Mercedes to dominate at Monza? 2020 Italian Grand Prix Preview

As Formula One heads to the temple of speed at the 5.7 kilometre Monza circuit, the question on everyone’s lips is not really whether Mercedes will be the dominant force over the course of the weekend.

Instead, we are left wondering just how massive the advantage will be for the Silver Arrows as they seek to continue their astonishingly impressive start to the 2020 season.

2020 Belgian Grand Prix, Friday – Steve Etherington

Despite the extended 2020 lay-off due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Mercedes have very much picked up where they left off at the end of 2019, winning six of the first seven races. And the power-dominated track – the quickest in the calendar – will very much play into the hands of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

Unlike last weekend at Spa, there does not appear to be any threat of rain. However, despite the forecast, hopes of a damp race in Belgium were dampened by a lack of dampness, as Mercedes took a one two for the first time in six races in Belgium, extending their lead at the top of the tree.

2020 Belgian Grand Prix, Sunday – Steve Etherington

A potential surprise in Italy though would very much include Renault. Their top speed at Belgium aided Daniel Ricciardo and Esteban Ocon to a fourth and fifth placed finish respectively, giving them an assured feeling going into this weekend at Monza, where a podium could beckon. It would be the Frenchman’s first ever podium in Formula One, while Daniel Ricciardo would be looking for his first podium since the Monaco Grand Prix in 2018, where he won.

Daniel Ricciardo could claim his first podium in 44 races this weekend

Conspicuous in their absence thus far in this preview have been Ferrari. Spa was nothing short of a disaster for the Scuderia. The powerful nature of the track in Francorchamps was always going to affect the struggling Ferrari power unit adversely, but no one really expected them to be so far from the points pace-wise. Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc were both knocked out in Q2 last Saturday, and Vettel beat his team mate to a lowly thirteenth position in the race. If the affect of the straight line speed in the Ardennes Forest worked against them, Monza will be a travesty. Haas and Alfa Romeo – both Ferrari powered teams – competed with the works team, and Kimi Raikkonen’s pass on former team mate Vettel was the epitome of just how far Ferrari have fallen. It is easy to forget that Charles Leclerc won this race last season.

GP ITALIA F1/2019 – DOMENICA 08/09/2019
credit: @Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Racing Point, meanwhile, seemed to struggle more than expected at Spa, meaning it will be intriguing to see how their car performs at a track that, in theory, should really suit their car and the Mercedes engine that goes with it. Pierre Gasly’s pass in the Alpha Tauri on Racing Point’s Sergio Perez through Eau Rouge was the pick of the bunch last time out. Another strong performance from the Frenchman at his team’s home race could push him further into contention to take the Red Bull seat back away from the struggling Alex Albon.

Alex Albon hopes to improve on a tough start to the 2020 season

It looks as though Mercedes will be raiding the home of Ferrari once more, as the temple of speed welcomes F1 for round eight of the 2020 season.

 

Feature Image courtesy of Glenn Dunbar/LAT Images

Belgian Blockbuster in the wet? 2020 Belgian Grand Prix Preview

Formula One rolls into the luscious town of Francorchamps this week, the threat of rain looms for the upcoming weekend as we await the 76th Belgian Grand Prix.

At a remarkable seven kilometres, Spa boasts the shortest name and the longest track on the calendar – which this year has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we all have reason to be extremely grateful to see Spa on the shortened and condensed list of races this year. It is one of the most challenging, exhausting and bravery-inciting circuits F1 has seen in its 70-year history – Charles Leclerc and Fernando Alonso can testify to that after flying car incidents into turn one in 2012 and 2018.

www.sutton-images.com | Fernando Alonso, McLaren MCL33 crashes and gets airborne at the start of the race at Formula One World Championship, Rd13, Belgian Grand Prix, Race, Spa Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday 26 August 2018.
BEST IMAGE

And if previous form is anything to go by, we could be in for a fascinating race. The last eight F1 races at Spa have seen seven different winners – Jenson Button, Daniel Ricciardo, Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc. Mercedes power has claimed five of the last 10 races, with Renault and Ferrari power taking the flag in the other five.

2016 Belgian Grand Prix, Sunday

The clouds that promise an invigorating twist to the tail throughout all three days of running could provide Red Bull the opportunity to win their fourth race here, with Dutchman Max Verstappen seeking to once again throw a spanner in Mercedes’ almost flawless works and earn his second win of the season after the 70th anniversary Grand Prix in Silverstone.

