Ocon on top in a dramatic race at Hungary

Esteban Ocon took his first Formula 1 victory and the first for the Alpine team in a chaotic race at the Hungaroring, after multiple drivers were taken out at the first corner.

15 minutes before the race start, rain started to fall on the track. Adding to the anticipation, it started light but was due to continue for the first 30 minutes of the race and get heavier before mostly drying out by the end of the race. Intermediate tyres on to start, Lewis Hamilton indicating on the radio he was ready for the fight in the rain. Hamilton and Max Verstappen are both known for performing well in the wet, possibly a leveller but definitely exciting!

Lights out and all eyes turned to Verstappen and Hamilton. Both got a great launch, but Valtteri Bottas had an absolutely dreadful start with wheel spin from third. Lando Norris got in front of him off the line but was tapped by Bottas from behind who had missed his breaking point. Norris then crashed into Verstappen and Bottas hit Sergio Perez. Norris and Verstappen managed to carry on with significant damage, but Bottas and Perez were out.

Further back in turn 1, Lance Stroll tried to avoid some cars by heading towards the apex, but ended up on the grass and collected Charles Leclerc who hit and spun around Daniel Ricciardo. Unfortunately, that was the race over for Leclerc.

Ricciardo kept going and Stroll was able to keep driving after damage to the front of his car. A red flag was called to gather the debris left around turn 1. This allowed the Red Bull team to fix Verstappen’s car, potentially saving him from retirement. Norris and Stroll then had to retire due to the damage from the incident.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull (Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

Hamilton was still in P1, but others had benefited from a high attrition first corner. Ocon and Sebastian Vettel were the biggest winners, starting P2 and P3 respectively. Yuki Tsunoda was in P5, Carlos Sainz P4 and the Williams’ were P6 and P8 whilst Verstappen had really lost out and started in P13. A fight from the back was on after quick recovery work by Red Bull. There was a standing re-start as the sun came out to a now quickly drying track, but the question then was slicks or inters?

Hamilton was the only one starting on the grid, so the race was in the pits with everyone coming in for slicks. George Russell came out on top, and with Hamilton pitting after it looked like Russell would lead the race, but Russell was told by the FIA to give back the places he’d taken in the pitlane. Mercedes didn’t come out well with Hamilton boxing after the restart and ending up last and importantly behind Verstappen. So, on lap 5 Ocon was leading the race, with Vettel P2 and Nicholas Latifi P3. Hamilton was catching Verstappen who still had damage, so the race was on!

Verstappen managed to get past Pierre Gasly but then became stuck behind Mick Schumacher for five laps before passing him with a daring move through Turns 1, 2, 3 and 4. They did touch but both were able to carry on. Meanwhile Hamilton was struggling behind Gasly, locking up a few times but both Gasly and Hamilton managed to pass Schumacher in the next two laps.

Hamilton stopped for hard tyres on lap 20 in an attempt to change the strategy and go longer. Red Bull and Verstappen responded so made the stop just one lap later. Ricciardo pitted at the same time as Verstappen, and he came out in front of the Red Bull. Hamilton was coming down the straight as the pair came out of the pits. Hamilton took advantage and got past not only Verstappen but also Ricciardo, putting a vital car between the Championship rivals.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes AMG)

On lap 32, Hamilton was the fastest car in the race passing Tsunoda into P5 with a fantastic move while Verstappen was still behind Ricciardo in P12. This move caused Ferrari and Sainz to react, and with enough gap Sainz pitted and came back out in P4 with fresh tyres ready to defend against Hamilton.

Meanwhile Schumacher was doing a great job in the Haas to keep 4 drivers behind him. However, after many laps of battling, Russell finally made it past Schumacher on lap 33 with a brave move on the outside of Turn 2. Schumacher then begun to lose places rapidly to Ricciardo and Verstappen on the next lap, very important for Verstappen in terms of the championship.

From the front, Vettel pitted with a slow stop but came out in P3, ahead of Sainz and Hamilton. Ocon told to push but Alpine appeared to have the advantage with both cars in the podium places fight. A good stop meant Ocon came out ahead of Vettel, but Vettel tried to fight it into Turn 4. Sadly for him nothing came of it and with only Fernando Alonso in front of Ocon it looked to be an Alpine win from lap 39.

