F1 pit stop: racing until the end!

It’s high time to do a quick pitstop and check the status of the F1 season as we’re around 3/4 in. The short answer to that is that it’s tighter and more open than it’s been in many, many years, which is of course really exciting. Since my last update from July after the Austrian GP that you can read here if you missed, it, we’ve had another seven races counting the one today in Turkey, and on these we’ve had no less than five different winners. That’s right, even though the title will go to either Hamilton or Verstappen, we’ve reached a stage where more teams and drivers fight for individual wins, and that’s of course exactly the way it should be!

Esteban Ocon won the Hungarian GP

As mentioned this summer, this is partly driven by the fact that next season will see radical changes to the cars, something I will come back to in the coming weeks, but which means that development efforts on this season’s cars have stopped or at least been heavily reduced. Small tweaks are certainly still done, but somehow the mid-sized teams seem more successful doing so than the large ones. It does however have the positive consequence of more open racing, and that will most probably remain the case until the end of the season.

In my last post from July, Red Bull had won the last five races and Max Verstappen had won four of those. I therefore stated that if Mercedes didn’t wake up rather quickly the season risked being over and indeed, Mercedes did wake up however, and I guess no one really expected less. Starting in Silverstone, traditional a track favorable to Mercedes, it was a 1st and 3rd position for Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and Lewis than moved on to win in Russia as well, finishing on the podium of most other races. Bottas then also won today’s race in Turkey, but with the two Red Bulls on the podium as well. That allowed Max to move ahead of Lewis again in the standings so it’s pretty clear that this will go down to the wire and for the first time in a long time, Lewis is seriously challenged for the world title.

He’s got the smile and momentum back!

So what about those other teams? Well, McLaren has only become more competitive, partly that goes for Renault as well, Aston Martin is somehow also part of the mix, at least when conditions become a bit unpredictable, and what George Russell delivers in an improving but still inferior Williams car continues to impress. Lando Norris (Mc Laren) is currently fourth in the standings betwen Valtteri (third) and Perez (fifth), but should really have been third as there is really no excuse for him not winning one of the best races so far, that in Sotchi two weeks ago. He led the whole race and when the rain came with a few laps to go, he refused to follow team orders to come in and switch tyres and ended up in the sand with two laps to go. That’s a real rookie mistake but it’s one that shouldn’t have happened.

This is when you should have come in, Lando…

The other big news in the last weeks is of course that Valtteri Bottas is leaving Mercedes at the end of the season, and that George Russell is taking over his seat. This was widely expected but it was nice to see it being done in an amicable way, with Valtteri departing not directly but rather at the end of the season. He will then go to Alfa Romeo Racing, taking over retiring Kimi’s seat, and that Russell replaces him is of course no surprise. What George has managed to do with the under-performing Williams car this season is simply sensational, and of course we also remember when he replaced Lewis during a race at the height of Covid and was very close to winning it. For him, this is a terrific chance of showing how good he really is. For Valtteri it’s obviously quite a large step in the wrong direction, and thus probably one towards retirement.

My guess is that Russell will make life tougher for Lewis than Valtteri did.

A final thing to note in this more competitive field than we’ve had in many years is how close many teams’ drivers are. Sainz and Leclerc (Ferrari) are sixth and seventh in the standings with half a point between them. Alonso and Ocon (Alpine) and Vettel and Stroll (Aston Martin) follow, next to each other, and even though Lando is ahead of his team mate Ricciardo and Max is a head of Sergio Perez, the distance is getting smaller. I guess the way to read this is that we have a season of very good drivers, in most cases getting as much of their cars as is possible – and that’s exactly how it should be!

F1 pit stop – the future looks orange!

We’re nine rounds into the F1 season 2021 and it’s time to check the temperature and see where things stand before we move into the mid-season with the British GP in two weeks, the Hungarian at the end of the month and then the Belgian at the end of August. I dare say that even those who find F1 predictable and boring have something to cheer about this year, because so far, predictable is certainly something this season is not. Before moving into the action, let me just note that at the start of the season I wrote that if we were lucky, we may see spectatcors return to some of the races this year. Gladly that is now the case, and it’s great to see!

The Dutch fans didn’t miss Max’s win in Austria!