And it is a good thing for Mercedes’ rivals that the ominous rain threat is there – because this track suits the Silver Arrow almost down to a tee.

With tremendously long full-throttle sections and a heavily reduced necessity for downforce, Mercedes would expect to have the superior car around this track. And they still may. Coupled with excellent proficiency in the car, they have a six-time world champion in Lewis Hamilton that has won four of the last five rain-affected races in F1 – Germany last year being the only exception. He was also the last driver to win a rain-affected race in Belgium back in 2010.

Racing Point, dubbed the pink Mercedes in the midst of the “copying” row, also know that if they can master the wet conditions, a podium finish may be on the cards for them – it would be their first since Sergio Perez in Baku two years ago.

The Ferrari powered cars would be grateful of some rain too this weekend. Ferrari, Haas and Alfa Romeo have all struggled immensely in the early part of the campaign, and some unpredictable weather conditions may just be the catalyst needed for a strong result for those teams – it seems outrageous saying this given that Ferrari won this race last year with Leclerc.

Charles Leclerc dedicates his 2019 win to friend Anthoine Hubert – who lost life earlier in the weekend – Ferrari Media

McLaren, who now have two podiums to their name in as many seasons, looked incredibly strong with Carlos Sainz in qualifying in Styria in the wet, and will undoubtedly sense an opportunity themselves.

As F1 returns to Spa, Charles Leclerc knows he may just need a sprinkle to claim a second consecutive win here – and while there will be no orange wall for Max Verstappen, it looks likely there will be a few walls of spray this weekend.

 

Feature Image Courtesy of Mark Thompson/Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

Opinion: 2020, the year that could have been for Ferrari

It’s safe to say that 2020 has not been the best year for Ferrari. From dropping Sebastian Vettel, who has previously been their best shot at a title, to engine problems leaving them and their customer teams falling behind initial expectations.

Only two podiums in the first four races would usually be a disaster for Ferrari in the modern era, especially when McLaren have one third place and Mercedes have won all four. It doesn’t bode well for a team with such pedigree within the sport.

Not having both drivers through to Q3 in Austria wasn’t a major issue, especially as Charles Leclerc had described the performance of the car as “probably worse than we expected”. But when team principal Mattia Binotto confirmed that there were major design flaws with the SF1000, particularly regarding the aerodynamics, this did not fill anyone within the team, or the fans, with confidence.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

As if things couldn’t get worse, they did at the Styrian Grand Prix when both cars collided on the first lap and had to retire. Even with the new upgrades to the front wing and rear diffuser, the car just couldn’t meet the standards expected from the team and the fans.

Hungary was an improvement, especially in qualifying. Both drivers made it through to Q3 and both finished the race, even if they were both lapped by Lewis Hamilton.

Also, Ferrari are lucky to not have had significant mechanical failures like some Mercedes engines and the electronics issues with the Honda-powered cars. The Ferrari-powered Haas cars had issues with the brakes in the Austrian GP. Even if their power unit isn’t as good as in 2019, its reliability is something to be impressed about.

2020 was destined to be the year for them. Leclerc had just finished his maiden year with the team and Vettel going into his last with them. Surely, just surely, they could string a good season together.

A technical restructure for the team before the British Grand Prix was needed and came with Rory Byrne being mentioned, who helped Ferrari to titles in the dominant Schumacher era. His expertise will be used to ensure the team do not fall as far behind as they currently are.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Bringing a low aerodynamic package to Silverstone, one that would commonly be seen at a track like Spa-Francorchamps, proved that Ferrari were focusing on a defensive strategy rather than trying to attack from the front. This is due to the fact that Silverstone is dominated by engine power and this has been the main point of concern for the team.

The qualifying performance from the team was more impressive at Silverstone than previous races, with Leclerc starting in fourth place just over a second behind the new record time set by Hamilton, and Vettel also qualifying in the top 10.

This was also supported by a strong performance in the race with a podium for Leclerc, assisted by a tyre issue for Valtteri Bottas in the final moments of the race, and tenth for Vettel, after struggling to keep the Alpha Tauri of Pierre Gasly behind him.

