Before we dissect the 2019 season to date, let us rewind to 2018. Last year’s season was billed as the year when Ferrari would give Mercedes a run for their money and try to loosen
Before we dissect the 2019 season to date, let us rewind to 2018. Last year’s season was billed as the year when Ferrari would give Mercedes a run for their money and try to loosen their stranglehold on F1 crown for the past 4 seasons. However, with high profile strategy goof ups, under performing upgrades and costly driving errors from Sebastian Vettel, the 2018 season spectacularly unfolded for the Italian giants who had the fastest car for most of the season but failed to capitalize. From leading the driver’s championship till Germany to a downward spiral after, left Sebastian well shy of Lewis’s eventual points tally. What an opportunity missed!!
On to the 2019 season, and since we are at the summer break (Hungarian GP), it gives us an opportunity to reflect on how the season has gone so far with 12 races into it, which teams have failed to deliver on their pre-season promise, which have exceeded expectations and what can we look forward to starting in SPA Belgium at the end of August.
The 2019 pre-season testing showed promising signs that Ferrari was ready to finally break the hoodoo with a super-fast car in a straight line (yeah, we will come back to this later) with what was described as the most powerful engine in F1. They had shown tremendous reliability with 997 laps in total during the 8 days of testing and consistently delivering good speed, so much so that people in the paddock, as well as fans, were excited about a potential pecking order of Ferrari at number 1, Mercedes (1190 laps) at number 2 and Red Bull Racing (833 laps) at number 3.
At the same time, teams like McLaren with their young and exciting driver pairing were predicted to be in a close battle with Renault and Haas for the best of the rest tag. Alfa Romeo with Kimi as their star driver and their radical front wing design was predicted to be in the mix too. However, such were the struggles of Williams, that it became clear early on after they missed part of the 1st test, that this was going to be the toughest season for this once-dominant team in Formula 1. Simply put, they were in a total mess. Fast forward into the season until Austria, it seemed like another cakewalk for Mercedes with 9 race wins from 9 and both Lewis and Valtteri battling it out for the driver’s championship. For Liberty, neutrals, and fans of other teams, this is the last thing they wanted after enduring 5 seasons of sheer dominance never seen in the history of F1. However, starting in Austria, it has been the brilliance of Max Verstappen that has thrown the cat among the pigeons at Mercedes and has raised the possibility of fans getting a great second half of the season. Such has been Max’s brilliant driving that he has won 2 of the last 4 races (could have been 3) and has been the highest-scoring driver on the grid in last 5 races leading into the summer break.
On the other hand, Ferrari has gone backward since the start of the season, and the only silver lining to their season has been their top speed. They are currently the benchmark on the grid when it comes to straight-line speed but have struggled with slow corners and aero efficiency. To top that, they have been hit by reliability issues in the past few races (notably Germany where they should have locked out the front row in QF). Their upgrades haven’t worked as they would have liked, and their drivers have made far too many mistakes for a top team’s liking. A team which started the season as potential favorites is now 3rd in the pecking order and this will send alarm bells ringing at Maranello. Unless they come up with some breakthrough design changes and reliability, 2019 has gone away from Ferrari.
Finally, we have Mercedes who are still sitting pretty at the top of the constructor’s championship with 10 race wins and still possess the best overall package that is fast at all circuit types. Lewis has been consistent as ever (barring 2 rare mistakes in Germany) and sits at the top of the standings, while Valtteri who led the championship after first four races, has been patchy since. He needs to get his act together quickly because on one hand Lewis is extending his championship lead at the top and on the other, Max is now within striking distance of his second place in the standings. However, Mercedes are aware of the threat Red Bull and Max will pose after the summer break and am sure will give it all in bringing high performing upgrades to the closing stages of the season.
In the midfield battle, there have been encouraging signs from McLaren with Norris and Sainz forming a formidable and fast pairing, especially Norris, who’s shown tremendous talent and racecraft, that will give the likes of Verstappen and Lecrec a run for their money in the years to come. But it has been Sainz’s race performances that have been noteworthy, and he has once again shown why he is a star driver and just needs a race-winning car to mix it up with the top 3 teams. Renault has been disappointing once again with assurances of a step up from last year, but no results. Having signed a star driver like Ricciardo, it’s fair to say that it is high time they deliver a car that will be a force to reckon with, otherwise, serious questions will be asked about their credentials and capability and even their future in the sport. One can only imagine that the Renault Management and shareholders patience must be running on fumes when it comes to their F1 project.
