F1 update: Lewis the Legend!

With four races left to go after today’s, it’s time to do a quick pit stop and look at what we’ve seen and can still expect to see in this year’s F1 season.

To start with the most deserving, a week ago Lewis Hamilton became truly legendary in beating Michael Schumacher’s record of F1 race wins. After today, Lewis now totals an incredible 93 wins, 9 of which so far this season. He also equals Schumacher’s record for the most wins with the same team (72), and today’s Hamilton-Bottas double means Mercedes clinched their 7th constructor world title. Lewis is Formula 1’s uncontested number 1, obviously helped by driving the car that is still relatively far ahead of the competition.

It’s good to be the king!

If Lewis is already the de facto world champion, it’s far more contested who will finish second and third – and who won’t. Valtteri Bottas is probably the ideal second driver with Mercedes eyes. He’s loyal to the team and occasionally manages to challenge Lewis, and so far this year has won two races. The question is however rather if what Max Verstappen (Red Bull) and Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) manage to achieve in inferior cars isn’t more impressive. Even though Ferrari is improving and Charles’s results is the only thing that may save Mattia Binotto’s job as team head, they are still far from Mercedes and Charles’s driving is the only thing making Ferrari look slightly better than the mid-field teams. Max on the other hand does a very good job of scoring podium finishes, including one race win this year, and is still in competition with Valtteri for second place in the championship. Red Bull and Max is also the only constellation that occasionally has managed to challenge Mercedes this season.

A good summary of Ferrari’s season so far…

Charles and Max’s relative success also make it very clear that driving skills still count and that it’s not all about the car. The last two races in Portugal and Italy were a good illustration of how far behind Leclerc Sebastian Vettel currently is, in spite of Ferrari confirming both drive identical cars. Seb had officially doubted this but also admitted that Charles is currently in another league. There is probably little hope of things improving before Seb leaves Ferrari for Racing Point / Aston Martin at the end of the season, and you have to wonder whether Racing Point don’t ask themselves whether switching Perez for Vettel was a wise move. I guess time will tell.

There’s equally little hope of Alex Albon retaining his seat in Red Bull. His oddds improved slightly last week when Pierre Gasly confirmed he’s staying with Red Bull’s little brother Alpha Tauri next year. This beats me as Alpha Tauri is Red Bull’s farm team and Pierre’s stellar performance this season with notably one race win stands in stark contrast to Albon’s total lack of results. Today in Italy, Albon then put what is probably the last nail in his coffin himself, when after a mediocre race he completely messed up the restart after the safety car phase with 7 laps to go, managing to lose the car and end up last. Before Portugal, team boss Christian Horner last had given Albon two races to start performing. The fact that he couldn’t and hasn’t been able to all season most probably means we’ll see another second driver at Red Bull next year.

“How the hell can Max be so fast??”

Behind Mercedes and the best half of Red Bull and Ferrari, the mid field is as competitive as ever with Racing Point, McLaren, Renault and Alpha Tauri all very close, and even Alfa Romeo Racing (ex Sauber) managing to pick up points here and there. Although he’s leaving at the end of the season, Daniel Ricciardo certainly doesn’t lack motivation and looks to be finishing his short spell with the Renault team in style, something that may have been really important when Renault decided to stay committed to F1. The team won’t have much time to regret Ricciardo though, as they will instead need to focus on Fernando Alonso returning to the team he won his two world titles with . With an improving car, it will be very interesting to see what an experienced driver like Alonso will be able to achieve.

Will Alonso be able to recreate the magic?

At the back of the field the most interesting is certainly the discussions around Williams, its new owners (the US investment company Dorilton), and whether George Russell will stay on as driver (apparently Nicolas Latifi has enough financial backing to be certain of his seat). Russell has done a fantastic season given what could be expected, notably reaching qualifying P2 on eight occasions (I know, but we’re talking about Williams here!) and also refers to the fact that he has a contract covering 2021. Then again so did Sergio Perez at Racing Point and that didn’t stop the team from firing him and hire Vettel instead. Perez is still looking for a new seat, and it’s not impossible that he kicks Russell out of Williams. Or maybe Perez could be the one replacing Albon at Red Bull?

The UK seems to have a promising successor to Lewis!

As for Haas, last years’ rock’n’roll team notably thanks to the Netflix documentary “Formula 1 – drive to survive” (watch it if you haven’t!) and the charismatic team boss Günther Steiner with his unique version of German English, it’s been a sad season. The team is nowhere to be seen and not even Steiner’s swearing seem to help anymore. Magnussen and Grosjean are both leaving the team next season, Gene Haas is however said to be committed to another season, so Haas will line up two new drivers in 2021. The rumours have it that one of those may be Michael Schumacher’s son Nic… It also means that both Magnussen and Grosjean could be competing for that second seat at Red Bull, both bringing as much experience as Perez.

With four races to go after today there’s thus still some excitement left, however rather off the track given we already know that Lewis will with very high certainty clinch his well-deserved seventh driver’s title soon, with a new record in the number of race wins! Just a small point though – Lewis doesn’t have a contract for next year, which is slightly strange given how late in the season we are. Most probably he’ll re-sign with Mercedes in the coming weeks, because he wouldn’t be retiring now that he’s beaten most records, would he?

What is up with Sebastian Vettel?

Sebastian (Seb) Vettel is a four-time F1 world champion and generally considered one of the very best drivers in history. Lately though, Seb has lost his mark and nowhere more so than in today’s Italian GP in Monza.