After four races, the team is in fourth place in the constructor’s championship, one point ahead of Racing Point who have had a strong showing so far. For the drivers, Leclerc is in fifth position behind Lando Norris, and Vettel is only two points behind Gasly in 13th place. Vettel has not finished a race higher than sixth, which would usually be the minimum for one of the top three teams.

2020 has unfortunately proved that Ferrari are not going to be automatically considered to be in the running for titles or even race wins. With the rules staying the same into 2021, it is unlikely that they will be more competitive next year.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

2020 Styrian Grand Prix preview: second chance in Spielberg

Another week, another visit to Austria’s Red Bull Ring—this time for the Formula 1 Styrian Grand Prix.

Last week’s Austrian Grand Prix was a terrific opening round to the 2020 season. Valtteri Bottas landed an early blow in the title fight with Lewis Hamilton, Lando Norris earned his maiden podium with a last-gasp effort, and there was plenty of close-quarters racing throughout.

Last week’s result was also largely unexpected, thanks to incidents and reliability issues almost halving the field by the chequered flag. That means we could get a very different result again this weekend, if the teams and drivers don’t have half as much trouble keeping their cars on track.

One of the teams that’s sure to factor more in the Styrian Grand Prix is Red Bull. It was clear last time out in Austria that they were Mercedes’ closest challengers, but technical problems for both Max Verstappen and Alex Albon led to a double DNF instead. Both drivers will be going into this weekend pushing hard to make up for that, with Albon especially motivated after coming so close to his first F1 podium.

Racing Point F1 Team

Racing Point will also be hoping for a much better result this time out. The RP20 showed more evidence of its considerable pace in practice and qualifying, but a technical DNF for Lance Stroll and a penalty dropping Sergio Perez behind both McLarens in P6 left a lot still on the table for the team. Provided everything goes to plan for them this weekend, Racing Point should be able to finish ahead of their midfield rivals and take away a decent haul of points.

However, there will be several teams hoping for a repeat of last Sunday’s attrition. Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo both managed to score points last time out, with Pierre Gasly in P7 and Antonio Giovinazzi in P9, but on pace alone neither team looked that close to the top ten throughout the weekend.

And then there’s Ferrari. Although Charles Leclerc finished second in the opening race, that was very much a great result salvaged from a terrible outing. The SF1000 looked sluggish all weekend, never troubling Mercedes or Red Bull and qualifying behind McLaren and Racing Point. Add to that Sebastian Vettel’s spin after colliding with Carlos Sainz, and the result was a very sobering start to the season.

One glimmer of hope for the Scuderia was that the car looked much more responsive later in the race on the harder tyres, and the team will have hopefully learned something from last weekend’s pain that can be used to improve this weekend. If not, Leclerc and Vettel will likely find themselves scrapping away with the upper midfield rather than challenging for the podium.

The 2020 Styrian Grand Prix gets underway with free practice this Friday, with full coverage on our Twitter feed.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Vettel vs Leclerc: The making of the most explosive partnership ever?

It was coming, wasn’t it?

In the dying laps of the Brazilian Grand Prix, following a safety car,  Ferrari’s talented Monegasque upstart Charles Leclerc dived down the inside of team-mate Sebastian Vettel going into turn one. Nothing wrong with that move. On the exit of turn three, however, came a moment that epitomised what has been a long and painful struggle for Ferrari over recent years.

Attempting to gain his position back, Vettel re-created his 2010 drama with then-Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber, and moved across on Leclerc, terminally damaging Leclerc’s wheel, and giving himself a race-ending puncture.

I know we can’t use one incident to suggest that this is already the most controversial team-mate battle in F1 history. It doesn’t come close to Senna vs Prost or even Hamilton vs Rosberg, but what happened in Brazil was the culmination of an incredibly tense season at the Scuderia. It was a volcano that wasn’t going to stay dormant for long.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Vettel has a history of being more than a little incident-prone. Even during his spell of dominance at Red Bull, there were cracks under pressure, clashes with rivals, and an almost permanent sense of volatility. Then, after his move to Ferrari, there were incidents in Baku and Singapore in 2017, and multiple errors in 2018.

