F1 pit stop – half time!

After 13 rounds of the 2022 season we’re into the summer break, with the next race not happening until early September in Max Verstappen’s home country of the Netherlands. It’s thus time to take the temperature on the season so far and doing so, a few things seem pretty obvious already now. Most importantly, I’m not really sticking out my neck by saying that I’m pretty convinced Max will be the relatively uncontested world champion in 2022, for the second time around. However, predicting who will finish on places 2-6 is much harder, almost as hard as guessing if Ferrari will ever get their theme strategy together. These are really the main questions for the second half of the season.

Things are going well for Max!

To start off though, there’s been two big pieces of news on the drivers’ side worth mentioning, especially since it all happened in the last days. Firstly, on Wednesday night ahead of the Hungarian GP, Sebastian Vettel informed Lawrence Stroll, owner of the Aston Martin F1 team, that he’s retiring at the end of the season. Aston would have loved to keep him for another year, especially since Seb has delivered more than what should be possible with the current car, but Lawrence is said to have accepted Seb’s decision, mostly driven by his wish to spend more time with his family. Lawrence didn’t lose any time though and instead picked up the phone to Fernando Alonso whom he knows well, offering him what sounds like a deal too good to say no to. It was all done in five days and Alonso, about to turn 41, will thus step in to Seb’s shoes as a mentor to Lance Stroll and hopefully with a faster Aston car next year.

Neither Alonso nor Lawrence Stroll apparently saw a need to inform Renault/Alpine boss Otmar Szafnauer though, who claims he only learnt the news through the official F1 communication. His disappointment is indeed understandable since with Ocon and Alonso, Alpine had a driver pairing helping them to what is currently P4 in the constructor championship, ahead of all teams except for the three big ones. There’s a slight déjà vu here remembering Ricciardo’s move from Renault two years ago when he seemed to be on the way to McLaren, where things have basically gone south every since. Let’s thus hope Fernando knows what he’s doing and that Aston will start performing next year!

Thanks for everything Seb – Ferrari will never forget you!

At the top of the ranking, it’s really all about Max Verstappen. Red Bull started the season on par or sometimes perhaps even slightly behind Ferrari, but the last races have confirmed that they’re back where they were last year, with Perez doing a mighty fine job in spite of being the most obvious “second” driver of all teams, currently ranking P3 in the drivers’ standings. Max leads by a margin of 80 points on Leclerc in second, his driving is as phenomenal as his ego is large (as we know, a combination any good racing driver needs to have!) and in combination with the most professional team on the circuit, it’s really difficult to see how anyone could challenge him, especially since Ferrari insists on giving him the helping hand he doesn’t need through one tactical misstep after the other.

Binotto doesn’t have much to smile about currently…

Hungary was the latest but probably not the last example of tactics going wrong, having everyone except Ferrari F1 boss Binotti scratching their heads. With 30 laps to go and with Leclerc in the lead, the team pitted the car and put him on hard tires. In a way they had no choice as it was too early for softs, but Leclerc hadn’t been complaining about the mid tires and would probably have lost less time staying on them until the softs would have made it until the end. Those are his thoughts, not mine. This is the latest in a series of mistakes, such as for example in Leclerc’s home race in Monaco when Ferrari pitted him at the same time as Sainz, which cost him the win, or Montreal, where the team pitted Sainz rather than Leclerc who was in the lead, again costing him the race. If you add to this mechanical failures and to be fair, also driver mistakes, the second part of the first half of 2022 hasn’t been much to cheer about in Maranello. Binotto however doesn’t see the need to change anything and insists everyone’s happy. So far Leclerc and Sainz don’t say anything, but If things don’t improve quickly in the second half, I very much doubt that will remain the case.

So what about positions 2 to 6? Well, there’s in total only 27 points between Leclerc in second and Lewis Hamilton in sixth, with Perez, Russell and Sainz (in that order) between them. Anyone of the six can thus take second position and if the current trend is anything to go by, it’s definitely Mercedes who are on the way up, and I would tend to put my money on either Russell or Hamilton, together with Perez. Then again, if Ferrari manage to find the form of the first part of the season again, it could also be Leclerc or Sainz. Not much of a conclusion here as you can see, time will tell!

If Russell finishes in P2, will Lewis call it a day?

