Formula 1,  Racing drivers,  Statistics

Formula 1 2020: the inevitable preview

Formula 1 2020. Here we go again. Neither an infectious respiratory illness pandemic nor Greta Thunberg could stop it, the FIA Formula 1 World Championship is back for its seventieth year. 2020 features twenty cars and drivers, nineteen of whom are going to be mightily disappointed.

But one will be number one, which is all that really matters. Top level sport and mid-range sporting entertainment is what we’re all here for, so let’s not waste any more time and take a look at the runners and riders.

MERCEDES

The Mercedes team enter the 2020 season on the cusp of all-time greatness, having already achieved enough that they need not worry themselves unduly. In 2019 they established an all-time record in Formula 1, winning their 6th consecutive Driver’s World Championship title.

In so doing, they also matched Ferrari’s 1999-2004 record of six consecutive Constructor’s Cups and if they are able to add a seventh there will be no doubt left in anyone’s mind that the current iteration of the Mercedes-Benz team in Formula 1 is the sport’s greatest ever team.

Prospects look extremely promising: in pre-season testing the new W11 car proved fast and reliable, completing more laps than any of their rivals in spite of some minor engine hiccups. It also proved to be one of the biggest stories from the Barcelona test, as the team surprised their rivals with an innovative new Dual-Axis Steering system.

That a team who have achieved so much are still pushing the envelope is probably a very bad omen for the sport’s other nine teams, who may very well prove to be playing second-fiddle once again. Mercedes enter 2020 as the undeniable favourites.

Car 44: LEWIS HAMILTON

Formula 1 2020: Lewis Hamilton, number 44

Like his team, Hamilton has already achieved so much that his legacy is secure. However, like his team, Hamilton enters 2020 on the edge of crushing statistical dominance. Another World Championship this year will equal Michael Schumacher’s unimaginable record of seven, and Hamilton is just eight race wins shy of the German’s 91 Grand Prix victories to boot.

He is the sport’s leading light, its key voice and its greatest talent. Hamilton remains in the form of his life, showing no sign of any drop-off in performance. If the Mercedes W11 is anywhere near being ultimately competitive, it is very difficult to imagine anyone other than Hamilton emerging victorious. This is his era.

 

Car 77: VALTTERI BOTTAS

Formula 1 2020: Valtteri Bottas, number 77

There’s no shame in being demonstrably second-best to Lewis Hamilton, which is a good job for Bottas because that is exactly what he proved to be last season. The Finn was, however, able to take a personal step forwards: he took a career-best four Grand Prix wins to finish as the runner-up in the Championship standings for the first time.

Where does he go from here? Well, in an ideal world he outpaces Lewis Hamilton over the course of the entire season and wins the World Championship. In the real world, though, Bottas ought to be looking to replicate his 2019 performance with a view to convincing the team he is worthy of keeping his seat come contract renewal time. There remains a chance that either may not prove to be sufficient: Formula 1 is at its most brutal as you near its summit.

 

FERRARI

Ferrari arrived in Melbourne last year on a high having dominated pre-season testing, only to discover that their car was significantly less competitive than everyone – the team included – had anticipated.

The team often proved to be the class of the field on Saturday afternoons, Charles Leclerc taking a field-best seven pole positions. On race day, however, they were usually no match for the relentless pace of the Mercedes cars, emerging from a bruising season with just three Grand Prix wins to their credit.

Many of the team’s strongest performances came off the back of their atomically-powerful engine, but this has proved to be a serious bone of contention. As the extent of the Scuderia’s power unit advantage became clear at the power tracks of Spa and Monza, their rivals began to cry shenanigans.

This in turn led to an FIA investigation and a hush-hush settlement with the sport’s governing body which has proved largely unsatisfactory for anyone without a prancing horse-badged engine in the back of their car. Suspicions abound that Ferrari were playing fast and loose with the rules on fuel burning and there is every possibility that this story will run and run.

On track, the red car proved a little underwhelming in pre-season testing, but there were signs that there is some decent pace in the car, particularly on longer runs. This would bode well for race days in 2020, but whether their drivers are good enough to beat Hamilton in a car that is only as good as a Mercedes, rather than obviously better, is another question.