It wasn’t over at the front though. Sainz and Hamilton in P3 and P4 were catching the leaders at a rapid pace. However, Hamilton pitted on lap 48 for the mediums. He came out behind Alonso, but this would mean he could push to the end of the race, with flashbacks to Hungary 2019 and Spain 2021. Vettel got closer to Ocon through the back markers in an attempt to pass him for the lead. On lap 50 the fight was not over with Vettel having DRS and the pressure piling on Ocon.

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin (Courtesy of Aston Martin media)

Verstappen finally made a move on Ricciardo for P10 on Lap 61 and the final points position. This could be an important point for the championship and impressive driving considering the significant damage still on his car from lap 1.

On lap 57 a brilliant battle between Hamilton and Alonso began, Alonso defending and making the Alpine the widest thing on the track. This epic battle continued for over 10 laps, but Hamilton was eventually close enough when Alonso made a rare mistake and locked up into Turn 1. This did create problems for Hamilton though, who was on a mission to get to the front. However, catching Sainz on older tyres in P3 meant that just two laps later, Hamilton was in the podium places, but the gap was too big for Hamilton to catch Vettel in P2.

Esteban Ocon won the Hungarian Grand Prix! The first win for him and a great turn around since a relatively poor run of form. Vettel was in P2 after a great drive from the restart. Sainz was P4 ahead of Alonso, Gasly sneaked in a fastest lap right at the end in P6, and Tsunoda was P7. Both Williams finished in the points with Latifi P8 and Russell P9, which is vital for the constructors and their first double points finish since 2018. Russell finally managed to get those illusive points in a Williams!

For the championship Hamilton gained points on Verstappen, who finished P10, and leads going into the summer break. This has been a real swing in momentum after the British Grand Prix in the favour of Mercedes and Hamilton. It is all to play for as the teams regroup and look to improve for Spa at the end of August.

Home is where the heart is for Red Bull – Austrian GP preview

The Formula One circus stays in the Styrian mountains as the Red Bull Ring plays host to the Austrian Grand Prix, just seven days after Max Verstappen claimed victory at the same circuit in the Styrian Grand Prix.

It would take a brave person to bet against Verstappen taking his third consecutive victory on Sunday, given his dominant performance last weekend. Sergio Perez will be hoping he can make it two Red Bulls on the podium, after coming within a second of Valtteri Bottas in the previous race.

A double podium is probably the best case scenario once again for Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton making a rare trip to the Brackley simulator in an aim to extract every last inch of performance out of his car. The quick turnaround means no upgrades for this race, and there are mixed messages from the Mercedes camp regarding how much more development we will see on their 2021 car.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (LAT Images / Mercedes AMG F1)

The pace from the top two teams meant Ferrari and McLaren were once again left fighting for fifth. Although it was Lando Norris who won the midfield battle last weekend, Daniel Ricciardo was showing good pace before reliability troubles dropped him down the order. Ferrari will also be hoping for a smoother weekend from Charles Leclerc, who showed some inspired moves after being controversially involved in Pierre Gasly’s retirement.

AlphaTauri, Alpine and Aston Martin will look to pick up some of the lesser points once again, in what looks to be one of the tightest midfield battles for years. Strategy could well be key in this battle, as free air is hard to come by on the track with the shortest lap time of the year. Pirelli are also bringing softer tyres to the Austrian GP than they did at the Styrian round, which might lead to more action in the pitlane.

For George Russell, he will be hoping his pitlane action is much more conventional this weekend. A pneumatic leak cost him a shot at his first ever points for Williams, with the Brit admitting that there’s no guarantee he will be able to replicate that performance again this time around. His teammate will also be hoping for a better result, after being an innocent victim in last weekend’s lap one shenanigans.

 

Alfa Romeo will be hoping they can sneak a point, after just missing out with Kimi Raikkonen last time around. The intriguing battle between the Haas cars will also be one to watch, as Mick Schumacher and his teammate battle for inter-team supremacy, which must be a small ray of light in a very difficult debut season for both drivers.

It’s fair to say last week’s race was not a classic, but different tyres (and possibly different weather) could make the Austrian GP an entirely different beast indeed.

 

Why Lando Norris’ harsh words are actually fair

When Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc crossed the line at Monza back in 2019 to join the likes of Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso as first-time winners for the Scuderia in front of the Tifosi, I was absolutely elated for him. However the following year came and Ferrari were heavily hampered by amendments to rules regarding the engine. They plummeted from second in the constructors’ championship in 2019 with three wins, to sixth in 2020 with a best of a second place finish courtesy of Leclerc at the season opener in Austria.

