1. The five year itch?
3rd. 4th. 2nd. 2nd. That’s Sebastian Vettel’s championship placings during his F1 career with Ferrari. It’s not just the hangover of last year’s disappointment that points to next year being critical, it’s history. Consider the difference between the record above and these two sequences of championship placings:
- 2nd. 4th. 2nd. 2nd.
- 3rd. 2nd. 2nd. 5th (crucially, missing almost half of that last season).
Those are the sequences for two very different endings. The first – identical to Seb’s record to date apart from one place difference on the first year – was Fernando Alonso’s first four years at Ferrari. Alonso’s fifth year ended with 6th place, recriminations and an exit without a Ferrari championship or any further wins in the sport. The second sequence was Michael Schumacher’s first four years at Ferrari: the fifth year ended with a first Ferrari championship and the start of an era of total domination.
Is Vettel going to follow the Alonso script or the Schumacher script? It’s easy to write him off and assume that the Alonso script is the more likely but it’s not like Schumacher didn’t make mistakes with a competitive car in 97, 98 and 99. In among Vettel’s mistakes last year, there were some startling comeback drives. It’s hard to see who else is more equipped to take the fight to Hamilton over a long championship season in 2019.
Whatever happens, it’s championship or bust for Sebastian and that’s going to make for compelling viewing.
(Bonus pub quiz question: Schumacher’s reign aside, only four other drivers in the history of F1 have lasted more than five consecutive seasons at Ferrari. This is the exclusive club that Seb wants to join. Can you name the four ? Answers at the end.)
2. The next Villeneuve?
Not the least of Vettel’s problems will be his new team mate, Charles Leclerc. Forget the headlines about his age, the stat that matters is that the last time that Ferrari hired a driver with less than two seasons of F1 experience, it was on the back of Niki Lauda – the dominant team leader and reigning World Champion – leaving at short notice, it was 1978, the driver in question had already done a couple of races in the third car and his name was Gilles Villeneuve.
Leclerc’s appointment is a once in a generation piece of boldness from a team not exactly known for risk taking, and not one that I thought possible. There are inevitably going to be mistakes this early in a career but the evidence to date suggests that the high points could be magnificent. What approach Sebastian takes to accepting that he is the most consistent and successful driver in the team but he might not be the quickest driver any longer could be the defining narrative of the season. (For an example of approaching this problem badly, see Perez dealing with Ocon; for an example of approaching this problem well, see Button dealing with Hamilton at McLaren.)
3. Verstoppen for Gasly?
A crash on his opening stint in testing on his first time behind the wheel of a Red Bull wasn’t a good way for Pierre Gasly to start his career with the team. Watching Gasly coming up through the junior formulae has shown speed, but also some evidence of fragility. This was particularly evident in the 2015 GP2 season when – unlike his DAMS team mate Alex Lynn – he failed to convert any of his four pole positions into a win.
When he won the GP2 championship the following year in the dominant Prema, he did so narrowly – and with fewer race victories – than his rookie team mate Giovinazzi. Being sent off to Super Formula in Japan after suggesting to the media that he would be joining Toro Rosso, leaving a shattered Daniil Kyvat to take the vacant space at Toro Rosso instead, didn’t say too much about the good Dr Marko’s confidence in him, either.
If Gasly were staying at Toro Rosso, this wouldn’t matter so much. But if there’s one team mate in F1 you don’t want to show weakness of any variety to, it’s Max Verstappen. For the sake of his F1 career, Gasly is going to need to lay a glove on Max at some point in the first six races or he’s in deep trouble. It’s not just Max that will show no mercy: Red Bull are a team that have shown no sentiment where young drivers are concerned. As Stoffel Vandoorne will tell Pierre, a blip transforms into the end of a career remarkably quickly in F1.
4. What will Adrian Newey do?
One of the interesting details in Adrian Newey’s autobiography was that the spate of KERS-related breakdowns early in the Red Bull Renault relationship wasn’t because he didn’t like or understand KERS, as was reported at the time. Instead, it was because he had deliberately pushed for a battery formation that he knew would cause short-term reliability problems but would create a season’s advantage over everyone else in weight distribution once they’d got it to work. Newey prioritised a long-term strategic advantage over short-term reliability in the absolute confidence that the team would be able to make the approach work.
For the first time since 2007, Red Bull has a new engine partner. They’re now the sole customer of an engine manufacturer harshly criticised and eager to show what they can do. It would be no surprise to see some packaging innovations, a spate of early season breakdowns and some devastating end of season pace – just as we did in 2009. Red Bull Honda won’t be aiming at a 2019 championship, but they’ll be doing everything possible to be ready to challenge for one in 2020.