To deep dive into the mid-season performance, anybody who follows F1 closely will know that the 10 teams this season can be split into 3 groups based on current performance levels:
- Group A: Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull
- Group B: McLaren, Renault, HAAS F1, Alfa Romeo, Torro Rosso, Racing Point
- Group C: Williams
Let us study each group’s relative performance and results, understand what impacted it, and look forward to the remainder of the season.
Group A: Comparison half-way through the season
Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport : 438 points (12 races)
- Strengths: Excellent chassis, Strong Aero performance, Engine Power, Bulletproof reliability, consistent drivers, Race Strategy, Qualifying
- Weakness: Susceptible to high temperatures (track and air) leading to overheating of the engine, in-team battle
- Differentiator: Optimum tire performance due to excellent setup and Performance gain in slow corners, Strong overall package with little weaknesses.
Mercedes are looking at the prospect of becoming only the first team in F1 to record 6 consecutive Constructors championships due to non-existent weaknesses in their overall F1 project. Only two things can stop them from winning both titles this year. Either they must spectacularly capitulate in the second half of the season (like Ferrari did in 2018) or Red Bull and/or Ferrari dramatically improve their respective cars and start winning back to back races. Surely, the probability of the second scenario unfolding is higher, given Mercedes track record of exemplary race strategy, in-season development especially after the summer break and ruthlessness of one mister Lewis Hamilton is second to none.
Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow : 288 points (12 races)
- Strengths: Engine Power, High-temperature performance (track and air)
- Weakness: Tire performance, Chassis, Aero efficiency, Race Strategy, Performance in slow corners, Reliability, error-prone drivers
- Differentiator: Best-in-class engine in terms of Horsepower
Ferrari is going backward and needs to stop the rut as soon as possible. Some of their upgrades have failed to deliver and they have failed to convince the FIA to revert to the 2018 tire compound. They have the fastest car in a straight line but have struggled greatly when it comes to cornering (especially slow corners). They have failed to get a complete package working together barring Bahrain and Austria (both which Charles should have won). If they sort out their tire and reliability troubles, and Sebastian and Charles sort out their driving errors, they have a car and driver pairing that could go on a winning streak like Mercedes. However, the word “If” is nearly impossible in the world of F1 to digest, so its most likely, that sooner or later, Ferrari will turn their attention to the 2020 car and salvage whatever is possible from this disappointing 2019 season with minor upgrades.
Red Bull Racing Honda: 244 points (12 races)
- Strengths: Excellent Aero package, Chassis, Race strategy, Performance in slow corners, Max Verstappen
- Weakness: Honda engine still short of peak power, tire performance, Pierre Gasly
- Differentiator: Max Verstappen’s consistency and Race strategy
Red Bull, on the other hand, is the only team to stop Mercedes’s clean sweep of victories this season after Max’s brilliant victories in Austria and Germany. They have benefited hugely from the excellent reliability and power output from the Honda engine and ever-reliable aero efficiency. It is encouraging to see both Red Bull and Honda doing well after struggles with their respective partners for the past few seasons. Notably, the performance of Max has been astonishing, and he currently stands 3rd in the driver standings at the halfway point, despite having the 3rd best car on the grid. Pierre Gasly is facing a difficult season after showing great promise with Toro Rosso in 2018 and must start getting closer to Max if he must have any chance of retaining his place for 2020.
Group B: Comparison halfway through the season
McLaren F1 Team: 82 points (12 races)
- Strengths: Consistent Drivers, Strong Chassis, and new heads in the team
- Weakness: Renault engine low on power, Aero package can be better, Renault Engine Reliability
- Differentiator: Illustrious racing pedigree, Super quick driver pairing, and Chassis
McLaren has seen an amazing turnaround in their fortunes by building a great car which complements their exciting driver pairing. If they can get more from the Renault power unit and make some improvements both on the Aero and Chassis front, then they are not too far from challenging the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari. Lando Norris has been the bright light this season on the grid, and his energy and driving skills have brought a much-needed boost to a team, who for long had to withstand the doom and gloom environment due to their previous illustrious driver. It is looking like McLaren are now the out and out best of the rest and have cemented their place as the 4th best team on the grid.
Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda : 43 points (12 races)
- Strengths: 1 year of Honda engine experience, a good driver lineup
- Weakness: Chassis, Aero, and status of Red Bull B team, Limited budgets
- Differentiator: Driver pairing and upcoming Honda engine
Toro Rosso with their limited budgets and resources have done like any other season. They have done the necessary benchmarking for Red Bull when it comes to Honda engine in 2018, and are effectively, a B team which is a launchpad for future stars at Red Bull. Performance-wise, they are on the low end of the spectrum, with flashes of promise at some races. The positives to take from this season are the performances of the rookie Alex Albon and Daniel Kyvat (who seems to have rediscovered his mojo and is no longer the torpedo). The standout moment came in the German GP when Kyvat stood on the podium with a fine and gritty 3rd place finish.
