The arrival of the Spanish Grand Prix signals the start of the European leg of races on the Formula 1 calendar. Of course, this is an unofficial classification, but the close proximity to the teams’ bases in Europe is one of the primary reasons why this race is important. Yes, one could argue that the races in Azerbaijan and Bahrain are only a few hours longer by flight, but from Spain onward, the teams will largely use road transport to get around.
Logistics aside, Spain and onward is also when teams will be bringing upgrades to their cars ever so often. As they chase the ever-faster lap-times, here are the talking points from the opening four races of the 2019 Formula 1 season.
Mercedes have best start to a season in history
With four 1-2 finishes, the reigning World Champions have had the best start to a season than any other team in the sport’s history. While their 1-2 finishes might offer a hint of another year of boring dominance from the German team, the truth is that most races have had their fair share of drama (okay, not so much in China). First, due to Valtteri Bottas taking the attack to Lewis Hamilton in the Drivers’ Championship — he is in the lead by one point, the point that we are time and again reminded is due to the fastest lap in the race in Australia. Second, due to Ferrari’s repeated inability to deliver a solid race weekend.
In fact, if it is going to be yet another season of Mercedes winning almost everything they possibly can, a Bottas vs Hamilton battle might be the only hope of every fan to keep interest levels high through the entire 21-race calendar. Luckily, Mercedes have had a history of allowing their drivers to fight for top honours and hopefully this will continue in 2019 too.
However, it is still unclear which team has the faster car: Mercedes or Ferrari? If you ask either of the teams, their answer will be that their rival’s car is faster. But the truth here is that Mercedes’ delivery of a race weekend has been world-class. They have been accurate with the tyre choices, strategy and decisions. So beyond a point, it doesn’t really matter (when it comes to the results) whose car is faster.
Red Bull vs Ferrari battle it out
Ferrari entered the season as favourites — after all, they showed robust pre-season testing form. But despite the Italian team’s best efforts and intentions, their fight has been largely limited to fending off the Red Bull Racing car of Max Verstappen (okay, barring the 2019 Bahrain Grand Prix). In fact, Verstappen’s finishes have been P3-P4-P4-P4 — a clear indication of how the young Dutchman has taken points away from Ferrari and its drivers. He is one point away from Vettel and four points ahead of Charles Leclerc in the championship standings.
Verstappen’s inroads into Ferrari could be attributed to three reasons. First, Ferrari’s continued struggles to find and operate their SF90 in the ideal operating window — one that is believed to be extremely narrow this season. Second, Ferrari’s questionable race strategies — ones that indicate that they are in disbelief of the loss of pace in their car. And third, the use of team orders. In three of the four races contested yet, Leclerc was ordered to play second fiddle to Vettel. While staying away from the team orders debate, had Ferrari not used team orders, they would’ve had more points in the Constructors’ Championship and possibly Leclerc would have been ahead of Vettel and Verstappen in the Drivers’ Championship.
After imploding in the second-half of the season in 2017 and 2018, one wonders if Ferrari have already imploded in 2019 — and again, we are only about 20 percent of the season in. Will 2019 be about how bad Ferrari’s season could be despite having arguably the fastest car on track? Okay, if not the car, they definitely have the fastest engine.
On to Red Bull Racing, the team’s podium on their debut race with Honda was impressive. A confirmation that despite switching from Renault to Honda, Red Bull’s third place isn’t under threat from anyone. However, there’s much work required to get Pierre Gasly up to pace. The question is whether Red Bull will be patient enough to help the young Frenchman sort out his issues. A Gasly vs Verstappen battle could make things interesting in the Red Bull context and add more headache to Ferrari’s floundered championship start. At the moment, it does seem like it is Mercedes vs everyone else; with Ferrari-Red Bull leading the ‘best of the rest’. In which case, how soon before Red Bull Racing and Honda deliver a race-winning package? For 2019, it might be ‘Mission Impossible’.
Formula 1.5 is hotly contested
The battle for the unofficial ‘best of the rest’ 4th place (or Formula 1.5 as fans fondly call it) has changed hands three times already — Haas, Renault and now McLaren, while Racing Point are only a point away. The pre-season testing form indicated how closely contested the mid-field would be — although indications were that Renault and Haas would be leading this pack. But these two teams are down in 7th and 8th place respectively. So if you are bored with Mercedes-Ferrari-Red Bull taking up the first six slots, the real battle is 7th onward.
The mid-field battle will be decided on two factors — consistency and mistakes. It took four races for any mid-field team to score a double points finish (McLaren and Racing Point did so in Baku) and the result propelled them to the top of the mid-field ranking. As for mistakes, a tightly packed field would mean that teams and drivers would require to take more risks to gain ground — either in the pits or on track. Eventually, the driver-team making the least number of mistakes over the season could end up finishing as the ‘best of the rest’.
But how long before the mid-field break away from the ‘best of the rest’ and take the fight to the top-3? Honestly, it doesn’t seem likely for 2019, but for 2021? We can only hope.
Rookies like Norris and Albon make an impact
The arrival of Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc has changed the landscape and expectations for rookies in Formula 1 for the time to come. Lando Norris and Alexander Albon’s early season performance has only added to that perspective. Norris’ double entry into Q3 followed by a 6th place finish in Bahrain indicates that the young British driver is able to deliver over one lap as well as over a race distance. As for Albon, his pit-lane to 10th place in China was applause-worthy. Antonio Giovinazzi and George Russell are yet to open their championship account. While it may be almost impossible for Russell, here’s hoping that Giovinazzi is able to break his duck in the coming races. The young Italian racer is out to fill the big boots of Leclerc and has much catching up to do.
While talking of the rookies, the performance of two veteran drivers stands out — Kimi Raikkonen and Sergio Perez. Raikkonen, also the oldest driver on the current grid, is the only driver to have scored points in every race this season — this is despite starting the 2019 Azerbaijan Grand Prix from the pit-lane. As for Perez, a string of 10-8-6 finishes see him equal on points (13) with Gasly and Raikkonen and in 6th place.
Renault and Ricciardo hit a rough patch
Risky is an apt one-word description for Daniel Ricciardo’s switch to Renault from Red Bull. However, no one would have never imagined that the depth of the risk would be exposed this early into their first season together. The issue has largely been with Renault — choosing power over reliability in their quest to narrow the gap to the leaders and claim honours in the mid-field. The French manufacturer has scored more power-unit related retirements than any other team and are currently in 7th place with 12 points.
In the last few days, Renault has announced the hiring of new team management members — former Ferrari and Mercedes employees, with the hope that they are able to claw back reliability and performance to become a formidable force in the sport yet again. However, the impact of these changes will take time to be felt in terms of performance and one can only hope that 2019 doesn’t turn into a season where Renault starts to fade away into oblivion. Could the lack of results and performance lead to Renault considering a pull out of Formula 1 yet again? Let’s remember, Renault has entered and exited the sport more than most other teams in the last two decades. And with Red Bull no longer scoring podiums and wins for them, the positive stories around the brand will be tougher to come by.
As for Ricciardo, it seems as though the Aussie driver is yet to come to grips with his car and the fact that it is a mid-field runner. While his personality and humour have been spot on, his braking definitely hasn’t — but that could be listed as teething problems yet. However, Ricciardo’s mistakes in Baku while driving forward and in reverse were embarrassing, though his 7th place finish in China could be considered as a consolation.