This year, his rivalry with Leclerc has seen a stark contrast with Vettel’s placid and comfortable relationship with Kimi Raikkonen. This year saw him come up against a young, quick, aggressive, motivated and extremely talented Leclerc. This pressure has in some ways pushed Vettel to become a better version of himself, but the mistakes have always been there, as has the flare that comes with competitive team-mates who simply will not accept number two status at the most historic and successful team in F1.

Success may seem distant for Ferrari at the moment, but as a team that dominates all of the papers in Italy and is the biggest talking point of a proud racing nation, the headlines are never far away. In typical Ferrari fashion, they have occupied them at every opportunity this year, but mainly for the wrong reasons.

On multiple occasions at the start of the year, Ferrari opted to swap their drivers over when chasing the quicker Mercedes cars, despite their cars being equal in pace. These decisions were puzzling to put it kindly, and led to friction that would dominate the rest of the season.

Singapore saw one of the most contentious incidents yet between the two. Leclerc was leading from pole, but Ferrari decided to give Vettel the undercut and inadvertently gave the German the lead of the race in the pit stops. Vettel won the race, ahead of a furious Leclerc.

At this point, tempers were sizzling, but Ferrari insisted that they had the situation under control.

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

They came close to blows on the first lap of the US Grand Prix, and as soon as they went side-by-side in Brazil, you knew what was coming.

Ferrari have worked themselves into a situation that they cannot control. As in many races over the last couple of years, they have cost themselves valuable points with a combination of nonsense strategies and driver errors.

Regarding Vettel and Leclerc, there’s no need to explore specific points during races when Ferrari mishandled their driver situation. Forget China, forget Spain, forget Singapore, and forget Brazil. Ferrari were in trouble before the season even began.

Mattia Binotto started his role in the worst way possible. Before Melbourne, the new team principal stated that Ferrari would favour Vettel in the first part of the season and perhaps give Leclerc equal standing if he proved his worth as the year progressed.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a team boss make such a foreboding start to a reign as team boss. These comments will have created a lack of trust and a polarising divide between Vettel and Leclerc, because how are they supposed to race if they know they constantly have a team decision hanging over their heads? How does Leclerc hope to prove himself as a Ferrari race winner if the team will swap him and Vettel over anyway?

It gave the perception that Vettel had become Ferrari’s darling, and that Leclerc would have to be the bridesmaid. Binotto’s comments made it a personal battle between his drivers and they hadn’t even hit the streets of Melbourne for the weekend yet.

Would the tale have been different had Binotto been a bit more considerate in his comments? It’s difficult to tell, but I certainly feel there would be less animosity in Ferrari.

However, if you’re a neutral looking for exciting headlines every race, then Binotto’s a genius!

Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Let’s face it, F1 has often felt stagnant in the last few years, because intense rivalries have been hard to come by. Lewis Hamilton’s battle with Valtteri Bottas has always been quite passive and amiable, despite Mercedes’ favouring the six-time champion.

Max Verstappen has had a grudge with Esteban Ocon, who will race for Renault next year, since their junior days.

Those rivalries aside, we are yet to see a battle to the extent of Hamilton and Rosberg. Looking back over the years, there has always been friction in such an emotionally-fuelled sport. The aforementioned battle of egos between Senna and Prost springs to mind, as does Mansell vs Piquet. Jacques Villeneuve wants to fight with everyone he meets, and who can forget Fernando Alonso’s beef with both Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel?

This friction gives us talking points other than Mercedes and Ferrari winning, with Max Verstappen, to his credit, often helping to spice up the action at the top of the field.

However, it almost seems like F1 doesn’t have room for mind games and antagonism any more, despite other racing series proving it can still be done.

MotoGP riders do a good job of getting into each other’s heads, and the same applies to Formula E. Jean Eric Vergne, Sebastien Buemi and Lucas di Grassi don’t exactly have soft spots for each other.

And that doesn’t come down to snide remarks and below-the-belt comments in the media like we often see in F1, this is about drivers passionately confronting each other about incidents and making sure everyone knows where they stand on conflicts. Remember Sebastien Buemi going round screaming at every driver he saw after race one of the 2017 season finale in Montreal?

This is what F1 needs more of and hopefully the new 2021 regulations will bring the field closer together and we can see more on-track fights and debates between drivers every race.

Of course, we’re not asking drivers to get the boxing gloves out. All we want is drivers racing closely and entertaining us, giving us something to talk about. Is that so much to ask of a sport that has given us so many jaw-dropping moments over the years?

