The first part of my 2019 review will focus on the top three teams of the season. It makes perfect sense then to start with the current champions of F1 - the ever dominant Mercedes.
When pre-season testing ended just before the 2019 season kicked off, it looked like Mercedes were finally about to be dethroned from the top of F1. It was a surprise then when Mercedes not only started the season fighting – but dominating like never before as they won the first six races of the season with a 1-2 finish. Not since Williams back in the 1990s had this level of dominance been achieved and it left both fans and other teams scratching their heads as to what on earth had happened.
As the season wore on, Ferrari looked set to join Red Bull in challenging the Silver Arrows for the top spot, but this was done solely by Red Bull leading up to the summer break. Despite this however, Mercedes kept putting their strongest foot forward – something that became harder when the team (and the sport) lost Niki Lauda. He was a fundamental part of the team and Mercedes wouldn’t be where they are today without him. With the exception of Germany – which was a crazy race for everyone involved – Mercedes didn’t show many weaknesses all year long. As with any team, there were some tracks they were stronger on than others, e.g. Austria is a place Mercedes fail to capitalise at whereas they obliterate the competition when it comes to a track like Sochi. They were so successful that they were able to wrap up the Constructor’s title in Japan – with a whopping four races to spare. It is their sixth straight title and the team doesn’t show any signs of slowing down as F1 goes into 2020.
One of the core strengths of the team that has made it to be such a force to be reckoned with in F1 is the consistency within the team. Hamilton and Toto Wolff amongst others have all been there since 2013 and Bottas is, in 2020, about to enter his fourth year with the team. Whilst other teams have chopped and changed to try and find a winning formula, Mercedes have shown that continuity is one of the keys to success.
The British driver entered his 250th Grand Prix at Abu Dhabi in the final race of the 2019 season and showed the world that he was stronger than ever. He ended the race with another Grand Slam – a pole position, a race win, leading every lap of the Grand Prix and achieving the fastest lap of the race – and is now only two behind the all time record held by Jim Clark. His latest win was his eleventh of the season and meant he ended 2019 with a massive 413 Championship Points. He clinched his sixth World Title at the U.S Grand Prix in Austin and demonstrated all season long that he is more than capable of taking on and beating any opponents that come his way – be they his own teammate or drivers from other teams. His ability to bounce back is also worthy of note – as shown by his sterling drive to take the win from Verstappen in Hungary.
All that being said though, Hamilton did make mistakes this season. Qualifying is still an area he will want to improve on as well as tyre management – if his team radios are anything to go by that is! No driver is perfect and from what he’s said, Hamilton believes he’s still in his prime and that he hasn’t peaked yet. That means that going into 2020, Hamilton will be looking to eliminate the weaknesses he’s identified over this season and rectify them. That level of strength – as we’ve seen so much in recent years – will mean that it may be tougher than ever for those around him to beat him.
The Flying Finn bounced back from a miserable 2018 campaign in style when the 2019 season started. He won the opening race at Melbourne and then won again in Azerbaijan. It looked like he’d peaked too early as the season went on, as he consistently couldn’t find a way past Hamilton, having to settle for second or third on the podium instead. Germany and Hungary were races for Bottas to forget and both caused speculative clouds about his future at Mercedes to form over his head.
In the second half of the season, it seemed that Bottas would only be able to amount to second place at best, but this all changed at Suzuka. A master class drive from the porridge eater saw him take a dominant win in true style – a feat he repeated in Austin two races later. He failed to finish in Brazil, but this was down to an engine problem rather than a fault with the driver. Bottas then went on to put in a memorable and impressive drive in Abu Dhabi where he went from twentieth on the grid to fourth. The lack of DRS for the first eighteen laps of that race didn’t slow him down either and he showed that he’d learnt from some of his previous mistakes.
There is still work for Bottas to do but he made a great leap forward this season, showing to many that he is perhaps one of the most underrated drivers on the grid – probably down to the fact that he has Hamilton for a teammate. But if he can keep this mindset and level of performance up for next season, then it is very possible that he will be the one to take the crown from Hamilton at last.
Ferrari looked so full of pre-season promise as they came into 2019 with testing showing that at last, they would be able to bounce back and claim both the driver’s and constructor’s titles in style. But whilst they were competitive and arguably had what it took to take on and beat Mercedes – as they did brilliantly in the opening races after the summer break – poor strategy calls and driver mistakes all season long prevented them from ever really being a large enough threat to topple Mercedes. The mistakes that were made within the team, be they during qualifying or a race, were the types one would expect from a young team still trying to get its feet in the sport – not something from a team that’s been with the sport since the beginning. From ruining Leclerc’s Q3 in Monaco to teammate collisions in Brazil, there were a series of unfortunate events that plagued the Prancing Horse from start to finish. In a year where they clearly showed their ability to win, e.g. masterfully at Monza and strategically in Singapore, it feels like Ferrari’s year was more underwhelming than previous ones – their exciting potential wasted before the first half of the season was even over.
Sebastian Vettel – The four time World Champion had a tough year in 2019. It took him three races before he even managed to get onto the podium and seemed to be letting the legitimate threat of having Charles Leclerc as a teammate affect him mentally.
Then the Canadian Grand Prix happened.