5. Bottas finnished?
One of the factors overlooked in Nico Rosberg’s sudden retirement was that he only had one more year’s contract with Mercedes at the time. As Toto Wolff has more or less admitted since by saying that they weren’t going to be able to keep Lewis and Nico in the same team, it was unlikely that Nico’s contract was going to be renewed, or that there were other top teams interested in making him an offer.
A final season where your team doesn’t have total confidence in you and every single aspect of every qualifying and race performance is analysed in great depth for positive or negative signs is not a recipe for good performances, and you can’t blame Nico for wanting to avoid it. Just ask Brendon Hartley or Jo Palmer – or even Kimi – how that experience turned out for them.
At almost 30, the easy story to write is that Valtteri is never going to get a better chance to win than at Mercedes this year. If he’s going to do that he’s going to have to outperform Lewis at the same time as ignoring the cutaway shot to Esteban Ocon waiting patiently in the Mercedes pit every time something bad happens. That’s a big ask. A season like last year’s and it’s not a stretch to imagine Ocon taking over the seat before the end of the season rather than – as expected – at the end of it. If that happens, then it’s difficult to see anything for Bottas beyond a return to the Williams team where he started his F1 career.
(This does point to a rare apparent weakness in Mercedes strategy: it assumes that Lewis is around and at the top of his game for another two to three years. That’s not impossible, but it would be the longest purple patch in the history of the sport if it does happen. Hamilton is indisputably one of the greatest, but he is not without interests outside of the sport. Unless he continues to be able to challenge the high watermark of the Schumacher stats, he’ll be gone, and Mercedes will be left to regret not hiring Ricciardo when they had the chance.)
6. An Italian renaissance?
In 1991, there were six F1 teams based in Italy and an astonishing 13 Italian F1 drivers. (OK – go on, quiz question 2, name the teams and the drivers, answers at the end.) Given the rich history of Italian teams and drivers, it seems inconceivable that we’ve had no full time Italian driver in F1 since Jarno Trulli’s final season in 2011.
Italian drivers have never gone away: 2011 was also the last sighting of Vitantonio Liuzzi, one of the great lost talents of the sport, and Raffaele Marciello looked a great prospect until an uneven GP2 season and Stefano Domenicali’s departure from Ferrari saw him removed from the Ferrari junior driver roster and finished his single seater career.
The difference since the end of the last century? It’s probably something to do with the end of support from Italian F1 teams. There are now only two Italian based teams, for a start. Toro Rosso might be based in Italy but they’ve shown no indication to hire an Italian driver since Liuzzi. As for Ferrari, the decision to hire Ivan Capelli in 1992 that ended in the Italian media hounding a driver to the disintegration of a promising career appears to have left some deep scars. Ricciardo’s Italian roots are the closest that any Italian driver has come to being considered for a drive for the prancing horse since.
It’s good news, then, that 2019 not only sees a full time drive for the Italian Antonio Giovinazzi but the first time that an Italian has driven for an Italian powered team since the nadir of Ferrari’s 1992 season. (Yes, the “Petronas” engine in Fisichella’s 2004 Sauber was technically a second-hand Ferrari, but come on – this is an Italian driving for “Alfa-Romeo Racing”, and that’s a genealogical line that connects Nuvolari, Farina and Giacomelli.)
Giovionazzi is up against a tough team mate in Raikkonen and it’ll take a few races to get rid of the rustiness after a couple of years out of regular racing, but his GP2 season in 2016 shows he’s got the speed and the talent to match anyone if he can provide some consistency to underline it.
7. Racing pointless?
The team that was Force India faces an interesting year. For so long kept afloat by some talented staff whilst the financial affairs of Vijay Mallya disintegrated, it’s now under new management. It’s difficult to see where they go from here: the lack of investment in the car was starting to show last year, the Merc engine no longer gives the advantage it has done in the past, and the involvement of Lance Stroll’s dad in the ownership team is going to cause some issues. (I’d pay good money to be in the debrief the first time that Perez – apparently previously protected by the amount his sponsors contribute to the team – hits Stroll in a race.)
The worst part of all this is that the team have sacked Ocon – their fastest driver – in order to make way for Stroll Jr. There are few teams that recover quickly from the morale sapping impact of losing their quickest driver, and Racing Point look less equipped than most to handle this. They’ll score points, but Perez needs someone to keep him on his toes, and the team needs to decide whether it’s more than a Stroll franchise. Equalling the performance of the past few seasons will be a tall order, and calm will be needed in amongst a number of feisty characters.
