The Season So Far
A summary of the first 6 races of the 2020 F1 Season
12 March 2020, McLaren F1 formally withdrew from the season opening Australian Grand Prix following a team member contracting Coronavirus. A meeting of the nine remaining team principles, Formula 1 and the FIA concluded with the cancellation of the Grand Prix, and the following day the announcement was made that the Bahrain and Vietnam Grand Prix would also be postponed, with the season expected to begin in Europe at the end of May.
Fast forward to 5 July and a full 189 days since the 2019 curtain closer at Abu Dhabi and F1 was back racing, and for the first time ever a season opened with a double header at Austria. When lights went out there were just 8 races confirmed in this revised calendar, but with the addition of new tracks around Europe in Portugal, Italy and Turkey, and the confirmation of a double header in Bahrain, there is now 17 races on this heavily revised calendar, a truly incredible feat given the threat the pandemic cast over the entire season.
The 7th year of the turbo hybrid era began with the familiar sight of a Mercedes on pole, this time in the form of Valtteri Bottas who went on to take victory, with team mate Lewis Hamilton falling back to finish 4th after a collision with Red Bull’s Alex Albon saw him pick up a 5 second penalty. This however proved to be just a temporary blip for the 6 time world champion who has gone on to take pole and victory at 4 of the next 5 races, opening up a 43 point gap to his teammate with just 6 races gone. The Mercedes dominance has been even more pronounced than in previous years, often finding themselves a whole second ahead of the nearest challengers during qualifying, and even with the new regulation banning the use of ‘quali mode’ engine settings for future races the gulf in pace leaves Mercedes head and shoulders above the competition. With that in mind, the Finn’s performance this year has been underwhelming, and he really needs to return to winning ways quickly if he is to stay in with a fighting chance of winning the championship.
Instead, Max Verstappen in the Red Bull is currently the closest challenger to Lewis Hamilton. The young Dutchman has been on the podium for every race he has finished, a DNF in Austria caused by an electrical issue the only reason he is not closer than the 37 point gap he currently has to the championship leader. His performance this season, culminating in a victory at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone, is proving to be the sole respite from an otherwise straightforward championship double for Mercedes.
So far, the sister Red Bull driven by Alex Albon has not been able to provide Verstappen any support in taking the fight to Mercedes. Still only in his second year in F1, and first full year with Red Bull, the Thai driver is yet to put himself onto the podium. His best qualifying position of the year in 4th came in the season opener in Austria, where the collision with Hamilton put him out of contention before ultimately the car was retired. Since then, he has yet to qualify higher than 6th which is not good enough in what is the second quickest car on the grid. If he can improve his qualifying performance there is no doubt that he has the speed to be on the podium soon, as his races nearly always finish higher than where he starts.
Meanwhile Ferrari, who have been the number 1 challenger in recent years, are proving to be significantly off the pace from where they would expect to be. Following an investigation into their engine last year, the results of which have not been released, all the cars running engines supplied by Ferrari have seen their performance drop. This year there is no guarantee that Ferrari make it into Q3, and the troubles are clear for all to see. The pre-season announcement that 4 time World Champion Sebastian Vettel would not have his contract renewed sent shockwaves through the paddock, not least due to the fact that no negotiations between the two parties happened at all. This, coupled with the performance issues, is resulting in a protracted and messy divorce being played across the airwaves of each race for all to hear. Vettel has only started higher than 10th on one occasion this season, and a combination of strategy errors and driver mistakes mean the Germans highest finish is 6th. A new chassis for the Spanish Grand Prix closed the gap to his teammate Charles Leclerc, however it was still only enough for 11th on the grid, but a solid drive after yet more strategy debates over the radio resulted in a good 7th place. With just 16 points to his name Vettel will be hoping for a change in fortunes in what could be his last year in F1. To make matters worse, he is being comprehensively beaten by Leclerc who has been able to get in to Q3 on all but 1 occasion so far this season. Significantly outperforming the car during the race, he has been rewarded with 2 podium finishes amassing 45 points and currently sits in 4th in the championship.
