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?

Vettel stays in F1

As was announced on Thursday, Sebastian Vettel has signed with Racing Point / Aston Martin (the team will be renamed next year) and will replace Sergio Perez as second (first?) driver alongside Lance Stroll in 2021. Vettel thus grabbed the last straw available to stay in F1 in a somewhat competitive team and proved this blog writer wrong. In my defence though, this wasn’t really an opening since Perez had a contract for 2021 and beyond, and had received no signals indicating the team wouldn’t respect it until he got a call from Lawrence Stroll on Wednesday…

You have to believe that Seb is still motivated and has the fire to go to a team that through Stroll has plenty of money and will no doubt be more entrepreneurial and open to Vettel’s inputs than Ferrari was in the last years. As for their chances, I still believe they are a couple of years away from more than occasionally climbing the podium, but I’d welcome Vettel proving me wrong again. It would certainly be nice to see him end is career on a podium rather than next to the track!

When you’re wrong I’ve learned to double down, so here goes: if things don’t turn around at Ferrari until the end of the season, I think Mattia Binotto will not return as team principal in 2021. There you go – let’s see if he proves me wrong as well…

Mid-season F1 update

With half of the strangest Formula 1 season in memory being completed, it’s time for a short update on where things stand. The strangeness obviously comes from the fact that all races are run without audience and that every driver has apparently been threatened with both this and that unless he puts on a mask the second he steps out of his car. I have no problem with masks, but given everyone in the F1 circus is tested on a regular basis, couldn’t they let the guys breathe some fresh air for a few seconds first?

Not sure this is advisable mask usage…

In terms of racing, the more things stay the same, the more they change. What is unchanged is obviously the Mercedes dominance, and within the team, Hamilton’s dominance over Bottas. Mercedes has won six of the seven races so far this season (the exception being the UK GP which Verstappen won) and of the six, Hamilton has won five. The team seems to be in good harmony and it’s very difficult to see another outcome than Mercedes clinching both the driver and constructor titles this year.

Bottas will have to fight for his second place in the rankings though, being threatened by Verstappen and Red Bull, the clear runner-up behind Mercedes. Verstappen has been on five podiums this year, three times as second and twice as third. The second Red Bull driver Alex Albon is nowhere to be seen, and half-way into the season when he was supposed to start delivering, he has been very far from doing so until now. Red Bull and Christian Horner aren’t really known for their patience, so the question is how long Albon has unless things start to happen soon.

A fairly typical race order this season

The team missing from every podium but two this year (Leclerc finishing second in the first race in Austria, and third in the UK) is obviously Ferrari, which increasingly looks like a team in complete disarray. Next to Vettel’s more or less consistent underperformance, Leclerc is now also dropping back, with the latest race in Spa being a complete low point. Vettel and Leclerc finished 12th and 13th after Vettel proved unable to overtake Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo Racing) in the last laps… Ferrari has lost the speed and if that wasn’t enough, team spirits seem to be at an all-time low. A nice example was when during the last race in Spa, Leclerc enquired about the pit strategy over the intercom and was told “we’ll explain it to you later”. Team principal Mattia Binotto is trying to buy himself some time by talking of until 2024 before the team recovers, but I’ll eat a face mask if Binotto is still team principal in 2024 if things don’t improve before then.

Not a happy bunch this year – but where are the masks?!?

On the positive side, it’s interesting to see how some of the middle-of-the-field teams are making progress, none more than McLaren and Lando Norris who so far this season is clearly ahead of the more experienced Carlos Sainz Jr., having so far scored as many points as Charles Leclerc. As we know Sainz is switching seats with Daniel Ricciardo at Renault at the end of the season, so again, motivation may play a role here. Renault is also clearly improving, as is Racing Point and especially Lance Stroll who has really started to deliver. No doubt that makes majority owner and Lance’s father Lawrence Stroll happy, and it also bodes well for the team’s rebirth under the name Aston Martin next season.

In the back of the field, the biggest news is no doubt that the Williams saga is coming to an end after 40 years. The team has been sold to the US private equity firm Dorilton Capital for GBP 136m and Frank William’s daughter Claire will step down as team principal after the Italian GP this weekend. It’s unclear who will take over her role or what the new owners will bring, or even if they retain the Williams name. After 40 years the Williams era comes to an end, and we should all remember the team in happier days!

With Williams (here in 2012, Frank to the right), F1 looses a legendary name!

Finally, Sebastian Vettel still doesn’t have a seat for next season and it looks increasingly probable that he will leave F1. The only possible remaining option that is being rumoured is Vettel joining Racing Point/Aston Martin, but speaking against that is obviously the fact that with Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll, the team has already signed up two drivers. I for one also doubt that Vettel would be motivated enough to join a team that although making progress, is still most probably a few years away from any podiums.

Update after Monza:

By the time you read this the Italian GP at Monza has taken place over the weekend and was to become the most dramatic one this season,with the most unexpected result. Having said that, nothing in the outcome changes the general assessment above. For the first time this year no Mercedes was on the podium, Hamilton having been penalized by a 10-second start and stop penalty that cost him the race, and Bottas being caught in traffic after a bad start, again proving the difficulty in overtaking at Monza. Both Ferraris crashed out in the first half of the race, having both qualified outside the top ten (and Vettel not even making it to Q2). Pierre Gasly in the AlphaTauri won his first F1 race ever, a great revenge for the talented Gasly who lost his seat at Red Bull to a certain Alex Albon and was degraded to AlphaTauri (previously Toro Rosso). Albon in the far superior Red Bull this time finished 15th, and Verstappen didn’t finish the race. Christian Horner has had better weekends and just maybe starts regretting letting Gasly go – as he should.

Pierre Gasly’s first, but probably not last F1 victory!

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!

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.

Vettel snabbast dag 1 i Barcelona

Sebastian Vettel i Red Bull Racing var snabbast första testdagen i Barcelona. Tre dagars tester återstår.

Så här blev tiderna:
1. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, 1:23.265, 79 varv
2. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India, 1:23.440, 97 varv
3. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren, 1:23.590, 114 varv
4. Daniel Ricciardo, Toro Rosso, 1:23.618, 76 varv
5. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari, 1:24.100, 75 varv
6. Michael Schumacher, Mercedes, 1:24.150, 51 varv
7. Sergio Perez, Sauber, 1:24.219, 66 varv
8. Bruno Senna, Williams, 1:25.711, 97 varv
9. Heikki Kovalainen, Caterham, 1:26.035, 31 varv
10. Romain Grosjean, Lotus, 1: 26.809s, 7 varv
11. Charles Pic, Marussia*, 1:28.026, 121 varv
* 2011-års bil