Will someone finally topple Mercedes?

Ferrari have the money, the people, the facilities and the drivers to fight against and beat Mercedes. But will they? Recent history shows that that’s a different matter.

In 2017, Sebastian Vettel could have stolen the title from Lewis Hamilton. In 2018, Vettel should have won the title. In 2019, they could have been a lot closer in the points table than they ultimately were, but on the whole, it’s fair to say that over the last three seasons, the red camp hasn’t fulfilled their potential in the way their rivals in silver have. That’s not my opinion — that’s just fact.

Ferrari have the money, the people, the facilities and the drivers to fight against Mercedes, and therefore the answer to the question is always yes, they can beat Mercedes. But will they? Recent history shows that that’s a different matter.

Despite all the rumours and accusations in the paddock, the Ferrari power advantage in qualifying seemed to remain a mystery to the other engine suppliers. Last season, the Mercedes was probably the faster car at 70 percent of the tracks, and the only way a slower car was going to win the title was by executing an error-free season with stellar performances and strategic brilliance. The problem for Ferrari is that Lewis makes very few errors and is an excellent qualifier, and Mercedes don’t often get it wrong strategically.

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Despite over two decades of living life out of a suitcase (albeit an expensive designer one), the reigning world champion has lost none of his motivation. Sure, he may not enjoy testing or occasionally sound bored in a Friday practice session, but he delivers when it matters in qualifying and the race. His work ethic with the engineers has been praised by everyone at Mercedes and credit must be given to Toto Wolff as well as Lewis’ manager Marc Hynes for managing him in a way that brings out the best in him.

I do get bored by all the comments from people saying “you’re all biased towards Lewis,” but the reality is the guy has been sensational from the first race he did back in 2007. He’s won nearly half the championships he’s taken part in and probably should have won two more (2007 and 2016), so you can’t help but admire and appreciate his greatness.

The other issue last year was that the Ferrari seemed harder on its tyres than the Mercedes, probably as a result of having a bit less downforce. This meant that even if they could qualify well, they couldn’t necessarily beat the Mercs on Sunday as races like Mexico showed.

Charles Leclerc will be better in his second season at the team. From France onwards, he was brilliant last year, so expect more of the same. Towards the end of the season, Vettel showed in races like Singapore, Russia and Japan that once the updated car was to his liking, he was able to unleash his inherent speed and he knows that his errors are just not acceptable for a driver of his calibre.

One thing to consider is that with stable rules for 2020 and a big change coming for 2021, the answer of who comes out on top may well rely on which of the teams has committed more resources to the short term rather than holding back a bit with an eye on the future.

 

Max Verstappen has already shown that if there’s a car that’s fast enough to challenge for the title, he’s ready for it. The speed and consistency he’s shown in the last 18 months has been very impressive. Like Ayrton Senna, Nigel Mansell or Hamilton, you always watch Max’s race knowing that something is going to happen. He’s not going to just drive around — there will always be some moments of dramatic brilliance or controversy.

Red Bull Racing were perhaps more competitive last year than they were expecting, with three wins and strong pace in Hungary and Mexico as well. But being in the fight for wins at 25 percent of the races isn’t going to make you a title contender and Red Bull know that. The chassis didn’t really deliver until Austria, when the front wing upgrade seemed to unlock the potential of the RB15.

Honda have made very good progress and by the end of the season as a package, they were not far from the Mercedes. They have good resources as well as the key people from the years of domination from 2010 to 2013. I would be surprised if the Red Bull-Honda package isn’t closer to being a title contender than in 2019.

In the midfield, McLaren were the most improved team of 2019 and the whole team has a very upbeat and buoyant atmosphere about it now. Let’s remember that there were times in 2018 where Fernando Alonso was qualifying behind Lance Stroll or Sergey Sirotkin. No disrespect to either of those drivers, but that showed that the McLaren was at times the slowest car in 2018 and therefore makes their recovery last year all the more impressive.

With Andreas Seidl at the helm, Zak Brown doing what he does best and roping in new sponsors, James Key now fully with his feet under the desk, a new wind tunnel coming, the Mercedes power unit deal a year away and an exciting young driver line-up, there’s plenty of cause for optimism around McLaren’s future.

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Last season was a bit of a wake-up call for Renault, I think. The power unit side in Viry has clearly made steps forward in terms of performance as their pace at power sensitive venues such as Canada, Spa and Monza showed. Reliability across the works cars and the McLaren customers was still not as good as they would have liked, but the bigger concern for the works team was that McLaren were able to comprehensively outscore them last year with the same power unit despite being miles behind in 2018.

As a factory team, finishing behind your customer is never going to go down well with the paymasters (although let’s be honest, the extraordinary Carlos Ghosn saga has probably kept them busy over the winter). Cyril Abiteboul has recognised that things need to be shaken up and the departing Nick Chester has been replaced by Pat Fry and Dirk de Beer. The former played a large part in McLaren’s recent turnaround, while the latter was well respected at Enstone and Ferrari despite a difficult time at Williams recently.

Both of these new signings have come in too late to have a real influence on the 2020 car, but it’s an important move with the view towards the parallel design programmes next year. Aero and downforce are still pivotal in F1, but so is consistency when you’re talking about a championship position. They still have very good and experienced people running the track-side team like Ciaron Pilbeam and Mark Slade who are calm and sensible people and exactly what the team needs.

 

I’m very excited for the two new races but for very different reasons. Zandvoort has a lot of history and as a track to drive around on your own, it’s one of my favourites. I loved driving there and the fast flowing corners are really going to be fun for the drivers. The atmosphere with the passionate Verstappen fans is going to be off the charts, and, based on the past, you would actually bet on the Red Bull being very competitive on that sort of track layout.

Overtaking will be a problem at Zandvoort, I think. Racing in other categories around there has been pretty processional, but the FIA have tried to help this by introducing a highly banked final corner and therefore a long DRS (drag reduction system) zone to aid overtaking into the first corner. Fingers crossed that this works, but either way, it should be a good event.

Judging by what I’ve seen of the drawings and simulations, Vietnam could be the opposite. There are some long straights like we’ve seen in Baku as well as some long corners, which will be a real challenge for the drivers, cars and tyres. Baku has thrown up some great races and overtaking in the last three years and hopefully we’ll get the same in Vietnam. Having the race early in the season will be interesting as the teams will still be in the phase of properly learning about their cars, which could throw up a few anomalies as well.