Charles Leclerc’s P2 at the Austrian Grand Prix last year was the best result in a dire season for Ferrari – Courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari Media

After spending a lot of time prior to the delayed 2020 opener on the F1 game with Leclerc, Lando Norris was asked during the season if he felt sorry for the Monegasque and he answered that he did not. On the surface, it might seem as if Lando is being very callous in his response but when you actually take the time to understand what he’s saying, it does make sense.

Norris pointed out that Leclerc had been in a position to win races in 2019, winning two and coming close to winning many more. You have to consider yourself very fortunate to find yourself in such a position; not every driver is able to be in racing-winning machinery and as a wiser person than me once said, you have to savour the good days because they don’t always last.

The reason I bring this up is because Lando repeated this comment in relation to his new teammate at McLaren, Daniel Ricciardo. The Aussie found himself in a race-winning position many times during his tenure at Red Bull between 2014 and 2018, before making a move to Renault and now McLaren for this season.

Daniel Ricciardo claimed seven wins with Red Bull, the last of which coming in Monaco in 2018 – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Ricciardo hasn’t had the smoothest of starts to his time with the Woking-based outfit, so far only out-racing Norris in the most recent race at Spain, with Lando having moved over for him, repaying the favour that Daniel did for him at Imola which resulted in the Brit scoring a podium finish.

When Norris was asked about his teammate’s struggles, he was again brutally honest. He pointed out that adapting to a new car and overcoming these issues are part and parcel of this cutthroat business of Formula One. He also said that he has no doubt that Daniel will get the hang of it eventually.

But even then, success is not guaranteed or handed to you on a plate. Even if you’re Sebastian Vettel, who is the only non-Alfa Romeo, Williams or Haas driver to have failed to score a point so far this year, you can’t use the excuse “But he’s a four-time champion”.

When the announcement of Ricciardo and Norris becoming teammates at McLaren happened, a lot of people began making mountains out of molehills claiming Lando was scared, that there’s tension between them and that they’ll be glad when Ricciardo ends Lando’s career.

Who needs Netflix to do it for Drive To Survive when we already are creating this needless and petulant drama?

But my point is, Lando clearly isn’t saying any of this with malice. There may come a point when Lando is in a position where he is winning races and contending for championships; I would hope that is soon. But if after that, things aren’t going his way, you shouldn’t pity him. That’s the way life is when you’re in a sport that is as competitive as Formula One.

People are reading way too much into his comments believing he’s immensely arrogant, rude and doesn’t even have the results to justify his demeanor. First of all, even if you’re as successful as Lewis Hamilton, it still doesn’t mean you get to treat people terribly. But that’s besides the point.

Primarily though, Norris is mature enough to understand that success isn’t guaranteed and you need to overcome your difficulties in your own way. He’s said some regrettable stuff and has acknowledged that, impressing many of us with how self-aware he is.

In the end, people will create conflict where there is none and the people who are successful will have earned it, in spite of what they’ve achieved before. Think of it this way: Lando Norris was the best placed driver outside of Mercedes and Red Bull in the first three races, with that streak broken in Spain. Do we feel sorry for him for that? No.

There are plenty of people who said he underperformed last year. Whether you agree with that or not, that’s up to you. I don’t believe so personally, finishing only eight points behind his vastly more experienced teammate Carlos Sainz, and winning the intra-team qualifying battle in both seasons together. Yes there will have been some elements skewing those numbers but that’s part and parcel of life.

But do we feel sorry for him that he didn’t get more points or wasn’t more successful? No. You just have to take what comes at you in this sport and hope brighter days are only ahead, and even if not, there’s nothing you can do about it.

It’s not like Lando is smugly reveling in the misfortunes of others. He’ll face highs and lows like many of the drivers; the highs will have come from hard work and the lows will require effort to be overcome. We can all learn a thing or two from Norris’ approach – of course not everything can be overcome with hard work but the last thing any of us needs is to be wallowing in pity.

Norris has competed exceptionally alongside more experience team mate Ricciardo this year – Courtesy of McLaren Media

In the cases of the likes of Daniel Ricciardo and Charles Leclerc, I can see things are definitely improving already and it’s very likely they will be contending for regular podiums throughout the season. So don’t read into Lando’s comments and assume he’s saying it with hostility. It’s ridiculous.