So, could Vettel vs Leclerc become a rivalry for the ages? Quite possibly, but let’s hope it’s not the only one we have to talk about in years to come.

Brazilian GP: Albon tops FP1 despite crashing out, as Ferrari lead FP2

FP1 – A Damp Day on Track

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 15: Alexander Albon of Thailand driving the (23) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB15 on track during practice for the F1 Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 15, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Red Bull’s Alex Albon set the fastest lap in FP1, before bringing out the red flag to end the session after crashing out on slicks in drying conditions.

He topped the session with a 1:16.142, set shortly before he hit the wall at Juncao, with Valtteri Bottas second with a 1:16.693 and Sebastian Vettel in third with a 1:17.041. However, the morning’s session looked unlikely to be representative as the session started off wet and dried out slowly, with slick tyres not being seen until the final five minutes of the session.

The adverse conditions led to limited running, with four drivers – including Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen – not setting timed laps. Nicholas Latifi took the place of Robert Kubica, the driver he is expected to replace at Williams in 2020, in his sixth FP1 session of the season.

The session got off to a slow and soggy start, with Carlos Sainz the only driver to set a lap time in the early stages, with Lewis Hamilton and then Charles Leclerc the first drivers to emerge on intermediates just over the half-way point in the session.

With five minutes remaining, a flurry of cars came out on slick tyres, with both Red Bulls suffering problems in the damp conditions, but several drivers found the conditions challenging. Verstappen and Daniil Kvyat both suffered spin, and the session was brought to an end when Alex Albon hit the barriers.

FP2 – Ferrari on Top

GP BRASILE F1/2019 – VENERDÌ 15/11/2019
credit: @Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

By the time FP2 came around, conditions had improved, and despite reports of raindrops mid-session, the rain stayed away enough to avoid a switch to intermediates.

The two Ferraris topped the timesheets, with Sebastian Vettel in first with a 1:09.217. Leclerc, who has a ten place grid penalty owing to an ICE change this weekend, set a 1:09.238 in second. Verstappen was third, and the Mercedes cars of Bottas and Hamilton were fourth and fifth respectively.

The midfield battle looked as close as ever, with a little over four tenths of a second separating the Haas of Kevin Magnussen in sixth and the Racing Point of Lance Stroll in 17th.

The session was red flagged early on as Robert Kubica’s Williams hit the wall before he was even able to set a lap time, scattering debris all around and likely creating some headaches for Williams, who have been beset by a shortage of parts this season.

Verstappen set the early pace before being usurped by the Ferraris at the top of the table, while Valtteri Bottas created some hairy moments for both teammate Lewis Hamilton and the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, failing to move out of the way as they came past on flying laps. Bottas and Leclerc also had a close shave in the pit lane, but the stewards deemed an investigation unnecessary.

Pierre Gasly parked up with 20 minutes to go with a probable engine issue, his car exuding plumes of smoke. The other Toro Rosso of Daniil Kvyat brought out the red flag to end the session, with Kvyat coming to a stop in the same place as Albon in FP1. However, Kvyat’s incident was likely to be mechanical as his dash appeared to cut off, sending him off the track.

 

[Featured image – Scuderia Ferrari Press Office]

Mexico 2019 – Mercedes triumphs, while Ferrari’s strategy continues to lack

The Mexican Grand Prix saw Lewis Hamilton victorious, but not sufficiently so to crown him the 2019 Drivers Champion. Hamilton’s win also saw his 100th podium for Mercedes, and saw Ferrari give up the top spot on the podium thanks to poor strategy calls once again.

The opening moments of the race delivered excitement, as Grands Prix often do. With Charles Leclerc making an excellent start, his teammate Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, and Max Verstappen jostled for position.

Vettel easily got the best of it (though he made brief contact with Leclerc), retaining second position, while Red Bull’s Alex Albon and McLaren’s Carlos Sainz got a large boost, climbing to third and fourth respectively. Hamilton fell back to fifth, and while Verstappen initially fell back to eighth he quickly suffered a puncture when making an early overtake on Bottas, leading to an immediate pit stop. He ultimately rejoined the race in 20th.

