Who Has The Best TEAM In Formula 1?
Which Formula 1 team is the best all-rounder on a race weekend?
In the not-too-distant past I wrote an article on reverse-grid races, and the point I made when writing it was that the midfield teams should have their efforts rewarded without having to resort to a lottery like reverse-grid races. As it is now, it’s difficult to tell who exactly has had the best weekend from the results. Sergio Perez presented a strong case for driver of the day at the Russian Grand Prix, finishing a fantastic 4th place. He was however, 30 seconds behind the race winner. The same applies to the team, who gave Perez an excellent strategy to work with, but still couldn’t be fully rewarded for their work.
Baring this in mind, I am going to try and look past the lack of parity in the field and talk about which team has the best track-side operation. To clarify, this isn’t a discussion of who has the best car or has the best factory operation (because that would obviously be Mercedes), this is about who has the best group of people who work hands on at the circuit. Who has the best pit crew? Who has the strategists with the most flexibility? Which overall driver pairing can extract the maximum out of the cars? Which of these teams react best in a crisis situation? These are the factors I will be taking into consideration.
Of course, it would be ludicrous to have this discussion while leaving out the reigning world champions, Mercedes. The team from Brackley have produced the dominant car of the grid since 2014, meaning that they are able to run on a lower power setting for much of the weekend and still have an advantage. Providing that they can lock out the front row of the grid and hold the lead on lap one, they can usually keep a calm head and control proceedings from there. Their driver line-up is also ideally suited to dominate championships.
Lewis Hamilton is a generation defining driver. Now that Mercedes have the best car by some margin, we often see Lewis driving at 80% as that’s enough to win, but occasionally we’ll see Lewis stretch his legs and remind us why he is so special. Watching his Q3 lap at Spa this year was a religious experience and his recovery drive at Monza was exceptional, finishing in the top 10 despite having to close a 30 second gap to the pack and pass them in a car not suited to dealing with traffic.
While he may not be as exciting a team mate as we might have hoped, Valtteri Bottas is super consistent and can still occasionally push Hamilton during qualifying. He also lacks the diva attitude of Alonso/Verstappen, meaning that he is unlikely to rock the boat and cost the team the title. But while this is good for stability in the team, it means that Lewis isn’t being pushed as he would need to be if the car were less dominant. In addition to this, Bottas often struggles to get through the traffic, as was the case at Monza and at Germany last year.
Mercedes’ kryptonite however, is complacency. The bi-product of a dominant car is, at times, a false sense of security, and a lot of their recent issues have been due to the team being slow in decision making or making assumptions instead of reading the situation carefully. At last year’s German Grand Prix they were unable to make the snap decision required after Hamilton brushed the barriers, and the lack of communication between the pit-wall and the mechanics led to a minute-long pit stop. The team also took their eye off the ball at Monza, resulting in Hamilton’s penalty for pitting when the pit lane entry was closed; following on from this they incorrectly assumed that Hamilton could perform a practice start after the pit lane exit, giving him another penalty. All of these examples are incidents which cost Hamilton a potential victory, and Mercedes have to fix these mistakes if they’re to continue winning when they don’t have the best car.
Operationally, Red Bull also have a solid case. Their mechanics are arguably the best out of all of the teams on the grid, as was proven at the Hungarian Grand Prix. After Max Verstappen crashed on the way to the grid, damaging the front-left suspension on the car, the Red Bull crew descended on the car and were able to fix the damage in the short time before the start of the race. This meant that Verstappen was not only able to race, but finish in 2nd place. The team also hold the record for the world’s fastest pit stop as well as the fastest stop in F1 history, at 1.82 seconds. The strategists are very flexible, realising that while they may not be faster, they can be smarter. They are also exceptional at thinking on their feet, jumping at the chance of a free pit stop wherever possible. This was exactly how they managed to win the Chinese Grand Prix in 2018, by being quick to react, they double-stacked their cars when the safety car came out, giving Daniel Ricciardo the grip advantage to pass others and win the race.
The team’s strategic mastery, combined with Max Verstappen’s immense talent, puts Red Bull in a position to fight Mercedes for race wins, despite Merc’s car advantage. Verstappen is sure to be one of the big names over the next decade, just as the likes of Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso have been during the 2010s. As well as being able to extract absolutely everything out of the equipment he is given, Verstappen’s race craft is a joy to watch, and his tyre management is unmatched by anyone on the current grid. Lots refer to Max’s debut win as an example of this, but in my opinion, the 2018 US Grand Prix is a better demonstration of his talent. Having started down in 18th, Max took the softest compound of tyre and took it through a large portion of the race while cutting through the traffic, finishing 2nd only to Kimi Raikkonen.