Going back to where we left off, in my last update I put up the question whether Max (Verstappen, Red Bull) was going to catch up with Lewis (Hamilton, Mercedes) and I believe we have the answer. Not only has he caught up with Lewis but he has in fact clearly passed him, just as Red Bull has passed Mercedes to become the team to beat in the line-up. The most recent five races have all been won by Red Bull with Max winning four and Sergio (Perez) one. But it gets even worse from Mercedes’s perspective, since Lewis has only been on two podiums in those same five races, clinching second place in France and in the first of two Austrian GP’s. Perez has meanwhile also found his footing and is ahead of Bottas, so currently there is little doubt that Red Bull and Max are favourites for this year’s constructor and driver’s title. The die-hard Mercedes optimists will note that Silverstone in two weeks is a typical Mercedes track and they’re right about that, making it a pretty decisive one: if Red Bull beats Mercedes in Silverstone, that’s probably it. If they don’t, my bet is that that’s it anyway.

Lewis is only ahead of Max outside of the track these days

Behind the two top teams, McLaren and Lando Norris’s progress is no less suprising. Lando drives like there’s no tomorrow and he does so in a fast car that is now very close to the two top teams. Daniel (Ricciardo) was apparently right in his call to join McLaren rather than stay at Renault, but he needs to up his game considerably to keep up with Lando who’s clearly emerging as the team’s first driver. He’s finished P3 three times this year and it’s probably only a question of time before he wins his first race. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are doing what they can in their Ferraris which are faster than last year but still inferior not only to Red Bull and Mercedes, but currently also to McLaren. With only two points between them, the two Ferraristi are no doubt the most balanced driver pair on the grid!

The mid-field sees roughly the same teams as earlier, except for McLaren. Aston Martin where Seb Vettel has found his footing which is very nice to see, but the car, although improving, isn’t really there yet. AlphaTauri, where Pierre Gasly continues to deliver strongly but Yuki Tsunoda, although having the speed, seems to have great difficulty in avoiding crossing white lines and getting penalties. Alpine is there as well with notably Fernando Alonso showing his routine, but the car is less performing than last year. Pretty much the same in other words but with Gasly’s continued strong performance and Seb finding the speed again standing out as positives.

In reality, Lando’s car is mostly far ahead of Ricciardo’s

Finally there’s not much to report on from the back of the field. Kimi (Räikkönen) and Antonio (Giovinazzi) can hope to take a point here and there in their Alfa Romeos if some of the top cars have problems, and George Russell will certainly do so in the coming races as it’s truly amazing how he manages to get every last hp out of the Williams car. By the way, speculation as to whether he will replace Bottas at Mercedes before the end of the season doesn’t go away. Finally, whilst Haas remain very much last in the line-up, at least Mazepin seems to have found some stability and stopped endangering other drivers in every race. Mick Schumacher beats him in most races, but he can’t work wonders either in a car that is nowhere close to where it was a couple of years ago.

If you’re thinking that Mercedes will never let Red Bull win the title this season without a fight, that would certainly be true in a normal year, but in view of the very big changes that will hit the F1 circus next season and that we’ll come back to in a separate post in the coming months, Mercedes as well as other teams have officially stated that they will not develop their 2021 cars any further. It’s therefore difficult to imagine that something could happen that fundamentally changes the outcome this year, and that would mean that we’ll see a new world champion, one who for the first time ever is from the Netherlands and whose name is Max Verstappen!

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!

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?

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!

Lewis fends of challenge to his crown – for now

Today’s Hungarian GP presented the toughest challenge yet to Lewis Hamilton’s current status as the undisputed Nr 1 F1 driver. Max Verstappen beat him to the pole (as did Bottas, Lewis only starting 3rd) and also took the lead in the race, and further fended off several attacks from Lewis at various points. With 20 laps to go, Mercedes then took the big gamble of calling in Lewis for a change to soft tires, at a point when he was on Verstappen’s heals. The tire change gave Max the benefit of a 20 second lead, but a combination of Lewis’s fantastic driving skills, the faster soft tires and Verstappen’s deteriorating medium tires meant Lewis caught up with him and took the lead almost unchallenged with two laps to go. A brilliant combination of team tactics and top driving!

A very well-deserved, 7th Hungarian GP win for Lewis Hamilton

The weekend was another disappointment for Valtteri Bottas who won second place on the grid only to fall back following an unfortunate accident with Leclerc early in the race, and finished in 8th place. My bet is that he won’t be driving for Mercedes next year, meaning Verstappen could perhaps take his seat, if Mercedes dares having two of the sport’s biggest egos in the same team?

Speaking of changing seats, Daniel Ricciardo’s move to Renault this season with the aim of winning races again will probably go down as one of the worst moves in F1 history. Renault is nowhere near the podium and in Hungary, not even near to claiming any points. I wouldn’t be surprised if Renault pulls the sponsoring for next year, leaving us with one team less and Ricciardo (and Huldenberg) without a seat.