015-18, have hit an upward trajectory, one that has been led by their young driver line-up in Carlos Sainz Jr and Lando Norris. It seems that not having the heavy expectations from Fernando Alonso and his legion of fans has allowed McLaren to do what they do best — focus on racing. In three out of the last five races, at least one McLaren has finished ahead of Red Bull Racing’s Gasly. In addition to this, McLaren drivers have both featured regularly in Q3 of qualifying — at least one of them making it to the top-10 of qualifying for the last seven races.
Sainz Jr’s Formula 1 career has undergone a bit of a slump in the last few years. After being loaned by Red Bull Racing to Renault, he was let off the program and later by Renault, only to find refuge in McLaren last year. At the time, McLaren were the second-slowest team on the grid and with almost no guarantees of how well they would fare this year. In hindsight and after his stellar performances this season, Red Bull Racing might wonder if holding on to him would’ve helped them solve their current driver situation.
Norris has definitely been the pick of rookies this season. The young British racer’s performances on track, in radio and on social media have made him a hit among the fans. His eighth place in qualifying in Australia on his Formula 1 debut and a sixth place finish in Bahrain would definitely be our highlights from his several noteworthy performances. For Formula 1, McLaren’s recovery should be the bearer of good news, especially given how popular the team has been in the last several decades. But one way or the other, the McLaren of 2019 doesn’t seem like it has vacancy for Alonso, should he choose to return to the sport.
Raikkonen — The Coolest Ever?
When Kimi Raikkonen left Ferrari for Alfa Romeo (Sauber), many questioned if the oldest driver on the grid was actually holding up a seat for a potential young driver. Come the summer break, Raikkonen sits eighth in the Drivers’ Championship after scoring in eight out of the last 12 races. The Finn has comprehensively out-paced his younger rookie team-mate, Antonio Giovinazzi. In a lighter vein, the Tifosi did ask if Ferrari had indeed dropped the wrong driver at the end of 2018. For the sport, Raikkonen’s pace, quick-witted answers and social media posts are an absolute hit. Despite Hamilton’s achievements and following, one would be surprised if Raikkonen didn’t end up as the most-popular driver on the grid.
The drivers racing at Toro Rosso know that they’re actually auditioning for a seat at Red Bull Racing. This has been proved right in three out of the last four seasons with Verstappen, Gasly and now Albon being the beneficiaries. In 2019, it would be prudent to say that Kvyat and Albon have been evenly-matched, although the Russian has impressed slightly more (and scored a redemptive third place in Germany) — but this could be down to his prior Formula 1 experience. In the Gasly-Albon swap drama, it was heartening to see fans actually question why Kvyat was overlooked; a good change of heart after the initial booing the Russian had to face during his to-forget years with Red Bull Racing and then Toro Rosso.
Haas Has Troubles
Could Haas be the new Force India? That was the question we asked after the pre-season tests. Like the erstwhile Force India F1 Team, Haas is a young team in the sport and despite the steep learning curve, the team has managed to deliver respectable results and 2019 was to be the season they establish themselves as a dependable mid-field outfit. However, the team’s been unable to understand the complex and narrow-ranged Pirelli tyres and have struggled with constant driver clashes on-track.
In Austria, Kevin Magnussen qualified fifth, but could barely managed to hold on to 19th place in the race — a summary of the team’s pace, fast in qualifying only to lose it all in the race. Since Great Britain, the team has followed Romain Grosjean’s advice to use the Australia-spec car and compare it to the most updated version. In the three races, Grosjean’s managed to out-qualify and out-score Magnussen.
It was in the summer break last year when two crucial announcements were made. Daniel Ricciardo announced his signing with Renault, while Racing Point announced their successful takeover from Force India. A year in, neither announcements have had celebration-worthy performances. In the case of Renault, both drivers (the other being Nico Hulkenberg) have suffered from reliability issues, the lowest point being their double retirement in Bahrain where both drivers retired with engine troubles on the same lap. Only five points separate the two drivers in the Drivers’ Championship (Ricciardo ahead of Hulkenberg), but the general opinion is that Hulkenberg would make way either for Bottas or Ocon, depending on who Mercedes choose for their 2020 season.
For Hulkenberg, the lowest point of the season would be crashing out of the rain-affected German Grand Prix while running in the top three positions. As for Ricciardo, his goal would have been to clinch seventh place in the Drivers’ Championship — just after the top three drivers. But it isn’t the 11th place in the championship that would trouble Ricciardo in this year’s break. It would be the fact that Renault have been comprehensively beaten by McLaren — their customer ream. It would be the early success that Red Bull Racing-Honda have enjoyed (two race wins and a pole position). And finally, the demotion of Renault as possibly the slowest power unit in Formula 1. Could there be a way Ricciardo and Red Bull Racing reunite next season?
At Racing Point, the team knew that their struggles were inevitable as they were caused by the liquidity crunch that was forced upon the team after the change in ownership. On the driver front, Lance Stroll’s Sunday drives have been impressive, including his fourth-place finish in Germany, although the Canadian driver, also the son of one of the majority shareholders of the team, has much work to do when it comes to qualifying. In 11 out of 12 races this season, Stroll has been eliminated in Q1 — an embarrassing statistic for a driver who has made 53 race starts. The Mexican Sergio Perez has had flashes of good performances, his highlight being sixth place in Baku. However, he’s failed to add to his points tally in the eight races that have followed after.
In Williams’ struggles, there’s one driver who has made a heroic comeback to the sport and another who drove a heroic race in Hungary. Despite Robert Kubica’s point-scoring drive in Germany, the Pole has failed to impress. He and his fans would know that a second season in his comeback would be next to impossible. In fact, one wouldn’t be surprised if he would lose his drive before the end of the season.
The veteran racer has been outpaced and beaten by rookie George Russell — making it three out of three rookies to impress this season. Russell’s qualifying lap in Hungary followed by the opening lap overtakes were a treat to watch. However, how many seasons before Williams are able to resurrect form and regain their legacy in the sport? They started the hybrid-turbo era (2014 onwards) by finishing third, third, fifth and fifth only to now find it difficult to rise back up from 10th and last place in the championship.
As the season resumes, there’s the month of September to enjoy four races in. Will Ferrari be able to win at least one race this season? Or will ‘Hamilton vs Verstappen’ dominate headlines going forward? And of course, by what race will Hamilton win his sixth World Championship? Let’s hope Formula 1 doesn’t nosedive from its current crescendo and is able to entertain us for the remaining races of the season. We will keep you updated with the latest in Formula 1 on Firstpost.