F1: A dramatic end to a strange season!


Those of us who thought the last races of the year would be boring after Lewis made everything clear early November, well, we were wrong. Very wrong. Combining the drama we could have done without (Grosjean), the excitement with the oh so tragic end (Russell) and the final (well, almost) confirmation of drivers and teams for next season, this is probably the most dramatic season end in many years. But let’s start from the beginning, after my last F1 update that I posted early November and that you can read here.

Some very scary moments in Bahrain – look at what remains of the back of the car…

Starting with what we could all have done without is obviously Grosjean’s terrible crash in the first of two Bahrain races two weeks ago. Honestly I think many of us thought anything like this was impossible in modern F1, but at the same time it was also great to see how all the protective measures implemented worked wonderfully – with exception of the barrier that cut his car in half and caused the fire… Among recent safety equipment is the halo that wasn’t really acclaimed when it came. Now, Grosjean said himself that without it he would have been dead. You could add that had everything the drivers wear, from feet to head, been done in another material than Nomex, which withstands 800 degrees C for up to 35 seconds, he would also not be alive, or at least badly burnt, given it took him 28 seconds to get out of the fire… It’s unbelievable that he made it basically without being hurt. We won’t see Grosjean in F1 next year and it’s great it all ended on a dramatic but in the end positive note.

In the week after the first Bahrain race, we then learnt that Lewis had tested positive for Covid and that Mercedes would replace him with George Russell (Williams) for the second Bahrain race. I described George as the big British hope for when the day Lewis retires in my previous F1 post (link same as above), but hope is one thing. The reality is that so far he has never scored a point in F1, in the improving-but-still-too-slow Williams car. Oh how things were to change over the weekend….

If Bottas thought it would be easier racing Russell than Hamilton, he was wrong…

First, Russell set the fastest time in the free training on Friday, which he followed up with qualifying second to Bottas on the grid on Saturday. In the race he then passed Bottas in the first corner and led the race without any problems for the coming 60 or so laps (out of 87), until Mercedes (yes, Mercedes!) manages to screw up a pit stop so badly that he had to come in for a second one, and then for a third one after a puncture. After the first pit stop he was quickly back in the lead. After the second he was back in fifth, but needed only 2-3 laps to for second place (this included overtaking Bottas in a way that didn’t make the Finn look particularly good), After the third stop he came out 15th and by now, even the very calm George was swearing over the intercom. With six laps left, and did however still manage to finish 8th. It goes without saying that he was devastated, but also that anyone who saw the race realized that this was certainly not the end of it for George. Should Lewis not re-sign with Mercedes, which he still hasn’t confirmed, I’m willing to bet a face mask that Mercedes arranges for George’s contract with Williams to be cancelled. If not, he is a very likely successor to Lewis the day the 36-year old quits, which may well be after an 8th title in 2021.

It wasn’t to be this time, but I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of Russell in the Merc dress!

With Russell having the roller-coaster of his life that he could have done without, the one positive thing was that it allowed Sergio Perez to claim his first F1 victory, and few have been more well-deserved. Perez incredibly still doesn’t have a seat confirmed for next year, and how Aston Martin (as the team will be called next season) could put Sebastian Vettel before Perez beats me, but I’ve written enough of that before.

Most of the drivers are by now confirmed for next season, and the most notable is of course that Mick Schumacher will take one of the two Haas seats. Mick is Michael’s son, he looks like a perfect mix of his father and his uncle Ralph, and he didn’t get here just on having a famous name (although that never hurts). He won the FIA F3 European Championship in 2018 and the Formula 2 Championship in 2020 and has so far accumulated three wins in 11 podiums. There will obviously be huge pressure on the 21-year old Mick and everyone will always and constantly compare him to his father, and you can only hope he’s able to handle it. He will certainly also have to answer questions around the current state of his father of which we know very little, certainly not a good sign.

Ferrari has a a very excciting line-up with Sainz Jr next to Leclerc – as long as the car starts performing again….

Next to Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen is the other noteworthy driver who won’t be returning next year, going over the pond to race in the US IMSA Sports Car Series. After Daniel Ricciardo’s decision to move to McLaren, Renault (which will be called Alpine next year) looks forward to the F1 return of Fernando Alonso which promises to be interesting. And McLaren could be a better move than expected for Ricciardo given the team just signed a GBP 185m deal with American sports group MSP Sports Capital, who clearly have their eyes set on race wins next year. Again, it would be a great shame not seeing Sergio Perez in 2021, and late November Perez said he will take a sabbatical unless he’s offered the second Red Bull seat next to Verstappen. If you ask me that’s a very clear choice given Albon seen over the last two years has been a huge disappointment. He’s picked up somewhat in the last three races after Christian Horner gave him an ultimatum, but he’s still miles away from Max Verstappen. Perez on the other hand has consistently delivered over and above what anyone expected and to me is clearly the better driver. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone plans to ask me, so we’ll see what happens in the coming weeks.

And so the strangest season in memory came to an end this afternoon in Abu Dhabi. Lewis was back, meaning Russell was back in the back of the field in his Williams. Lewis said he didn’t feel 100% which was probably true given he “only” qualified in third and finished the very undramatic race in the same place, after Bottas in second and Max Verstappen in first. Max had started on pole for the first time this season and this was his second win. He is by now a clear number 2 behind Lewis and will most probably be an even bigger threat to the latter in 2021!

Lewis is still in front, but the margin is getting smaller!

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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?

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!

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!