Red Bull’s one flaw is that the car appears to be on a constant knife-edge, making it hard to drive fast consistently. So while Max can extract 100% from the car, both Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon have struggled to get to grips with the machinery. The result of this is that Red Bull typically only have one car racing the two Merc’s, meaning they have one hand tied behind their back.
McLaren are a team heading in the right direction. Having been 9th in the Constructors table in 2017 they have improved every year since, finishing 6th in 2018, 4th in 2019 and currently sitting 3rd in this year’s championship. Monza was an excellent example of McLaren’s strengths as a unit. The strategists were smart enough to send their drivers out at the correct time during qualifying, utilising the slipstream while staying out of the traffic jam which left others eliminated from qualifying. In the race, both drivers nailed the first lap, leaving them 2nd and 3rd early on. When the safety car was deployed, the engineers on the pit-wall were attentive enough to notice that the pit lane was closed, dodging the penalty that Hamilton then received, and after it reopened the mechanics were able to perform a well-executed double stack under huge pressure, consolidating their positions against the other drivers who pitted at the time. The red flag left both McLaren’s in the lower end of the top 10 through no fault of their own, but despite this they were both able to fight back, with Sainz finishing a close 2nd behind Gasly and Norris finishing in 4th. Even prior to the chaos, McLaren would very likely have scored a podium or even a double podium.
Monza suited the characteristics of the car, but at the following race at Mugello, McLaren found themselves on the back foot in terms of pace. With one car only just scraping through into Q3 and both Racing Points qualifying well, it looked as though McLaren would take a hit in the Constructors championship. This looked even more likely after Carlos Sainz was involved in the chaos at the safety car restart. But Lando Norris in the other car quietly plugged away and was able to pick through the pack while managing the tyres, with Norris’ engineer Will Joseph telling him that his previous set of tyres had 50% less degradation than those of Perez. Tyre usage would eventually be Racing Point’s downfall, as a puncture sent Lance Stroll into the barriers, causing the second red flag. When the chequered flag fell, Norris finished just one place behind Perez. Despite looking like they were going to take a big hit in the championship on Saturday night, McLaren left Mugello having only lost 2 points in the Constructors table, a brilliant exercise in damage limitation.
While on the subject of Racing Point, there appears to have been a role reversal in recent times. Whereas the team in their previous guise as Force India were the David to McLaren’s Goliath, that appears to have switched around. The team now has a car which very closely resembles the Mercedes from 2019 (hence the nickname ‘Tracing Point’) along with an increased budget, due to the investment made by Lawrence Stroll, yet it is McLaren who are making the most of their resources. Having said this, Racing Point is still in the fight for 3rd in the Constructors championship, and with good reason.
Strategy is one of Racing Point’s biggest strengths. Like McLaren and Red Bull, their reactions are lightning-quick in a safety car situation, and they don’t shy away from taking a gamble and driving the strategy in a different direction. This approach helped Lance Stroll to lead the German Grand Prix last season having been at the back on the safety car restart, when they were the first to pit for slick tyres. It also put them in good stead at this year’s Styrian Grand Prix, when they left Sergio Perez out for a long first stint, giving him a grip advantage over the others after his pit stop. Without his collision with Alex Albon late on in the race, Perez would likely have finished 4th/5th.
Throughout his F1 career, Perez has been a class act when it comes to tyre management, and is also a consistent points’ scorer which is a great asset with the championship battle as tight as it is. With the arrival of Sebastian Vettel into the team, Racing Point are losing a driver who has an excellent rapport with the mechanics having known them since 2014. But it’s also fair to say that Perez is past his best, and that he has been out-performed by his team mate this season. Currently battling for 4th in the Drivers’ championship, Lance Stroll has improved significantly this season, putting in mature performances like his excellent drive to 4th place back in Hungary. Despite the pay driver image, Stroll has certainly earned his contract renewal at what will become Aston Martin for 2021. However, facing off against a 4-time World Champion will be a true test of Stroll’s ability.
It’s hard to tell which of these midfield teams will be best of the rest in 2021. The order tends to shuffle around as the drivers and team personnel come and go, and over time some of these changes have been unbelievable. If you’d told me in 2008 that McLaren and Force India would be fighting for 3rd in the Constructors table, and that the two teams ahead of them were Honda and Red Bull while Ferrari languished down in 6th, I would never have believed it!
In all honesty, it’s unfair to have a discussion about the performance of a team without including the people who work night and day back at the factory. These changes in the pecking order are due to the efforts of, not only the team members we see on TV, but the thousands of others who contribute to the team’s success. Truthfully, we can only ever really scratch the surface of the contribution that these people make behind the scenes.