With the F1 summer break rapidly coming to a close, it’s time to pack away the EDM inspired rainbow spiked kaleidoscope goggles and LED rave gloves and reflect on what’s been a rather one sided processional affair occasionally infused with moments of brilliance. I think all would agree that the white flags have already been waved. Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes are the 2019 world champions. Fair play, Mercedes are the best team in the paddock and Lewis is the better man within the team. The results have been pretty staggering: Ten wins from twelve races, seven 1-2 finishes and a clean 150 point advantage over their nearest rivals. I guess this shouldn’t really feel like such a surprise as Mercedes have dominated the current hybrid era, but I, like many other “dreamers”, bought into the romantic notion of the Scuderia turning the clocks back to the beginning of the century and painting the podiums of the world scarlet red. I was so bullish on Ferrari prior to Australia that I had Lewis winning 8 races total to 7 for Vettel (Lewis already has 8 wins!) and I made the critical error of picking Vettel and Leclerc over the Mercedes boys on one of my fantasy league teams. Ouch.
So for a quick refresher on how the Silver Arrows team almost achieved perfection, here is a recap of the year.
Australia: Boundless optimism for a great season long fight leading up to the first practice quickly gave way to disbelief by the end of qualifying, and minor depression come Sunday night. Merc hit the streets of Melbourne in a class of their own and how ‘bout that Bottas? Valteri beat Lewis off the line and left the five time champ in his dust.
Bahrain: LeClerc suddenly looked like a combo of Senna, Prost, Fangio and Nuvolari all in one. He dominated qualifying and then crushed the rest of the field in the race until a mechanical issue let him down. Vettel looked lost by comparison and resorted back to spinning the car as soon as he got into a wheel to wheel scrap. At this point I was totally confused. Ferrari or Mercedes?
China: The balance of power was immediately back to Mercedes, but on a personal level, this weekend was so much more. I like to refer to this past April 13th as Le 24 Heures du Buzzardry. On that Saturday am I woke up at 3:00am, watched qualifying, drove to the SF airport, flew to Long Beach where I spent the entire day as a fan watching the Indycar and IMSA series in action, and finished my night at a Holiday Inn curled up on a suspect queen bed watching the dull China race live with one eye half cracked open into the wee hours.
Baku: Leclerc looked threatening to Mercedes until he stuffed it during qualifying into the side of a castle likely once occupied by Peter The Great. This left the door open for Mercedes to cruise to an easy 1-2, with Bottas impressively coming out on top.
Spain: Did they run a Spanish GP this year? If they did it must have been a snoozer. Hamilton beats Bottas for the 5th consecutive 1-2 finish. On a positive note, for the first time this year Max beats both Ferrari’s to show that the RBR-Honda package is coming along. In Max We Trust.
Monaco: These cars are way too fast and wide to race at Monaco so the race was always going to be won on Saturday, which Hamilton duly did, with a scorching lap of 1:10.166. For reference, Ayrton Senna’s 1988 pole time where the in-car camera looks like it’s on fast forward and he basically admitted later that he was having an outer body experience during the legendary lap, was a 1:23.998. They may have opened up some of the curbing and slightly changed the radius of a few corners over the years, but when I saw that it felt like a slap in the face. Wow. Go technology! And cheers to Vettel for finally breaking the Mercedes 1-2 dominance with a fine 2nd place.
Canada: Leave it to Canada and the great city of Montreal to produce a thrilling race. The Ferrari’s, utilizing their horse & battery power advantage over Mercedes, brought the fight to Lewis and Vettel finally prevailed…….until the stewards decided he didn’t. I get what the rule book says, but I’m from the “Let the Kids Play” school and would have let Vettel keep the win. If you punt somebody or weave all over the place under breaking I’ll penalize you. Run off the track, don’t gain an advantage, recover and keep the guy behind you? I give that two thumbs up and a play-on.
France: Horrible circuit, horrible race. Lewis wins again to go up 6-2 on Bottas.
Austria: The 2019 season officially begins! Max miraculously tracks down Leclerc who had comfortably led for 60+ laps and after a fierce two lap battle, pulls a Nigel Mansell like late breaking whip lunge to take the lead and win in front of the Max Army. Great stuff.
England: Another exciting race with the Mercedes boys fighting on track, Max and Leclerc continuing their Austrian scuffle and Vettel again losing his mind and punting Max. On paper it looks like another easy Mercedes 1-2, but I would take a race like that every week.
Germany: Ahh rain, the great equalizer. Hockenheim was as crazy a race as you will ever see and Max prevailed mainly because he kept the car in between the lines and avoided the treaterchous stadium drag strip-skating rink. I don’t think I’ve even seen a section of track that slippery before. It’s gimmicky but I kind of like this idea: Every race will have 1 corner where the runoff is freshly paved asphalt with the sprinklers on.