 

Car 5: SEBASTIAN VETTEL

Formula 1 2020: Sebastian Vettel, number 5

Four World Championships in a row with Red Bull but nothing since, Vettel is increasingly looking like a busted flush. This is a huge over-simplification of the truth: to dismiss Vettel as being a driver who could only flourish in an Adrian Newey masterpiece Red Bull, sucked to the floor with its magic exhaust-blown diffuser, would be patently absurd.

However, it does suggest that Vettel is a driver who requires a very particular type of car underneath him in order to extract his best performance. When he has one, he is more or less completely unbeatable. If Ferrari are able to provide the German with a machine that is to his liking, a fifth World Championship is eminently possible.

Far more likely, though, is that Vettel will again find himself struggling to assert himself over his teammate and ultimately leaving Ferrari with an unfulfilled ambition at the end of the season. The big question will then be whether or not he has the desire to carry on racing in Formula 1.

 

Car 16: CHARLES LECLERC

Formula 1 2020: Charles Leclerc, number 16

I dare say that it was no great surprise to any seasoned Formula 1 watchers that Charles Leclerc proved to have the measure of Sebastian Vettel in his first season at Ferrari. However, the extent of his dominance – not to mention how quickly it became apparent – was something of a surprise.

Leclerc quickly proved everyone who had him pegged as a star of the future completely correct. The Monagesque is quite obviously possessed of both the speed and the mental strength of which World Championships are made and the long-term Ferrari contract he has in his pocket means he will be a major player in Formula 1 for the forseeable future.

Quite whether he is able to consistently operate at the same level as a Lewis Hamilton remains unclear. He’s every bit as good as a Sebastian Vettel, though, and that should be enough for anyone.

 

RED BULL RACING-HONDA

Red Bull’s first season with Honda was a rip-roaring success, with three wins and some serious displays of both speed and reliability for good measure. But all of this is worth nothing unless the partnership proves itself able to move up to the next level and challenge for the Championship.

Red Bull and Honda both have significant pedigree at doing just that, of course, but the Formula 1 gods remain dazzlingly unmoved by historical provenance. The trick is getting it done in the here and now. This has proved something of a problem for Red Bull, frequently making slow starts to the season even in years that they ultimately dominated.

Pre-season testing showed promise, the RB16 is obviously a quick car and Honda continue to build and build on the steady progress they have been making since their return to the sport at the dawn of the turbo hybrid era.

The fact remains, though, that the car and the power unit will both need to be capable of coming out swinging from race one if they want to beat a team as formidable as Mercedes. Along with countless other Formula 1 fans, I’d love to see it.

Car 33: MAX VERSTAPPEN

Formula 1 2020: Max Verstappen, number 33

Once every generation in Formula 1, a driver comes along who is clearly a step apart from all of their fellows, good enough to make the difference on their own. Lewis Hamilton was the last one and do not doubt for a single second that Max Verstappen is the latest.

There’s a chance that I have just upset any number of Ferrari fans or Charles Leclerc boosters, but that’s my judgement and it will take a lot for anything to shake me from it. If Lewis Hamilton is likely to be toppled, Max Verstappen will be the driver to do it. You can sense in Hamilton’s every move, action and statement that he knows it as well.

Verstappen’s talent is Red Bull’s biggest blessing but also their biggest curse: if they prove unable to provide him with the tools to win the World Championship soon, he will be off. The prospect of that should be terrifying enough to ensure the team keep focussed.

However, if it is still their avowed intention to make Max the youngest ever Formula 1 World Champion, this is the year they have to do it. 2020 is a huge season for both the driver and his team.

 

Car 23: ALEXANDER ALBON

Formula 1 2020: Alexander Albon, number 23

Eighteen months ago, Alexander Albon had signed to drive for Nissan in Formula E, his dreams of Formula 1 seemingly a thing of the past. Now he will begin his second season in Formula 1 with a car capable of giving him Grand Prix wins.