Renault F1 Team : 39 points (12 races)
- Strengths: Strong Driver pairing
- Weakness: Renault engine low on power, Aero package, Chassis, setup not suited to drivers liking, Renault Engine Reliability
- Differentiator: Big budget to achieve a turnaround
Renault, on the other hand, has again failed to challenge the top three and after 4 seasons in F1, “we are getting their” doesn’t cut it anymore. They need to deliver soon having signed a marquee driver like Daniel. Not sure, if they can though, and I see heads rolling if performance does not improve by the end of 2019 and they don’t finish 4th (which looks difficult seeing the gap in points to McLaren). Tough times lie ahead.
Alfa Romeo Racing: 32 points (12 races)
- Strengths: Ferrari Engine, Kimi Raikkonen, Chassis
- Weakness: Aero performance
- Differentiator: Straight line speed, Racecraft and strategy
Alfa Romeo has been the surprise package with their radical front wing design concept and a one-man show from Kimi. They have the benefit of a Ferrari Engine but are nicely complemented by their chassis and aero package. Antonio has not justified his promotion to the racing team and is looking at an impending sack at the end of the season.
SportPesa Racing Point F1 Team : 31 points (12 races)
- Strengths: Mercedes Engine, History of performance development over the course of the season
- Weakness: Chassis, Aero and Qualifying performance (especially Lance Stroll)
- Differentiator: Mercedes Engine
Racing Point has been hampered by dreadful qualifying performances, especially by Lance Stroll and has not developed the car as good as they have done in the recent past. The transition from Force India to Racing Point seems to have affected the in-team equilibrium. They have the benefit of having a Mercedes Engine in the back of their car and if they can bring exciting upgrades after the summer break, they are not too far off from challenging Renault and McLaren.
Rich Energy Haas F1 Team : 26 points (12 races)
- Strengths: Ferrari Engine, potentially excellent driver pairing, Qualifying performance
- Weakness: Aero performance, Weak Chassis, on track driver fighting, Racecraft and strategy, Romain Grosjean
- Differentiator: Straight line speed, Consistent performance from Kevin Magnussen
HAAS has been the biggest disappointment. From looking at the best of the rest during Barcelona testing to languishing second-last in the table, has been a shocking turn of events. Failure to understand their car, clashing and disgruntled drivers have overshadowed flashes of brilliance at some races. They have the raw speed, but as a complete package, have failed to deliver. Looks like, they will miss out on a repeat of finishing 5th in the constructor’s standings like in 2018.
Unfortunately, such is Williams plight in the last 12 races, that there is nothing noteworthy to highlight. 1 point from 12 races tells the story. From being 5th in the standings in 2017 to where they are today has been a sad decline of a great team. However, we still need to understand what their strengths are that they can build on, what are the weaknesses they need to work on and what is the silver lining that will keep this once-dominant team going in F1.
ROKiT Williams Racing : 1 point (12 races)
- Strengths: Mercedes Engine, No DNF’s
- Weakness: Overall car, Robert Kubica
- Differentiator: Potential in George Russell, illustrious history, Mercedes Engine
After the departure of Paddy Lowe before the start of 2019 racing season, it is time for Williams to regroup, start from scratch and basically, take 2 steps backward to go one step forward. They must rethink the design strategy of their 2020 car, build a strong baseline on which they can develop the car in season, ensure they attract strong sponsors and keep existing ones, keep the Mercedes Engine and a future champion in George Russell for 2021 and beyond. This is a project that will need 2-3 years to get back on track and patience with internal people will be key to ensure they are on a consistent path towards redemption. Unfortunately, the gamble with Robert Kubica has failed miserably and seems the sun will set on Roberts F1 career at the end of 2019. They need to bring in a young, hungry driver like Esteban Ocon (or someone else) who is currently only seen on TV next to Toto Wolff during races, which is sad, for a driver of his potential. If Mercedes stick with Bottas for 2020, then Ocon must be given a chance at Williams. We all want Williams to challenge for victories, but it is a long road ahead for the Grove team.
So, to summarize, the last 4 races before the Summer break have been exactly what F1 fans were hoping for in 2019. The resurgence of Red Bull under Max and some breathtaking racing since Austria has reinvigorated this year’s F1 championship. If Ferrari and Red Bull can get closer to Mercedes starting SPA, then we have a fascinating battle on the cards till the end of the season. The prospect of Max, Lewis and one or both Ferrari drivers battling it out is a specter we have all been waiting for.
Bring on the part two of the 2019 F1 season. I cannot wait!!