Don’t worry, Verstappen fans – he performed an admirable drive, finishing in sixth and taking the Driver of the Day award. He demonstrated excellent control and patience, regaining several places as other drivers stopped for fresh tyres. When he began overtaking others later in the race, he did so smoothly, with few if any elbows out. Verstappen’s choice of hard tyres led to early speculation about the possibility of a one-stop race.

There was a Virtual Safety Car deployed after the initial carnage while the marshals attended to the debris from the opening collisions, but the race then proceeded Safety Car-free.

(Photo by Peter Fox/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, the opening lap tussles were some of the only exciting moments of the race. While the order changed a bit, the top five drivers throughout the race largely remained Leclerc, Vettel, Albon, Hamilton, and Bottas. The race ended with Hamilton in first, Vettel in second, Bottas in third, Leclerc in fourth, and Albon in fifth.

Though they were few, there were nonetheless some exciting moments. Local hero Sergio Perez (Checo if you’re nasty; all apologies to Janet Jackson) made an excellent early overtake on Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat, to the delight of the crowd. Daniel Ricciardo made a spectacular, but failed, late overtaking attempt on Perez. He badly overcooked the attempt and was forced to run wide, cutting several corners. While this did allow him to return to the track ahead of Perez, Ricciardo wisely ceded the position back to his rival.

While there was some other overtaking, it was mainly clean and competent with the defending drivers ceding position when it was obvious they weren’t able to defend successfully.

There was minimal contact between drivers after the first lap. Verstappen and Kevin Magnussen made brief contact on lap 27, but the stewards declined to investigate further. The most memorable other contact came during the final lap. As Hamilton crossed the finish line, Daniil Kvyat returned to his old form and ran straight into the back of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg, destroying his rear wing and ending his race practically within sight of the finish line. This initially cost the German two places, dropping him from ninth place to eleventh, though the stewards quickly issued Kvyat a 10-second penalty. This dropped Kvyat to 11th, and brought Hulkenberg up to 10th along with its accompanying point.

Pit stops provided some drama. McLaren’s Lando Norris was given the signal to exit the pit too early, with his left front tyre not completely secure. While he was able to stop prior to crossing the pit lane exit line and his crew was able to remedy the issue, Norris never recovered from this mistake and remained last until his retirement on lap 48.

(Photo by Joe Portlock / LAT Images)

Antonio Giovinazzi’s right rear tyre caused him considerable difficulty as well, which was compounded when the jack was released too quickly, before the tyre was secure. Charles Leclerc wasn’t immune to pit issues either – trouble with the right rear tyre cost him four precious seconds on his second stop.

Tyre management proved to be key in this race. Ricciardo deserves special mention for his tyre management. He was able to maintain respectable pace for 50 laps on his opening set of hard tyres, maintaining sixth place for the last 30 of those 50. It was this show of durability that likely convinced Red Bull to keep Verstappen out on his set of hards, which lasted him for an amazing 66 laps following his early stop. Perez ran the final 51 laps of the race on hards, and Hulkenberg ran 52 laps on his. Vettel also deserves credit for his tyre management, turning in a respectable 40 laps on his initial set of mediums between qualifying and the race.

Indeed, had Vettel not resisted calls for him to prepare to pit on lap 25, the result might have been very different for him. Ferrari, it seemed, had a very different model of tyre performance in this race and were unable to adapt in time to salvage the win. The pit wall’s call for Leclerc’s early stop on lap 15 was premature. All of the front runners started their race on used mediums, but the others handily demonstrated that their tyres were good for many more laps – eight more laps for Hamilton, 21 more laps for Bottas, and 22 more for Vettel. Had the Scuderia sent Leclerc back out on hards, his race might’ve gone very differently as hard tyres amply proved to deliver incredible life.

With three races left, the top of the pecking order is fairly settled. While it is mathematically possible for Bottas to claim the Drivers’ Championship, it is not likely. Similarly, while Red Bull could pass Ferrari for second in the Constructors’ Championship, it is similarly unlikely.

As has been the case for the past several seasons, it’s the midfield where the excitement lies. Toro Rosso and Racing Point are in the fight for sixth and if Renault doesn’t finish strongly in the closing rounds it’s possible that they could find themselves slipping to sixth or even seventh.

And what can we say about Williams? McLaren has recovered from their slump and is showing a return to form, but Williams remains incapable of finding their way forward. On the other hand, they have managed to score one point. Recent seasons have seen some backmarkers finish with zero, but seeing the once powerful team fall to last over the course of a few short seasons still gives pause.