Red Bull’s extensive Juniors program has floundered since the arrivals of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz Jr into the sport in 2015. That’s what led to the opening for Albon to join Toro Rosso off the back of a fine Formula 2 campaign in 2018 and that’s what led to his promotion to the senior team mid-season in 2019, after some musical chairs with a flailing Pierre Gasly.

This is not likely to remain the case for very long, however. Gasly is still hovering around in Formula 1, Fernando Alonso is forever lurking and the Red Bull Junior program rumbles on. If Red Bull and Honda prove to have stepped up in 2020, Albon will need to do similarly.

He’s capable of doing just that, although I don’t forsee him being able to consistently beat Max Verstappen. Whether or not he’ll get the time to prove himself is another matter.

 

McLAREN-RENAULT

After a chastening spell of ever-decreasing competitiveness, McLaren turned the corner in 2019, establishing themselves in 4th place in the Constructor’s Championship at the expense of their engine supplier’s works team.

In fact, 2019 proved to be such a marked upturn in the team’s fortunes that it will be extremely difficult to replicate their success in the 2020 season. And success is very much a relative term, especially when you have a past as decorated and distinguished as McLaren’s.

Pre-season testing was reasonably inconclusive, as the team were fairly coy about the specification of the car that they were running. Their pace seems to be more or less in the region one might have expected, although there are definitely signs that the midfield pack are closing up.

McLaren could do very little wrong in 2020 and still end up with a bloody nose, in other words. But their prospects for the longer term are at least starting to look rosier again, good news for one of the sport’s biggest names.

 

Car 55: CARLOS SAINZ JR

Formula 1 2020: Carlos Sainz Jr, number 55

Sainz had a brilliant 2019 campaign, finishing in 6th place in the overall standings in spite of a slow start. By the end of the season, Sainz was delivering flawlessly every time he stepped into the car, in the process making Red Bull’s reckless decision to cut him loose in 2017 look ever more foolish.

The Spanish driver even snagged himself a career-first podium finish in the chaos of the Brazilian Grand Prix and will be keen to add to it, although the chances of doing so with McLaren in 2020 are probably somewhat diminished due to their rivals closing in.

Nevertheless, Sainz has transformed himself into a driver who feared for his Formula 1 future after being dropped by Renault at the end of 2018 into one of the most desirable peddlers on the grid, a proven quantity whose only limitation seems to be the standard of his machinery.

Car 4: LANDO NORRIS

Formula 1 2020: Lando Norris, number 4

Formula 1’s youngest driver acquitted himself well in his debut season in 2019. Up against a teammate who consistently wrung every ounce of performance out of his car, Norris continually kept him honest and occasionally even out-paced him.

His final totals could have been better yet, had his engine not given up the ghost on the final lap of the Belgian Grand Prix with the Brit running in an excellent 4th place.

Norris is very highly rated by McLaren and is very much seen as a future World Champion by the team. Last season will have done little to dampen their expectations and much to bolster his chances of remaining with the outfit for the long term.

With their midfield rivals closing in, Norris’ second season looks like it will be a stern test but it is one I would expect him to adapt to and survive.

 

RENAULT

The Renault team had a disastrous 2019. The team went into the season looking to cement their position as the fourth-best team and potentially make gains towards joining the top three. Instead they went backwards, despite the high-profile signing of Daniel Ricciardo from Red Bull.

Simply put, this isn’t good enough and everybody involves knows it. Renault have now spent over a billion Euros on their latest tilt at Formula 1 as a full constructor and, unless things start to improve very rapidly the chances of the management pulling the plug on the venture grow by the minute.

This would be extremely sad and bad news for Formula 1 as a whole, so we remain hopeful that Renault will start to see some improvements soon, especially with the wholesale rule changes for 2021 on the horizon.

As for this season, don’t expect any miracles. Particularly as the entire design team responsible for the RS20 car have since been moved along to pastures new and replaced, hardly a vote of confidence.

Car 3: DANIEL RICCIARDO

Formula 1 2020: Daniel Ricciardo, number 3

Safe to say Daniel Ricciardo probably wouldn’t have signed for Renault had he known just quite how much of a drop in performance from Red Bull he was going to have to endure. It was a test of both his famously sunny disposition and also of his famously exciting racecraft.