Ferraris woes have seen them slip to 5th in the constructors and firmly into a midfield battle – just 2 points separate McLaren, Racing Point and Ferrari. This year has seen yet another step forward for the McLaren team, who do not have to look too far in to the past to remember their woes at the back of the grid during their most recent ill-fated partnership with Honda. The chassis work has paid off and both drivers have had positive starts to the season, most notably Lando Norris, who scored his first ever F1 podium at the Austrian Grand Prix and currently leads his teammate 39 to 23 in the standings. Carlos Sainz is racing knowing his future is with Ferrari having been announced as Vettels replacement, with Norris future secure at McLaren, who from next year return to Mercedes power which should provide a real and consistent challenger at the front of the grid. McLaren have both drivers consistently scoring points and they will need to maintain this momentum if they are to stay ahead of the so-called ‘Pink Mercedes’ of Racing Point.
Racing Point have earned this moniker due to the well documented similarities to the 2019 Mercedes car, similarities which culminated in a formal complaint by Renault about the legality of the car, for which the FIA issued a 15 point penalty and 400,000 euro fine – however Racing Point were not forced to make any changes to their car. Racing Point, Ferrari and Renault all appealed the penalty, with Renault later withdrawing theirs, instead wishing to ‘focus on racing’. Unsurprisingly, the Racing Points have indeed been quick on track, with Lance Stroll an impressive 5th in the standings. Sergio Perez has also finished no lower than 7th this season, and was unfortunate to miss 2 races following a positive test for Coronovirus. Nico Hulkenberg stepped in at short notice to cover for the Mexican and displayed impressive pace, putting himself 3rd on the grid in a car and team with whom he had very little experience with – the perfect display for a man looking for a quick return to full time racing in F1 for 2021.
Speaking of 2021, next year will see the return of a certain Fernando Alonso, who has agreed a 2 year deal with Renault. This move raised eyebrows given the Spaniards decision to leave was prompted by driving an uncompetitive car, and with regulations remaining unchanged for next year there is very little evidence that we will be seeing Renault return to the front of the grid anytime soon. With Ferrari slipping firmly in to a midfield battle this would have provided Renault with the perfect opportunity to steal 3rd in the constructors championship, but points have been inconsistent this year, with Daniel Ricciardos 4th place finish at the British Grand Prix proving to be an exception. Renault are being comprehensively beaten by engine customer and main rival McLaren, and find themselves in 6th with just 36 points, closer to the AlphaTauri in 7th than the fight for 3rd ahead of them.
The AlphaTauri line up this year consists of 2 drivers who have driven for, and been dropped mid season by, the main Red Bull team. But back out of the limelight and without the pressures of the top seat, both drivers this year have regained their confidence and shown off their pace. Daniil Kvyat is invariably putting his car higher up the order than where it qualified, and Pierre Gasly is often seen in battles with the struggling Albon who replaced him at Red Bull, scoring 3 top ten finishes. If only they could show off their pace in a more competitive car…
2020 has been a year to forget so far for both Alfa Romeo and Haas. 2 Points for Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo) in Austria and a sole point for Magnussen (Haas) at Hungary proving to be the only visit to the top 10 either of these teams have made this year. Magnussen’ season has yet to fully get going, having retired from 3 of the 6 races so far, whilst Romain Grosjean results have got progressively worse since a 13th place finish at the second race of the season. Meanwhile the Alfa Romeos have been battling to avoid the last row of the grid in qualifying, with veteran Kimi Raikkonen starting last on pure pace for the 1st (and 2nd) time of his esteemed career. Although the Iceman has not yet scored a point this year, he has shown he still has the fight in him and repeatedly moves his car through the field, more often than not finishing higher than his teammate. In contrast, Williams have made significant gains from last year, with George Russell regularly getting through to Q2. Race pace is still lacking, but an encouraging 11th place from rookie Nicholas Latifi and a 12th place for Russell will be considered a great success when viewed against last years results. With news coming that the Grove based outfit have been sold to a US investment firm, there is hope that fresh funding will help propel this great team back to a more competitive standing, whilst retaining the fabled Williams name.
Lewis Hamilton threatens to run away with yet another championship in what is already only a 3 horse race. Bottas and Verstappen will be desperate to add to their win count at the next time of asking if they are to stand any chance of stopping Hamilton from matching the great Michael Schumacher on 7 World Championships. From a season threatened to be cancelled, to a 17 race blockbuster revisiting new and old tracks alike, the F1 spectacle will continue to thrill for many months ahead!