F1 team-mate wars: who will beat who in 2020?
New season, new rivalries. Former F1 driver Tiff Needell makes his predictions for 2020
Tiff Needell is a television presenter and former racing driver who competed in Formula 1, British Touring Cars and at Le Mans.
There may have been six days of testing in Barcelona, but we won’t really know who is looking good for the 2020 F1 season until we wake up on the morning of 13 March and take a look at the first qualifying results of the year from Melbourne.
More so than ever, this year’s testing seemed to be about the teams droning round and round doing race simulations on four different compounds of Pirelli tyres, rather than showing off their ultimate pace.
Williams were the best improvers going 1.2 seconds faster than at last year’s test but, encouraging though that was, that only really puts them on the back of the midfield battle instead of miles adrift.
Ferrari were actually 0.1 seconds slower than a year ago, when a strong performance in Barcelona led everyone to believe they were 2019 favourites. That is, until Mercedes blew them away by qualifying half a second ahead of them in Australia.
This year it was Mercedes who set the pace and set the paddock abuzz with their new pull/push steering wheel that they call Dual Axis Steering, or DAS. In effect this alters the toe angle of the front wheels, which could be useful either for heating the front tyres on the straights for qualifying, or making the car fractionally faster in a straight line. So far the jury is out as to whether it really adds up to much.
Racing Point were another team to set the tongues wagging with a closer association with Mercedes, bringing pretty much an identical rear end – with the engine installation and suspension – and a nose that looks like a direct copy. It seemed to work pretty well as the Pink Panthers look best set to narrow the gap to the big three teams at the front.
But, of course, it might all mean little when the season finally gets underway and we find which team has made the most progress. But it doesn’t mean I can’t have a go at predicting the winners and losers of the all-important, ego-boosting, in-team qualifying battles!
In 2018 I somehow managed to get them all right, but my crystal ball let me down last year when, with only two teams keeping the same line-up, I only got six out of ten. This year, however, there are only two changes, so there are no excuses. Lined-up in 2019 Constructors’ Championship order, this is how I see those battles working out and my qualifying predictions.
(Despite the coronavirus outbreak, I’m assuming that all races will go ahead at some point or another!)
MERCEDES: Lewis Hamilton v Valtteri Bottas
Always nice to start with an easy one, as there is no way Valtteri Bottas is going to out-qualify Lewis Hamilton over the course of the year. Valtteri works incredibly hard on his mental approach and car set-ups, which occasionally lets him get the upper hand, but it’s never for long.
With the new regulations coming in next year, 2020 is a golden opportunity for Lewis to overtake Michael Schumacher’s incredible record total of 91 wins – needing seven to equal him – and at the same time match his seven championship wins. And I reckon he’s going to do both.
Qualifying prediction: Hamilton 17 Bottas 5
FERRARI: Sebastian Vettel v Charles Leclerc
Now things get a little harder. I had Sebastian Vettel out-qualifying his new teammate last year, but I don’t think anyone reckoned on how quickly Charles Leclerc would adapt to the pressure of being a Ferrari driver. We all knew he was a huge talent, but no one expected him to leave pretty much everyone standing in just his second outing for the Scuderia in Bahrain.
Not that it’s time to write off Vettel. He’s a slightly wounded animal at the moment but if he gets off to a good start in Melbourne he can still show the young Monégasque upstart a trick or two. Get off to a bad start though, and I think he’ll go into meltdown.
Qualifying prediction: Leclerc 14 Vettel 8
RED BULL HONDA: Max Verstappen v Alexander Albon
Another easy prediction when it comes to qualifying with ‘Mercurial Max’ only likely to be out-qualified when tactical or mechanical woes intervene, but there’s a big question mark over how high up the grid he’s going to be. He was second fastest overall on the softer of the two medium tyres in Barcelona, but a couple of spins showed that the time doesn’t come easily.
Honda is happy with the improvement of its powerplant and if Max can regularly get amongst the Ferraris and Mercedes we’re in for some fireworks. Max wants to be a champion and he wants it now!
On the other side of the garage, Alexander Albon showed great race pace in his nine starts for Red Bull, but needs to get closer to Max in qualifying. However, instead of being given plenty of quali practice in Barcelona, he was left to spend all his time doing race tests, leaving him with a confidence-sapping best time that put him 20th of the 21 drivers over the six days – albeit on the hard tyre – despite doing 366 laps.
Qualifying prediction: Verstappen 19 Albon 3
MCLAREN RENAULT: Lando Norris v Carlos Sainz
The one prediction I got exactly right last year and I’m delighted I did. I think Lando Norris is a huge talent for the future, and Carlos Sainz isn’t quite as brilliant as most people seem to think.
Remember, Carlos got out-qualified 13-8 by Nico Hulkenberg in 2018, and look where Nico is now. Out of F1, that’s where. Yes, Carlos scored more points than Lando – using the experience of 81 more grands prix – but I see 2020 as the year that McLaren has yet another future British world champion coming to the fore.
Mind you, Lando was the one driver who was slower than Albon in those Barcelona tests. But, again he only got to use the harder of the two medium tyres. As everyone keeps pointing out, testing can be very misleading.