Ricciardo is a popular and proven quantity in Formula 1 and, with almost 200 Grands Prix under his belt at the end of 2020, would be a good fit more or less anywhere. This is unlikely to be good news for Renault, unless they can show him that they are capable of making solid and steady progress back towards the front of the field.

Short of the car being good enough to get Ricciardo podium finishes in 2020, expect to see increasingly fevered speculation linking him to Sebastian Vettel’s seat at Ferrari as the season goes on.

Car 31: ESTEBAN OCON

Formula 1 2020: Esteban Ocon, number 31

Being the French driver at Renault is a notoriously poisoned chalice but it is one that Esteban Ocon will sup at gladly, as it means he is back in Formula 1. Ocon was forced to sit out the 2019 season having lost his drive with the Racing Point team after the buyout by the family Stroll.

This was a particularly unfair and unfortunate set of circumstances for Ocon, who is a long-term protegé of the Mercedes team and is rated as one of the best young prospects in the sport.

He’s an ornery sort, Ocon. His family gave up everything to provide for young Esteban’s racing dream and it engendered a fearsome will to win in the Frenchman. Combined with his undeniable talent, this hasn’t particularly endeared him to his fellow practitioners.

He doesn’t get along with Pierre Gasly, he doesn’t get along with Max Verstappen and he very definitely didn’t get along with his old Racing Point teammate Sergio Perez. Whether or not he can work his magic on the amiable Ricciardo is another matter. Ocon possesses the talent to beat him on track, though, which would be a bad start to the relationship.

 

SCUDERIA ALPHATAURI-HONDA

The team formerly known as Toro Rosso have been rebranded for the 2020 season but the story is still the same: Red Bull’s junior team provide two invaluable seats to blood in the team’s youngsters.

Or at least, that’s the theory. In practice , AlphaTauri have presently become something of a halfway house for vagrants and ne’er-do-wells, deemed unsuitable for the senior squad’s requirements.

As a team, the Italian outfit usually punch their weight, competitive with the midfield throng and usually capable of scoring points finishes more often than not. This looks unlikely to change. What the team really need is an injection of some exciting new driving talent.

 

Car 26: DANIIL KVYAT

Formula 1 2020: Daniil Kvyat, number 26

Red Bull have blown hot and cold on the Russian driver down the years but the current talent vacuum in the Junior program has seen him looking reasonably secure with the second-string.

In the middle of 2019, there were even rumours of a dazzlingly unlikely return to the senior team following Kvyat’s fine 3rd place at the German GP. All of this positivity can’t possibly last very long and it’s highly probable that Red Bull will dredge someone up to take Kvyat’s seat for 2021.

Kvyat, still not 26 years old, almost certainly hasn’t deserved any of this malarky but unfortunately that is the Red Bull way. He’s a solid if unspectacular Grand Prix driver, whose Formula 1 career will likely never recover from being summarily dropped for Max Verstappen mid-way through the 2016 season.

 

Car 10: PIERRE GASLY

Formula 1 2020: Pierre Gasly, number 10

Pierre Gasly can sympathise, demoted back to Toro Rosso after half a season with Red Bull last year. It was tough on the French driver, but the results were very difficult to argue with: Gasly looked panicked throughout his time with the seniors, ruthlessly outpaced by Max Verstappen.

His failure to keep pace at the Hungarian Grand Prix, which allowed Lewis Hamilton to change tyres and hunt the Dutchman down for the race win proved to be the final straw, but this was the thin end of the wedge. Gasly finished a lap behind the victorious Verstappen in Austria and was the slowest of all 4 Red Bull cars in Germany, crashing out of the race battling with Alexander Albon as Max cruised to victory.

His return to the junior team saw Gasly recapture some of the form that had seen him promoted in the first place, not least a fine and spirited drive to 2nd place in Brazil. Gasly is a talented driver with an enviable CV, but he is very much fighting for his Formula 1 career. 2020 is a big test.

 

RACING POINT-MERCEDES

Racing Point – formerly known as Force India – had a trying 2019, the result of under-investment in the development of their car during their financial crisis of 2018. Bought by Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll, their future is now secure. They will become the Aston Martin works team for 2021.