Formula One returns to Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez next year for the Mexico City Grand Prix. Same race, different name.

 

 

[Featured image – Steve Etherington]

Japanese Grand Prix Preview: As a typhoon looms, is Hamilton storming towards the 2019 title?

Just when things looked to be in peril for Mercedes in the second half of the season, stepping up to stop Ferrari was, erm… Ferrari.

An evident storm is brewing within the Italian giant as the rivalry intensifies between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc, and imminent typhoon Hagibis will either threaten to ignite that combustible tension or will give them the necessary push to overcome their Russian demons.

Indeed, the title is now all but wrapped up by the imperious Lewis Hamilton who leads the championship by 73 points with just 128 still up for grabs.

His tour towards his inevitable sixth world title brings us to the 5.8-kilometre Suzuka circuit. It’s easy to get tied up in knots here, with it being the only figure-of-eight circuit on the calendar, and having the awe-inspiring yet terrifying first sector, featuring high-speed esses that require skill, talent and bravery in equal measure.

2018 Japanese Grand Prix, Saturday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

Such sections tend to become more difficult in treacherous conditions, and we are expecting no shortage of those this weekend. The typhoon is expected to affect practice, qualifying, and the race, although it is difficult to predict with any certainty.

Form generally gets tossed out the window in conditions like the ones anticipated in Suzuka – cast your minds back to Hockenheim – and the favourites for the weekend would be tough to predict in normal situations. Suzuka requires a pinpoint balance of power and downforce, and Ferrari – save for their spectacular in Sochi last time out – have seemed to excel at both since the teams returned from the summer break, but Mercedes will fancy their chances through the technical first sector.

Indeed this is a big weekend for Ferrari. Vettel had a complete nightmare last year in Japan, when a crazy, kamikaze move on Verstappen cost him any chance of a podium finish, and Charles Leclerc’s race was ultimately ruined after an incident at the start of the second lap with Kevin Magnussen.

Ferrari were in trouble before the race even began in Russia last time out. They had planned for Leclerc, starting on pole, to allow Sebastian Vettel, starting third, to slipstream his way past to ensure they had a one-two off the start. This was all well and good, but there’s one aspect Ferrari failed to factor in – pride.

Vettel, who is no stranger to team order controversy, was never going to allow Leclerc back past as the team had planned. Leclerc is an upstart who has walked into Vettel’s team and all but overthrown him. He needed to make a statement to his team, his team mate, and the world, saying that he is a four-time world champion, and that this is his team.

GP RUSSIA F1/2019 – DOMENICA 29/09/2019
credit: @Scuderia Ferrari Press Office

Ferrari gave Leclerc the undercut to pass Vettel in the pitstops, only for the German to suffer an engine failure. He stopped the car off track, brought out the virtual safety car, gave Mercedes a free pit stop for both their drivers, and, ultimately, a one-two.

It is fair to say, then, that Ferrari have a point to prove, but so do Mercedes. They must prove themselves able to throw down with Ferrari after a post-summer break that has seen their form undulate. They want to change that, and issue an emphatic message to their counterparts.

Elsewhere, Toro Rosso will give an F1 debut to reigning Super Formula and Super GT champion Naoki Yamamoto. The Japanese home hero will take Pierre Gasly’s seat in the first practice session, before Gasly returns to the cockpit for the rest of the weekend.

It’s set to be a tough weekend with Typhoon Hagibis looming, and there’s a storm brewing between Mercedes and Ferrari as we head towards beautiful Suzuka.

 

[Featured image – Charles Coates/Getty Images)

Singapore GP preview: Mercedes favourites at Marina Bay

Formula One heads to the streets of Singapore, for the start of the final flyaway leg of 2019 under the lights at Marina Bay.

Ferrari and Charles Leclerc head to Singapore on the crest of two wins on the bounce at Spa and Monza. But compared to those two high-speed circuits, Ferrari’s low downforce package won’t be anywhere near as effective on the tight Marina Bay Street Circuit.

As has been the case for most of the 2019 season, Mercedes is expected to be the team to beat this weekend. It was in Singapore last year, where Lewis Hamilton took pole position and the race win, that Mercedes finally seemed to understand what was needed to conquer one of its few “bogey” circuits. And judging by the fact Mercedes has won every street race since, there’s every reason for them to be confident about their chances on Sunday.

