Karun Chandhok: On to the 2020 F1 season

So there we have it, another F1 season over and done with. It’s probably a good time to look back at the season on the whole and perhaps review the teams and drivers in brief.

Lewis Hamilton flanked by the two young pretenders to his crown, Max Verstappen (left) and Charles Leclerc.   -  AP

So there we go – the 2019 F1 championship has drawn to a close with Lewis Hamilton taking another victory and the two young pretenders to his crown standing alongside him at the final race. It was a bit of an anticlimatic end to the season with a dull race in Abu Dhabi, but unfortunately for the Yas Marina Circuit, it often is. The facilities and the atmosphere around the paddock and marina are sensational, but as for the actual track layout, it really needs to be looked at for the future if it is to remain the championship decider. There are a lot of negative-camber medium- and slow-speed corners that are very hard for the tyres and make it really tricky for the drivers to follow each other. It’s a bit of a shame that even the championship deciders we had here in 2010 and 2016 were tense and dramatic races because of the lack of overtaking (Fernando Alonso couldn’t pass Vitaly Petrov in 2010 and Nico Rosberg couldn’t pass Lewis in 2016).

READ | Abu Dhabi GP: Hamilton marks 250th grand prix with F1 season finale victory

Lewis and Mercedes were in a class of their own all weekend and once he got to the first corner first, there really was nothing anybody else could do to stop him. Max Verstappen did another strong race, finishing over 50 seconds ahead of Alex Albon showing that Red Bull really do rely on Max to deliver, while Ferrari have never gone particularly well around this circuit, especially in the third sector.

With the race being a bit uneventful, I thought it’s probably a good time to look back at the season on the whole and perhaps review the teams and drivers in brief. Mercedes were unquestionably the best team as a package of competitiveness and operational strength across the 21 races. Lewis has been very good all year, especially on the Sundays. He shouldn’t have won races like Canada, Russia and Mexico, but he was there to capitalise on errors from the opposition, and the commanding wins in Spain and Silverstone where, despite being behind teammate Valtteri Bottas on the grid, he turned the tables in his favour.

Carlos Sainz celebrates the first podium of his career in Brazil. This was a breakout year for the McLaren driver.   -  Getty Images

 

Valtteri had a better year than the last one, where he seemed to fade as the season went on. The victories in Japan and Austin showed that he was capable of hitting the highs he needs to beat Lewis, but in a very Rubens Barrichello-Michael Schumacher sort of way, that is, a handful of times per season. Like Rubens, Valtteri is up against the best driver of his generation, so it will be a tall order to beat him across the year and he will have to dig really deep to do so.

Ferrari had another year of under-delivering on the whole. They looked brilliantly fast in pre-season testing, but then we got to Melbourne and they were nowhere in comparison to Mercedes. In 2017, Sebastian Vettel could have been champion, in 2018 he should have been champion, while this season his teammate Charles Leclerc could at least have taken the battle to the final round. When we add up all the errors, he should have arrived in Abu Dhabi nine points behind Lewis and still in contention going into the last race. To recap: In Bahrain, Leclerc had the engine issue while leading comfortably and in China the team used him to strategically hold up the opposition to help Vettel, but it cost Charles a couple of points. In Baku and Monaco, Charles made errors in qualifying and then crashed in Germany. In Austria, Singapore and Mexico, the team made poor strategic choices that cost Leclerc, while Vettel’s error in Canada gave more points to Lewis. On the whole, Mercedes had a faster car than Ferrari for probably 75 percent of the season, but the Scuderia still under-delivered on what they had.

READ | Vettel: Ferrari's 2019 season not as bad as it looks

The Italian team were lucky that Red Bull’s second driver didn’t really match Max’s scoring rate in the championship. The Anglo-Austrian team seemed to be affected by the change in front-wing regulations more than some others and did struggle at the start of the season. By the time we got to Austria, the championship challenge didn’t look like it was on the cards any more, but at least Verstappen was able to rack up three victories and secure third in the championship, ahead of both Ferrari drivers. Honda looked like it made decent progress this season and despite both the Red Bulls and Toro Rossos taking grid penalties at various stages of the season, the reliability was a lot better than in previous years.

When you look at the qualifying comparisons, Pierre Gasly was on average 0.417 away from Max, whereas Albon was actually further away at 0.433. The problem for Gasly was that early on in the season, the Red Bull wasn’t as good a car and therefore he would often get caught up battling with the midfield runners in the opening part of the race and just not make enough progress. Albon did seem to make progress in the races a bit better than Gasly, but considering the gap to Max, you have to wonder how much of that is the car now being a lot better than it was at the start of the year? Albon deserves another shot, but 2020 could be his last chance to hang on to a top seat, so he’s got to make it count.

In 2017, Sebastian Vettel could have been champion. In 2018, he should have been champion. This year, he was beaten by his much younger teammate.   -  Getty Images

 

The midfield battle was as tight as ever this year. McLaren did an outstanding job over the winter to go from sometimes having the slowest car on track in 2018 to being the clear best of the rest in 2019. It’s not often that we see such a turnaround from a team these days and it shows that if your fundamental concept is wrong, as it seemingly was in 2018, at some stage giving up on it and committing to a whole philosophical rethink can be very rewarding. With Andreas Seidl and James Key leading the team, Zak Brown selling the dream to sponsors, two good drivers, a Mercedes engine deal and a new wind tunnel coming, they seem to now have the foundations in place to become a top team again in the next few years.

This was a breakout year for Carlos Sainz. Until now, we did wonder just how good he actually was, but in 2019 he seemed to find a whole new level and establish himself as a true star of F1. Lando Norris has clearly got great speed and his qualifying performances were very impressive, but his inexperience in the races showed sometimes. Carlos was able to put together better Sundays in general to get nearly twice as many points. The race performances will be better next year for Lando and the young Brit has been a breath of fresh air both in and out of the car this year.

READ | Hamilton: I love Mercedes but it's smart to think about my options

Renault, Haas and Williams will be disappointed with their seasons, while Racing Point seemed to match their expectations in what is a year of transition for the team. Alfa Romeo had an inconsistent season where they sometimes had no idea why a car that could get into Q3 one week couldn’t even get out of Q1 the next. Toro Rosso had some brilliant highs with podiums in Hockenheim and Brazil and they will benefit from a stable driver line-up for next season.

So there we have it, another year over and done with. Hope you’ve all enjoyed my columns this season, and I look forward to bringing you more insights in 2020!

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