Pre-season testing saw the team, one of the most effective race teams in the field, cause something of a stir. Their new car bears more than a passing resemblance to a 2019 Mercedes painted pink, the team understandably using their technological partnership with the champions to the fullest allowable extent.

This is bad news for the rest of the midfield, because the new Racing Point looks like it is fast. Fast enough, maybe, to even trouble the front three teams. Last season they managed to wring every ounce of performance out of a car that was one of the slowest in the field. With a good one, a race win might not be out of the question.

 

Car 11: SERGIO PEREZ

Formula 1 2020: Sergio Perez, number 11

The Mexican is now in his tenth Formula 1 season and is the indisputable king of the midfield. No-one can match Perez for his tyre management and strategic nous and he is one of the canniest operators in the field, although his judgement in wheel-to-wheel duels can sometimes be, let’s say, “questionable”.

Whatever the Racing Point car is capable of, you best believe that Sergio Perez will deliver it, race after race after race. He’s a gifted accumulator of points finishes, an invaluable trait in a congested midfield pack which is likely to see ten or more cars covered by half a second.

A miserable season with McLaren in 2013 put paid to the early rumours of a promotion to the big leagues, but Perez now looks increasingly at peace exactly where he is.

 

Car 18: LANCE STROLL

Formula 1 2020: Lance Stroll, number 18

Let’s get it out of the way: Lance Stroll drives for Racing Point because his pappy bought the team. He made it to Formula 1 because his pappy invested heavily in Williams. But he made it to the top floor on talent as well as opportunity.

Talent can only take you so far, though. Lance Stroll needs to start to deliver results. With the team set to become Aston Martin, there’s an increasing chance that even his family ties won’t prove sufficient to keep his seat, unless the younger Stroll can start to regularly score points finishes.

Last season he was dominated by his teammate, not helped by the fact that he spent the majority of the season getting knocked out in the first session of qualifying and starting at the back of the grid. This was just about acceptable last season, but just won’t do in a pink Mercedes. Stroll faces a make-or-break season in 2020.

 

ALFA ROMEO

In the misleadingly-named team stakes, Alfa Romeo easily clean up. They are in fact the Swiss Sauber team with customer Ferrari engines. Alfa are essentially the Ferrari junior team, one of their seats at the sole discretion of Maranello.

In pre-season testing, Alfa Romeo didn’t set the world alight and a season of struggle looks likely. In 2019 the team started well and then faded backwards down the field and the chances that they will have redressed this over the winter are slim.

 

Car 7: KIMI RAIKKONEN

Formula 1 2020: Kimi Raikkonen, number 7

Now 40 years old, Kimi Raikkonen is due to become the driver to have started the most Grand Prix races of all time in the middle of the 2020 season. It seems reasonable to assume that he is closer to the end of his Formula 1 career than the start of it, although as yet the Finn is offering no clues as to his future intentions.

As a driver, Kimi is not the speed merchant he once was but he remains a thoroughly safe pair of hands. With a good car underneath him, he’ll consistently deliver good results. Quite whether he’s the man to whip your workforce up into a frenzy of anticipation, however, is questionable.

Nevertheless, Raikkonen remains a welcome presence on the Formula 1 grid: affable, staccato and funny with a seemingly endless well of passion for driving racing cars. Come his 324th Grand Prix start he will no doubt be roundly lauded, and rightly so.

 

Car 99: ANTONIO GIOVINAZZI

Formula 1 2020: Antonio Giovinazzi, number 99

Ferrari’s choice is their long-time Academy prospect, now entering into his second full season in Formula 1. 2019 proved to be a patchy start, roundly outpaced and outscored by Kimi Raikkonen.

Italy’s only Grand Prix driver managed to settle a little in mid-season, from the Austrian Grand Prix onwards scoring points as regularly as his teammate. However, he remained very much in his shadow throughout: when Giovinazzi struck it big with 5th place in Brazil, Raikkonen was 4th.

Giovinazzi is another driver facing a make-or-break year in 2020, his place made even more parlous by the ever-lurking presence of Michael’s son, Mick Schumacher. Schumacher – a fellow member of the Ferrari Driver Academy – looks set to graduate to Formula 1 in 2021 regardless of how well he does in Formula 2 this season. Giovinazzi doesn’t have that luxury.