Paul Ripke / Mercedes AMG

However, Mercedes does have one shadow looming over them this weekend—engine reliability. Since introducing their Spec 3 power unit at Spa three weeks ago, Mercedes have seen uncharacteristic failures in the customer cars of Sergio Perez’s Racing Point and Robert Kubica’s Williams. So far the works team has had no blowouts of its own, but after two demanding power tracks and with Singapore’s reputation for testing cars to their limit, there’s no room for complacency.

The other threat to Mercedes this weekend comes in the form of Max Verstappen and Red Bull. Verstappen has run well in in Singapore in recent years, qualifying second in 2017 and 2018 and finishing runner-up to Hamilton last year.

With the Red Bull-Honda package improving with every race, it would be no surprise to see Verstappen duelling with Hamilton for his third win of the season.

Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

As always, the difficulty and unpredictability of Singapore will provide the midfield teams with plenty of opportunities to sneak away with big points hauls.

Renault took a double points finish at Marina Bay last year, but their RS19 has been much more at home on high speed and lower downforce tracks this year. Given their results from slower tracks like Monaco and Hungary, Renault will likely find themselves scrapping with or even behind the likes of McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Toro Rosso this weekend.

Haas will also be bracing themselves for another tough Grand Prix on Sunday. Although their prolonged dispute with former title sponsors Rich Energy has finally come to an end, their struggles with tyre degradation certainly have not. And in the heat of Singapore, there aren’t many worse problems to have.

However, Haas and Renault can both take some optimism from the fact that this is the Singapore Grand Prix. With tempers running high and the walls never far away, Singapore is the place where anything can happen.

Haas F1 Media

Leclerc fends off Mercedes duo to take Italian Grand Prix victory

Charles Leclerc has claimed his second ever win in F1 at this afternoon’s Italian Grand Prix, the first time a Ferrari driver has won at Monza since 2010.

The Mercedes pairing of Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton finished second and third respectively, having pushed Leclerc for much of the race. Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg came home fourth and fifth.

The other Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, by comparison, faltered. Vettel span at the Ascari chicane on lap seven and collected the Racing Point of Lance Stroll as he rejoined. He received a ten-second stop/go penalty for ‘rejoining the track in an unsafe manner’, behind only disqualification in terms of harshness. He damaged his front wing and pitted twice on his way to a lowly P13 finish.

Leclerc started from pole position with Hamilton alongside him, and led into turn one despite Hamilton initially getting a better start.

Ferrari Media

The pair came into the pits on lap twenty and lap twenty-one respectively; Hamilton changed onto the soft tyres, while Leclerc went onto the hard compound.

On lap twenty-three, Hamilton attempted to pass Leclerc round the outside going into the Variante della Roggia chicane but was forced to take to the escape road, saying over the radio that Leclerc hadn’t given him a car’s width of room. Leclerc was given a black and white flag as a warning, but escaped a penalty.

Hamilton continued to pressure Leclerc, and on lap 36 Leclerc locked up going into the first chicane and cut across the kerbs. Though this allowed Hamilton to further close on him, the Ferrari driver successfully defended his position and maintained his lead. The stewards noted that Leclerc had failed to take the apex at turn two, but decided that no investigation was necessary.

At this stage in the race, Hamilton’s medium tyres were starting to fade and Bottas began to reel him in, his own tyres some seven laps fresher than Hamilton’s.

Wolfgang Wilhelm

Hamilton locked up and took to the escape road on lap 42, allowing Bottas to move up into P2 and chase down Leclerc. Though he then got to within DRS range of Leclerc, a couple of errors meant he was not able to make any attempts to pass for the lead.

Leclerc crossed the line just over eight tenths ahead of Bottas to take his second career victory, much to the joy of the Tifosi in the grandstands. The win moves him ahead of Vettel in the championship. Hamilton, meanwhile, pitted late on to chase the extra point for fastest lap. Bottas’s P2 finish means Hamilton’s championship lead has been shortened by two points.

Alex Albon finished in sixth ahead of Sergio Perez, with Max Verstappen coming from nineteenth on the grid to end up eighth. Antonio Giovinazzi and Lando Norris complete the top ten.