Except for Alpine Renault who as mentioned are currently in P4, there’s really not much to cheer about for any of the other teams. Alfa Romeo started the season well but don’t seem to get anywhere currently. The same goes for McLaren and especially Daniel Ricciardo who is systematically underperforming Lando Norris, Haas where Mick Schumacher is however starting to show his talent, Aston Martin and Alpha Tauri where not much is happening, and finally Williams who have more speed than last year but still not enough to secure them points in most races. McLaren, Alfa Romeo, Alpha Tauri and Aston Martin should all be on stable footing in terms of their financing, I’m less sure if that’s the case for Haas and Williams, so the second half of the year may well decide if we see them again in 2023. Stay tuned!

F1 action off the track

In the absence of driving, the F1 circus has still managed to produce some entertainment these last weeks. Mid-May we learnt that Daniel Ricciardo is leaving Renault after only 12 months to join McLaren, and around a week before the real bombshell was dropped, namely that Sebastian Vettel is leaving Ferrari at the end of the season. He will be replaced by Carlos Sainz Jr., and will move on to…. Right. We don’t know, even three weeks after the announcement (and waiting for that piece of news has now made this post a bit old…).

To start with the less surprising news, Daniel Ricciardo leaves Renault after only one season, in a move that made Renault F1 principal Cyril Abiteboul frustrated and speak of a lack of trust. My guess is that Ricciardo is at least as frustrated by a car that last season failed to show any kind of progress over 2018, and you have to believe didn’t give any reason to think it would be better this year. Renault didn’t deliver on everything Ricciardo was promised when joining, and Cyril should thus stop complaining and work on getting his team to perform instead.

Didn’t have much to laugh about lately…

That of course assumes he still has a team, which is far from certain given Renault’s and France’s current status. The French state owns 15% of stumbling mother company Renault, which sacked 15.000 employees last week and has seen demand rock bottom in Covid times. It wouldn’t be a massive surprise that the French state pressures Renault to pull the plug on F1, making Ricciardo’s move look even wiser. Let’s be honest: Daniel should never have left Red Bull and joined Renault in the first place. But with McLaren, he’ll at least be driving for a team that seems to be on a roll, that has plenty of money from Lando Norris’s father Adam, who seems to be slightly more business-minded than the French state, and where next to Lando, he’ll probably have a first driver status.

The far larger surprise came a week earlier with Vettel announcing he’s leaving Ferrari at the end of the season (if we end up having one), when his contract comes to an end. Given it’s unclear where he’s going or if he’s leaving the sport altogether, this has led to loads of speculation as to his reasons. It’s unclear if he was offered more than a one-year extension and on what terms, some therefore claiming money played a role. A lot has also been focused on the lack of a cultural fit at Ferrari after Luca di Montezemolo left and was replaced by the not-very-FI-loving Sergio Macchione and his foot soldier Maurizio Arrivabene. There may be some truth to both points, but you have to believe Vettel is mainly in it for winning races, not for the money. And in terms of culture, the changes didn’t happen yesterday. Vettel has been driving under new management since 2015 and there didn’t seem to be any issues until he started making mistakes. And that was after a certain Charles Leclerc joined, and regularly drove faster – and better.

Not Seb’s prowdest moment

If there is indeed a cultural issue, it has no doubt been complicated by the Monegasque Leclerc, a true Southerner who is fluent in Italian, both language- and cultural-wise. Leclerc is also young enough not to have demands on anything but driving his car, which he does very well. But I doubt this is fundamentally about culture. My guess would be that it’s more related to Vettel sensing he’s losing his first driver status and as a four-time world champion, maybe just not having the energy to go for it again. He has nothing left to prove, which is also the reason he may be leaving the sport.

All good things come to an end sometime

If Vettel says on, his options are rather limited. That he would go to a smaller team with no chance of winning races doesn’t feel very likely. That basically limits it to one option, given Albon doesn’t seem to be at risk at Red Bull (and Verstappen most certainly isn’t). That would be to take the second seat at Mercedes next to Lewis, replacing Valtteri Bottas who’s been on rolling one-year contracts since joining the team in 2017. However, whether Mercedes would be prepared to open such a potential powder keg and whether Lewis Hamilton would agree to it is far from certain. It’s also highly doubtful whether Vettel, who could never challenge Lewis’s first driver status, would accept to play second fiddle to him.

The winner in all this is of course Carlos Sainz Jr, son of legendary rally driver Carlos Sainz, who did an excellent job at McLaren in 2019. By contracting him for 2021, Ferrari also completes the transition to the next generation of drivers. If Albon starts delivering, Red Bull can be said to have done the same thing, leaving Mercedes trailing behind – and making it even less probable they would engage an ageing Sebastian Vettel. The most likely option therefore seems to be that it’s “Tschüss, Seb” thanks for everything!

World champion for Red Bull in 2013 – Vettel’s really happy days!