 

HAAS-FERRARI

Haas followed up an outstanding 2018 – where they only narrowly lost out in the final standings to Renault – with a disastrous 2019 campaign. The car suffered a fundamental design problem which the team were slow to identify and which remained stubbornly resistant to being fixed.

As such, Haas spent pre-season running to their own speed in testing, trying to make sure their new car wasn’t also essentially flawed. Formula 1 awaits the results with baited breath: the sport can ill-afford to lose any teams, and Haas’s future participation in the sport is said to be hanging in the balance.

 

Car 8: ROMAIN GROSJEAN

Formula 1 2020: Romain Grosjean, number 8

The latest in a long line of F1’s comedy drivers, Romain Grosjean’s every mistake is gleefully leapt upon by an expectant public. This is the nature of the beast, unfortunately, because Grosjean is a far better driver than his current reputation would lead you to believe.

Given a car he can drive with confidence, he is as good as almost any of his fellows, with a CV of achievement in the lower formulae that his rivals would kill for. The chances of Haas providing him with such a machine seem rather more up in the air, but it would be lovely to see them do it. Even if it was just to wipe a few shit-eating grins off the faces of the paddock japesters and Twitter’s meme army.

 

Car 20: KEVIN MAGNUSSEN

Formula 1 2020: Kevin Magnussen, number 20

The Dane with the combative style that so endears him to his fellow participants returns for another season, having come close to being shown the door by Haas during a tempestuous 2019.

Magnussen’s frustration was born mainly of the fact he was the team’s leading performer for much of the year in a hopeless car. It is, however, fair to say that Magnussen’s thorny attitude probably won him few friends and did little to help matters with the team’s backs against the wall.

He’s a good driver, with aggression and determination to spare. But the chances of it all boiling over into frustration and acrimony will only continue to grow unless Haas give him the car he believes his talent deserves.

 

WILLIAMS-MERCEDES

Williams’s 2019 campaign made their sparse season in 2018 look like their golden years of the 1990s. It was an unmitigated disaster, the car several percentage points slower than all of their rivals. It was a sad sight to see.

Pre-season testing has been promising. Williams are likely to be bringing up the rear of the grid again in 2020, but the team now look to be far closer to the rest of the field on pace. For a team as operationally solid as the Williams outfit, this ought to give them the chance to race for positions and points this season.

That’s the bare minimum hope. The horrible prospect of a Formula 1 grid without Williams still remains.

 

Car 63: GEORGE RUSSELL

Formula 1 2020: George Russell, number 63

Russell, a member of the Mercedes team and rated by some as a future World Champion, endured a torrid first year in Formula 1, mired at the back in a hopeless car.

He comprehensively outpaced his teammate Robert Kubica, but finishing 19th every other week was pretty far from actually offering any firm indication as to his true potential. The kicker: the Pole scored the only points of Williams’s dismal season, finishing ahead of Russell for a rare weekend in Germany on a day where the rest of the field fell apart.

So, George enters his second season of Formula 1 still awaiting his first points finish. Hopefully a more competitive Williams will be able to provide him with just that. Once he’s in the mix, the real work – positioning himself for the step up to Mercedes once Lewis Hamilton cries enough – begins.

 

Car 6: NICHOLAS LATIFI

Formula 1 2020: Nicholas Latifi, number 6Holy smokes, it’s that rarest of sights on the 2020 Formula 1 grid: a genuine, actual, no Grands Prix ever rookie. Latifi is 24 years old and from Canada, son of a hugely wealthy supermarket chain magnate.

Last season he finished as runner up to Nyck De Vries – now driving for Mercedes in Formula E – in the Formula 2 championship and he’s a safe pair of hands, quite distinct from the kind of baby-faced, wet behind the ears newcomers the feeder series often provides. Indeed, 2019 was his 6th season on the sport’s second rung.

Expectations are decidedly lukewarm, which probably suits everybody involved. But Latifi is no chump, so don’t expect him to disgrace himself.

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