8. Zero to hero?
Lewis Hamilton said not so long ago that he found it hard to imagine anyone from his background making it to F1 again, and after watching a number of well funded and well supported drivers making their way predictably up the talent ladder, F1 could do with a driver or two with a less smooth path into the formula.
Step forward Alexander Albon. So far, his bio reads: dropped by Red Bull in 2012 (and nearly quitting motorsport as a result), breaking a collar bone in the middle of his rookie GP2 season in 2017, only racing in 2018 on a race-by-race deal until his performance convinced the DAMS Formula 2 team to sign him up for the rest of the season, and then scooping up a Toro Rosso seat at the last minute when Daniel Riccardo departed Red Bull (and despite having signed a Formula E contract). The rise of the Anglo-Thai driver is the closest we’ll see to a genuine zero to hero story for a long time, even if a dad who had a low-level career in British club motorsport gives him a little bit more background than Lewis had.
More than that, Albon’s performances in coming in just behind Lando Norris and George Russell in the Formula 2 standings suggests that the story might not have finished yet. Looking at the problems at Williams and McLaren, he’s arguably the rookie most likely to spring a surprise this year.
9. Dan dare?
It was hard not to sympathise with Danny Ric after Azerbaijan last season. In the off-season, he admitted – in a typically understated fashion – that the events there had an impact on his decision to leave Red Bull. Having the emotional maturity to recognise a team heading in one direction, acknowledge it and move on could have been both the right and the least successful option to take.
There are few drivers who have the talent to haul their machinery into places where it has no right to be, and fewer still of these at the wheel of machinery that doesn’t belong at the front of the grid. At tracks where talent can make a difference – think Monaco, Hungary, Azerbaijan – then don’t take your eyes off him. On other tracks, then putting the best overtaker in Formula 1 in a car that will force him to do a lot of overtaking will guarantee entertainment. If he gets a day in the sun, it’s difficult to imagine a more popular winner.
10. Can the garagistes return?
History shackled McLaren and Williams in the noughties in a way that was particularly harsh. With recent experience of total dominance, unrivalled technological facilities and substantial resources they were able to do more than any of the other teams to mask the widening gulf between independent teams and manufacturer owned teams. (See Jordan for an example of what it looked like on the other side of the divide.) As a result, McLaren turned down an offer to sell a substantial part of the team to Mercedes and Williams turned down an option to sell a substantial part of the team to BMW, only to see an undeterred Mercedes and BMW purchase Brawn and Sauber instead.
The past ten years have seen plentiful false dawns and painful decline for both teams. This is particularly the case for Williams, which is more committed to a large permanent headcount than McLaren. Both teams are still talking about big dreams (Indy!) but are in a precarious position. McLaren’s design shortcomings were cruelly exposed last year when they were no longer able to blame the Honda engine for problems and Williams design shortcomings are cruelly exposed… well, every time they turn up to a race.
With the disruption at Racing Point and the Red Bull stable moving to Honda power, both teams have a chance to step up and become Factory B teams this year – Williams to become Mercedes’ preferred partner and McLaren to become Renault’s. Haas have shown both how this can work in the new era but some compromises, humble pie and hard work lie ahead if Williams and McLaren are both to achieve this. Pinning their hope instead on new regulations or their ability to innovate themselves back to the front at this point feels tantamount to sailing past a safe harbour in a storm. I’d love to see them come back and fight for championships, but they need to find some safe ground first – even if that means kowtowing to the manufacturers for a bit.
Answer to q1 – four drivers who have managed more than five consecutive seasons in F1 with Ferrari (chronological order):
- Wolfgang von Trips (56-61)
- Gilles Villeneuve (77-82),
- Rubens Barrichello (00-05),
- Felipe Massa (06-13).
If you got any of:
- Clay Regazzoni (70-72, 74-76),
- Gerhard Berger (87-89, 93-95)
- Kimi Raikkonen (07-09, 14-18)
then you were close: they all had more than five seasons, but with a break driving for other teams in between (BRM, McLaren and Lotus respectively).
Answer to q2 – Italian teams and drivers in 1991:
- Scuderia Italia,
- Modena (aka Lamborghini).
- Stefano Modena (Tyrrell),
- Riccardo Patrese (Williams),
- Michele Alboreto (Footwork),
- Alex Caffi (Footwork),
- Gabriele Tarquini (Fondmetal/AGS),
- Ivan Capelli (Leyton House),
- Fabrizio Barbazza (AGS),
- Emanuele Pirro (Scuderia Italia),
- Pierluigi Martini (Minardi),
- Gianni Morbidelli (Minardi/Ferrari),
- Alessandro Zanardi (Jordan),
- Andrea de Cesaris (Jordan),
- Nicola Larini (Modena-Lamborghini).