Qualifying prediction: Norris 13 Sainz 9
RENAULT: Daniel Ricciardo v Esteban Ocon
The biggest debate with Renault is not who’s going to be fastest, but whether or not the team will still be with us next year. With customer team McLaren beating them last year and switching to Mercedes power for 2021, the team has no buyers for its engines next year and could all too easily quietly slip away …
All of which could be a bit awkward for Daniel Ricciardo and his new partner Esteban Ocon. So both will be working very hard to come out on top as they might be fighting for the same vacant seats next year.
Both these drivers deserve to be in a top six car. I was very impressed with how Daniel firmly put Hulkenberg into second place last year, but I reckon he’s going to have a harder time with Esteban. The young French star dispatched Sergio Perez with a 16-5 drubbing in 2018 and the only question is how quickly he can bounce back to form after a year on the sidelines.
I’m going to sit on top of the fence with this one!
Qualifying prediction: Ricciardo 11 Ocon 11
ALPHA TAURI HONDA: Pierre Gasly v Daniel Kvyat
Why oh why Alfa Romeo didn’t put a block on Red Bull renaming Toro Rosso I have no idea. It’s bad enough having Racing Point to point out without the ‘Alfa ahead of the Alpha which isn’t an Alfa’! So I’m going to call it a Tauri.
With two Red Bull Juniors that have already suffered the humiliation of demotion from the top rank, it’s probably the last season for one of these two as exciting new prospects await their chances in the Red Bull wings.
And there’s no doubt in my mind which of these two will come out on top. While Daniel Kvyat may have been able to hold Albon to a six all draw - after the Thai-Brit’s sudden promotion from a Formula E sideline to Grand Prix status – he was beaten 7-2 by the returning Pierre Gasly.
If you want to check out who next year’s new Tauri driver might be, keep an eye out for Estonian Juri Vips in Japan’s Super Formula or perhaps Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda in F2. Honda would love a Japanese driver amongst their ranks.
Qualifying prediction: Gasly 15 Kvyat 7
RACING POINT MERCEDES: Sergio Perez v Lance Stroll
The talk of the town in Barcelona, with the Pink Panthers looking more like Pink Mercedes, Racing Point caught many by surprise as the shrewd influence of Lawrence Stroll saw a much greater collaboration with its engine supplier to produce a new car very closely modelled on a Mercedes.
Stroll didn’t become a billionaire by chance and, while his son has to suffer much derision for being the team owner’s boy, both F1 and Aston Martin are a whole lot better off with his involvement.
Young Lance could still develop into a solid, midfield driver – which is nothing to be ashamed of – but it’s his pace in qualifying that’s currently holding him back. Trounced 18-3 last year by Sergio Perez (a solid midfield driver who brings backing to secure his drive), Lance does pull some blistering opening lap moves to get back to where he should have been in the first place, but he definitely needs to up his pace if he is to justify a seat in Dad’s 2021 Aston Martin Mercedes on merit alone!
Qualifying prediction: Perez 16 Stroll 5
ALFA ROMEO FERRARI: Kimi Raikkonen v Antonio Giovinazzi
With the rebranding of the old Sauber team as the official Alfa Romeo entry and the arrival of former World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, I thought the fortunes of the Swiss based team might be on the up again but, apart from a couple of highlights, it never really happened.
With Kimi perhaps losing motivation and a young Italian talent still losing control a few too many times, I don’t see much excitement ahead from a team that, like engine suppliers Ferrari, was a tenth of a second slower than at last year’s test.
I was only one result off getting this one right last year, when Kimi beat Antonio 12-9, but I have a funny feeling that young Giovinazzi might come good this year.
Qualifying prediction: Raikkonen 10 Giovinazzi 12
HAAS FERRARI: Romain Grosjean v Kevin Magnussen
If there was ever a team that has lost its way, it has to be Haas and I fear that its eponymous team owner may well pull the plug if they have another season like last year. One of the problems with FIA motorsport is that you have to sign up for full seasons – five, in the case of F1 – if you want to join the party, so you have to show real commitment. But even multi-millionaires like Gene Haas have their limits.
Both his drivers are thick-skinned individuals who hate to give an inch to anyone, which is great for the fans but sometimes frustrating for the team. Last year the cars appeared to be terribly inconsistent and the drivers were never shy about letting us know what they thought.
I genuinely fear this could be the last year for Haas, Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen, which would be a great shame as they, along with their team manager Guenther Steiner, are some of the great characters of F1 – as everyone who watches Netflix’s ‘Drive to Survive’ is well aware!
Qualifying prediction: Grosjean 11 Magnussen 11
WILLIAMS MERCEDES: George Russell v Nicholas Latifi
And so to the sad tale of Williams, the team that every British patriot holds closer to their hearts than any other. But things do appear to be getting better as the team’s Barcelona times improved by 1.2 seconds compared to last year, which puts it a tenth up on tailenders Haas and equal to both Alfa and Tauri.
The feel-good factor last year was the progress of rookie George Russell, who I would put on a par with Lando Norris as a future British world champion – if he can get into a car that matches his talent.
Having saddened the many Robert Kubica fans with a 21-0 whitewash last year, George now faces Nicolas Latifi, who is another son of a Canadian billionaire that who not only funds his son’s Williams seat but also just happens to have a £200 million investment in McLaren.
Nicholas is a solid enough performer but has just three wins and no titles from his first seven years in single seaters. He did however manage to grab four wins and the runner-up spot in F2 last year at his fourth attempt.