F1: same same but (not very) different

Four races into the new F1 season and it’s time to make a first pit stop and see what’s happened so far. Any unexpected positive surprises, any upsets, or for that matter any disappointments? So far the four races have taken place in Bahrain, Italy, Portugal and today in Barcelona, Spain, and we now have a two-week break before race number five, the most traditional of them all in Monaco on 23 May. The executive summary so far would go something like same same (as last season) and so far not very different, but if you read on I’ve done my best to add a bit more colour to that.

What is very similar to last season is the two top teams. No changes neither here, nor in the respective top drivers – Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. After Lewis’s win today in Barcelona, Mercedes have an 29-point lead in the constructors’ championship, with Lewis leading the drivers’ by 14 points ahead of Max. The difference is smaller than last year however, with Max pretty much breathing down Lewis’s neck, as shown by the podiums so far where he’s been on all, and winning in Italy. Behind the two, Bottas isn’t surprising on the upside any more than last year, continuing to play the role of the good soldier, but also to show that he’s slower than both Lewis and Max. Red Bull newcomer Sergio Perez on the other hand is off to a promising start (already far better than his predecessor Albon was at any point during his time), and it will be interesting to see if with a few more races under his belt, he can challenge the top duo, or become the natural number three on the podium.

Lews and Max fighting it out at a rainy Imola GP

So to use some hockey terminology (but with no respect for the fact that a hockey line always has three players…), if the first line is made up of Mercedes and Red Bull, the second is also relativeliy clear, at least so far in points, consisting of McLaren and Ferrari. For McLaren this is a continuation of the positive trend from last year, with Lando Norris so far ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, even clinching third place in Italy. Then again, Ricciardo was ahead of Norris today in Barcelona, so things may be turning more even. Over at Ferrari it’s a bit disappointing as the car doesn’t seem to have become more competitive than last year. So far newcomer Carlos Sainz Jr. is also well behind Charles Leclerc. Before the season I wrote that I saw Leclerc-Sainz as perhaps the best driver-duo of any team this year. I guess it’s too early to say, but Carlos Jr. needs to step up his game for that to come through. As for Ricciardo, it still remains to be seen whether his move away from an uncontested first seat at Renault to McLaren was the right one, but there is no doubt that McLaren is faster than Alpine (ex Renault).

Norris continues to deliver at McLaren!

The third line is quite crowded this season, regrouping Alpine, AlphaTauri, Aston Martin (ex Racing Point) and Alfa Romeo (and no, it’s not because they all start with an A…). Except for Aston Martin, the remaining three can be said to be roughly where they were last year, and again, with the established drivers so far ahead of the newcomers. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) shows that he hasn’t forgotten how to drive a car although he’s still behind Esteban Ocon who this year is faster than at any point previously. Yuki Tsunoda still needs to prove himself at AlphaTauri, and especially vs Pierre Gasly. The big disappointment so far is Aston Martin and within the team, unfortunately again Sebastian Vettel. The car seems far less competitive than last year (I’ll leave it open as to whether that’s because it’s no longer a copy of the Mercedes…), and Vettel is so far far well behind Lance Stroll and yet to score a point. Finally Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi are quite even at Alfa Romeo, which is pretty much where it was last year, meaning at the end of that third line.

That leaves Williams and Haas in the fourth line, which is a bit unfair to Williams who are so far clearly better and well on their way up if they keep progressing. Pretty much all of this is thanks to George Russell who continues to deliver as much as the car allows for, so far scoring 8 points. Haas on the other hand is even more disappointing than last year, something not even the talent Mick Schumacher clearly displays can change. The Haas is simply not competitive, but arguably the even bigger issue is the team’s second driver Nikita Mazepin who came as a condition for the Russian sponsor money from his billionaire father, and who is outright dangerous on track. The list of incidents so far has resulted in an equally long list of Instagram jokes on him and the new nickname Maze-spin, and his private behaviour isn’t making him any new friends either. Haas is in dire straits and in desperate need of sponsorship money, but this is of course the worst side of F1, when a team is forced to, and accepts taking on an unfit driver as part of the package. I really do hope things improve before something really bad happens, as Mazepin is a danger both to himself and others.

One of the funnier Mazepin jokes making the rounds on Insta…

There we go – we still have 19 races left this season so things can, and hopefully will still change around a bit. Will Verstappen be able to challenge Lewis for real this year? Will Perez become as fast as Max, and will Ricciardo prove that his move was the right one? Time will tell as we get further into the season, stay tuned!

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!