In a race that should have been his to win – even with the mistake he made, that error became something that he never really seemed to be able to get over for the rest of the season. For a driver as formidable as Vettel, the spark didn’t seem to be there for him. If it was there before Canada (let me know in the comments where it was) then it certainly wasn’t there afterwards.
It was over a calendar year before he managed to get his next Grand Prix win (Belgium 2018-Singapore 2019). But by the time he’d won that race (some would say it was down to team strategy actually going right for a change rather than Vettel himself) he’d already lost out on any viable chance of making a historic comeback to challenge for the title. At the Italian Grand Prix, he finished down in 13th place whilst his teammate (in only his second F1 season) managed to do something he hadn’t in all his time at Ferrari: win at Monza in front on the Tifosi.
Performances like this alongside the rookie mistakes he made both in Great Britain and Brazil made everyone wonder if Sebastian was done with the sport. He finished the season three places down and eighty points under his 2018 campaign. Even now with the season over, there are some question marks still hanging over him as to whether he will actually be on the grid come Melbourne 2020. If he does indeed return – and this writer hopes he does – Vettel will need to make a monumental change to his approach if he hopes to succeed.
On the flipside is Ferrari’s new front man and star of tomorrow today. He impressed from the start, leaving the Mercedes for dust in Bahrain as he dominated the Grand Prix from almost start to finish. Were it not for mechanical issues, the race would have been his for sure. It was a bittersweet race for him but one he should still be happy with. Austria too should arguably have been his were it not for a late and slightly controversial move from Verstappen on the final lap. The first half of the season should have gone better for Leclerc and whilst he still has a lot to learn – there is no doubting the raw speed he has. Following the Austrian Grand Prix, he learnt from the mistakes of that race and fought harder with his elbows out more against Verstappen at Silverstone which led to some great wheel to wheel racing.
Leclerc’s performance at the Belgian Grand Prix was phenomenal. With less than a day passing since the death of his friend and F2 driver Anthoine Hubert, Leclerc had to get back in the car and focus on the race. And race he did – not letting up for the entire 44 lap duration and going on to finally win his first Grand Prix. He repeated the same feat at Monza and sent the Tifosi into a frenzy. Whilst they remained his only two victories of the year, it was still a rollercoaster year for him and one that he should be happy with. As he enters his third F1 season (and second with Ferrari) Leclerc will no doubt be able to apply the lessons from 2019 in order to ensure he doesn’t fall victim to them again. Now if Ferrari can sort themselves out and get a good strategy together for him, then he might even stand a chance of challenging Hamilton for the title
Red Bull Racing
The relationship between Red Bull and Honda blossomed in 2019 as the team saw a return to form as close to their dominant years as they’ve been since the beginning of the Hybrid Era. With three victories to equal those of Ferrari, they took advantage of the situations where they saw they could and made an exciting move in their driver line up that paid them in dividends. They may not yet be back on top of the F1 pack but like Mercedes, the team has a consistent core structure that has remained the same for many years (along with the sister team of Toro Rosso to help them out whenever they need it) which had been instrumental to their success. If Red Bull keeps doing what they’re doing and Christian Horner remains in charge of the team, then Red Bull will be a serious threat to shake up F1 in 2020.
The Dutchman has had his best year in F1 in 2019. He’s driven with more maturity for most of the season than before and has impressed many with his abilities in upsetting the order of a Grand Prix – looking at you again Austria. He was able to win one of the most exciting races of recent times at Hockenheim and even though he didn’t win in Budapest, he still managed to make Hamilton work a lot harder than he would have liked in order to take the win. Constantly learning and applying those lessons, Verstappen has proved himself a worthy adversary and is sure to be a rival to Leclerc in the future when the two start battling one another for World Championships. A solid driver that keeps improving, it’s no wonder that Red Bull wanted to keep him from leaving the team.
The Frenchman drove for the senior team for the first half of the 2019 season and was ultimately not ready for such a position. His highest finish for Red Bull was a fourth place at the British Grand Prix but there were very few other highlights for him in the first half of the season. Whilst managing to finish in the top ten regularly, he wasn’t up to the standard of driving that Red Bull were hoping for. This led to the switch back down to Toro Rosso for him for the rest of the season.
Promoted to the senior team in his rookie year in F1, Albon’s 2019 was not a year anyone could predict for him, much least himself. Joining the team from Spa onwards, Albon took to the senior team with relative ease, outperforming Max several times and impressing everyone in the process. With the exception of the Brazilian Grand Prix where he was spun off the track in the closing laps of the race, the Thai driver finished in sixth place or higher for every outing – a remarkable result for a new driver. His highest result was a fourth place in Japan and his natural ability with the Red Bull car ensured that he retained his seat at the senior team alongside Max for 2020. Surely a champion of the future, Alex had an outstanding first year and will take onboard the mistakes and lessons learnt to ensure for an even better 2020. A dark horse if ever there was one, Albon could be a fun outside contender next year with the potential to upset the apple cart.
What are your thoughts on the top three teams of F1 2019? Is there any chance of beating Mercedes? Can Ferrari pull their thumb out and get the team back to their former glory? Will Albon outperform Verstappen next year? Let me know in the comments below.