Hungary: A beautiful straight fight between the two best drivers in F1. Max, after finally securing his first pole position, kept Lewis at bay from the drop of the green when the Mercedes team rolled the dice and pitted Lewis for fresh rubber that left him with 20+ seconds to make up in 22 laps. This was Schumacher-Ferrari-Hungary 1998 all over again. Lewis put the hammer down and breezed by Max with a couple of laps left for a signature win that has to rate as one of his best. Even watching from my couch thousands of miles away, you could see that driver and car were pushing in perfect harmony and in a zone seldom achieved.
Lewis – 8 wins
Bottas- 2 wins
Max – 2 wins
Ferrari – 0.0 – Goose Eggs!!
Sainz – 4
Norris – 2
Ricciardo – 2
Magnussen – 2
Perez – 1
Kvyat – 1
For some, this recap may read as a dreary, sad reflection of another lost season, but if you look on the bright side, 5 of the past 6 races have been excellent, and there is hope for more excitement on the horizon. Right out of the gate, Ferrari may have a legit shot at glory in Spa and Monza. Max is going to be a force in Austin, Mexico and Brazil. Singapore is always a wildcard race, Bottas flies in Russia and Suzuka is arguably the best rack in the world. Hamilton may go 9-9, but he’s going to have a battle on his hands most weekends.
Compared to a year ago at this time, this silly season has been relatively calm with the exception of RBR calling up Albon to replace Gasly from Spa onwards, but the door could be kicked wide open if Mercedes decides to promote Ocon into Bottas’s seat. This would set off a round of musical chairs with Hulkenberg possibly on the move from Renault and Grosjean in trouble at Haas. Otherwise, it looks like Kubica’s seat at Williams will be available for the right price and it remains to be seen if Red Bull will keep Gasly in the family at Toro Rosso. If Bottas keeps the drive, Mercedes would likely release Ocon and I could see him landing at either Renault or Haas.
However, if you give me the liberty to create my own silly season, here would be the 2020 lineups for Mercedes, Ferrari and RBR:
Mercedes: Hamilton, Alonso
Ferrari: Leclerc, Ricciardo
RBR: Max, Vettel
How’s that for 22 entertaining weekends?
Before the year began, I was intrigued to see how each of the new teammate pairings would stack up, in particular, all of these youngsters in teams against more established vets and after 12 races the picture is pretty clear.
Lewis vs Bottas: Bottas is quick, but it’s business as usual. Advantage Lewis
Seb vs Leclerc: Seb has more points but I give the advantage to Leclerc. Yes he’s made a few crucial mistakes but so has Vettel, and for that matter, so has Ferrari! And why is Ferrari still putting Vettel on the choice tire strategy which often dumps out Leclerc into the clutches of the Red Bull? Yes Leclerc needs a year to publicly make a few errors, but come on Ferrari, do the right thing and build up the kids confidence.
Max vs Gasly: Yikes! What a route. I’m excited to see if Albon fares any better
Sainz vs Norris: Norris is darn fast over one lap but hasn’t had a lot of luck in the races. Carlos is a steady point scoring machine so both drivers are on the up.
Kvyat vs Albon: I would call this a draw, which is why it makes sense to try Albon in the hot seat for 9 races to get a true assessment of what they have.
Ricciardo vs Hulkenberg: Neither driver is being helped by the underperforming factory team, but Danny Ric has shown flashes of brilliance with a P-4 on the grid in Canada so I’ll give him the slight advantage.
Kimi vs Giovinazzi: Kimi has clearly had the upper hand over the young Ferrari protege so it could be the kiss of death for the Italian, as I see his F1 career path as Ferrari or bust. Like his days at Lotus, Kimi is tough to beat when he’s left to do his own thing.
Perez vs Stroll: Sergio has dominated Stroll in qualifying, but Stroll can score points. He showed this at Williams, and he’s doing it again this year at Racing Point-Force India-Spyker-Midland-Jordan GP. Hard to believe but he currently holds an 18-13 point advantage over Perez.
Magnussen vs Grosjean: Netflix has to be licking their chops as the Haas pairing has gone from one silly issue to the next. The team is totally lost on tire management so both drivers are looking like morons on Sundays. Tough place to be.
Russell vs Kubica: Williams started the year inexplicably 2 seconds slower than the Racing Point cars so it was immediately clear that this was a lost season. That being said, Russell has made the most of it and has dominated the Polish prodigy, likely keeping him in the good graces of his German employers and potentially lining him up as Hamilton’s replacement when the time comes.
Final Mention: If you are an F1 fan past or present, you have to check out Tom Clarkson’s podcast, Beyond The Grid. It is a treasure trove of F1 gold. His weekly guests cover every aspect of the sport and leave me totally engrossed. On a recent road trip I did the Derek Warwick, Jean Todt, Alex Wurz triple play and didn’t want to get out of the car when I reached my destination. Even if the current racing is crap (#DRSSUCKS), the individuals who have made it to the top of this sport are fascinating individuals. Two thumbs way up!
On to Spa…………….