Whereas Vettel’s Ferrari team mate Charles Leclerc drove brilliantly and won the race although arguably having an overall slower car than Mercedes (although Ferrari’s straight line top speed was amazing!), Seb himself not only ruined the day for himself, but did his best to do so for Lance Stroll as well, in a manoeuvre that was certainly not worthy his capabilities. Having gone off the track all by himself in a fast corner, he then regained the track in front of the nose of Stroll’s car, as he came rushing through the same corner. Luckily nothing happened but the resulting 10 second stop-and-go penalty meant the end of Seb’s day and he finished the race in the part of the result list no one looks at.

The problem is that this is not a one-off; Vettel has not won a single race this season and has mixed podium positions with rankings at the bottom of the list. He has started to lose out in qualifying to Leclerc, and also to make mistakes we’ve never seen him make before and at times, like today, showing bad judgement on a level very untypical of him.

Vettel crashing out of the lead in the German GP this year

Italy and Ferrari will be celebrating all night long and rightly so, as Leclerc leaves no doubt that he is currently Ferrari’s Nr 1 driver, also passing Vettel in the overall championship. The question is whether Vettel will be able to come back.

Lewis Hamilton finished third today behind Valtteri Bottas, but the championship is virtually already decided in his favour, also in view of the fact that Ferrari’s two last wins in Monza and Spa have been on circuits very well suited to them, which will not be the case going forward.

F1‘s new star is here!

Charles Leclerc, the 21-year old Monegasque who moved this season from Sauber to Ferrari, is no doubt the new star of F1. Having secured pole position in yesterday’s qualifying, the second youngest driver ever to do so (Seb Vettel being the youngest), he missed the start but only needed a few laps to overtake Vettel and actually making him look quite old. He then drove a perfect race until ten laps from the end when a partial engine breakdown made him lose speed and ending third, much thanks to the safety car in the last two laps. It really doesn’t matter though – Leclerc’s first win will come sooner rather than later.

Elsewhere we’re starting to see first signs of what could be an interesting season. Red Bull (Verstappen finishing 4th today and out of the podium for the first time in seven races) is the only team posing a challenge to Mercedes and Ferrari. Sauber successor Alfa Romeo Racing has good speed with Kimi Räikkönen finishing in the points this time as well. On the other hand Racing Point, ex-Force India, seem to have major issues, as does Renault, continuing the trend of engine failures from last year, this time hitting both cars in the same lap! it’s not fully clear what was behind Ricciardo’s move to Renault, but it doesn’t look like a very lucky one, at least not yet.

Preview of the 2019 F1 season

The 2019 F1 season starts this Sunday, as usual down under in Melbourne. The saddest piece of news is clearly that it will do so without one of the leading names in the F1 circus over the last decades, F1 race director Charlie Whiting, who passed away yesterday at the age of 66. RIP!

The very popular Charlie had been part of the F1 circus since the 70’s

Looking at teams, during my visit to the auto salon in Geneva earlier this month, I had the opportunity to chat to the technical team of the Mercedes AMG F1 team, who agreed on the top teams Mercedes-Ferrari-Red Bull probably dominating this season as well, but also saying that it’s very difficult to make out trends among the mid-sized teams. As per one of the technical heads, it is usually pretty easy to get some quite reliable indicators in pre-season testing, but this has not been the case this year, leaving even the top teams relatively clueless as to the capabilities of the mid-sized teams, hopefully setting the stage for an interesting season.

Alfa Romeo has retained Marcus Ericsson as third/reserve driver

In the team line-up, Force India has changed its name to Racing Point, thereby cutting ties with the team’s previous Indian owner Vijay Mallya. Sauber has officially been rebranded Alfa Romeo Racing, putting an end to the name Sauber that has been part of F1 since 1993.

Among the drivers, the following transfers and changes are the most noteworthy:

  • Charles Leclerc has joined Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari. the Monegasque youngster (21 years) drove for Sauber last year and is seen as perhaps the most promising young talent in the field. Kimi Räikkönen has thereby in fact switched seats with Leclerc, joining Alfa Romeo Racing alongside the Italian rookie Antonio Giovanazzi. This is obviously a (quite expected) move in the wrong direction for Kimi, who struggled to keep up with Vettel during most of last season.
  • Daniel Ricciardo has left Red Bull Racing and joined Nico Hulkenberg at Renault. It was no secret that Red Bull increasingly looked to Max Verstappen as the team’s first driver, but Ricciardo certainly had higher hopes than to join the struggling Renault team. Frenchman Pierre Gasly will join Verstappen at Red Bull, leaving no doubt as to who is the team’s first driver.
  • The Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll has taken his money from Williams to Racing Point, thereby ensuring a seat for his son Lance (and making Williams’ life even more difficult). The may be a bit harsh since Lance did actually achieve some interesting results last year, but he can’t get away from being the most obvious pay driver in the field.
  • Having first fought for his life, then to keep his right hand, and then to race again, Robert Kubica puts an end to a 7-year struggle by making a remarkable return to the scene this season, driving for Williams. At 34 years Kubica is a veteran who will no doubt struggle, together with the 19-year old English rookie George Russell, to get Williams into the points, as the team on paper is among the weakest in this year’s line-up
Few would have thought Kubica would ever return!

Finally there is a new Netflix documentary on the F1 circus based on the 2018 season that I recommend. It’s called Drive to Survive and you can check it out here. Tune in for a hopefully exciting race on Sunday morning!