F1 testing: Bottas fastest on day 2 despite more Mercedes problems

Valtteri Bottas ended the second day of pre-season testing in Bahrain with the fastest time, despite more mechanical problems afflicting Mercedes and their customer Aston Martin.

Bottas set his pacesetting lap of a 1:30.289s late in the afternoon session, on a run on the softest C5 tyres. However, Bottas lost a considerable amount of running earlier in the session due to an issue with his car’s floor, which compounded the gearbox problems that held him back yesterday.

Similar Mercedes gearbox issues stopped Sebastian Vettel from getting any meaningful running with Aston Martin. The German managed just six laps in the morning session before his car began a lengthy spell on jacks in the garage. Vettel did return to the track before the end of the session, but only recorded four more laps before handing over to Lance Stroll for the afternoon.

Courtesy of Aston Martin F1 Team

Lewis Hamilton also had a troubled day of testing for Mercedes. The defending champion drove in the morning but spun into the gravel towards the end of the session and brought out the red flag. He ended the day 15th fastest, only ahead of Vettel.

Not all the Mercedes-powered teams had problems today, however, with McLaren continuing the strong pace displayed yesterday. Daniel Ricciardo was one of the early pacesetters and topped the morning session, while Lando Norris was quickest for a while in the afternoon before ultimately ending the day fourth behind Bottas, Pierre Gasly and Stroll.

Alpine also had a solid day with Fernando Alonso at the wheel of the A521. The Spaniard was second-quickest behind Ricciardo in the morning session, and logged a total of 128 laps by the end of the day. He also completed a comprehensive run plan that included testing three different floor configurations and two different engine covers.

Courtesy of Alpine Racing Media

Following Esteban Ocon’s 129 laps from day one, Alpine are now leading the way in terms of combined mileage heading into the final day of testing. Meanwhile, all four Mercedes-powered teams have the fewest total laps, with Williams on 215 followed by McLaren (195), Aston Martin (177) and Mercedes themselves (162).

However, Nicholas Latifi did record the most laps of any driver on day two, with 132 for Williams.

Day 2 classification:

Pos. Driver Team Time Laps
1 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:30.289 58
2 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri-Honda +0.124 87
3 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes +0.171 70
4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes +0.297 52
5 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo-Ferrari +0.471 124
6 Charles Leclerc Ferrari +0.597 73
7 Nicholas Latifi Williams-Mercedes +1.383 132
8 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda +1.393 117
9 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren-Mercedes +1.926 52
10 Fernando Alonso Alpine-Renault +2.050 127
11 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda +2.395 57
12 Mick Schumacher Haas-Ferrari +2.594 88
13 Carlos Sainz Ferrari +2.783 56
14 Nikita Mazepin Haas-Ferrari +2.812 76
15 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +3.110 58
16 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin-Mercedes +8.560 10

McLaren launches 2021 contender

McLaren have become the first F1 team to unveil their 2021 challenger in a launch held at their factory in Woking.

Externally, the MCL35M is quite similar to its 2020 predecessor, featuring the same orange and blue livery. The most notable difference is around the power unit with tighter bodywork and a narrower floor.

McLaren Media Centre

Speaking of the launch in a press release, CEO Zak Brown said, “After a challenging but rewarding 2020, we have firmly hit the reset button for this season as we continue on our path towards the front of the grid. This will be an even tougher season but we’re ready to meet the challenge. I want to pay tribute to Formula 1 and the FIA and our fellow teams in continuing to work hard for the benefit of our sport as we strive to bring exciting racing to fans around the world.”

McLaren’s driver line-up has partially changed for 2021. Lando Norris is staying on for a third season, while Daniel Ricciardo is now driving alongside him. He replaces Carlos Sainz, who has moved to Ferrari for this year.

Team Principal Andreas Seidl said, “Together, Lando and Daniel comprise one of the most competitive driver line-ups in the sport. With these two behind the wheel of the MCL35M, we know we’ll have a team that gives total commitment in the pursuit of on-track performance as we head into the 2021 season.”

After using a Renault power unit from 2018 to 2020, the 2021 McLaren features a Mercedes power unit. McLaren previously worked with Mercedes between 1995 and 2014, a partnership that yielded three drivers’ championships and one constructors’ championships.

McLaren Media Centre

Speaking of the partnership, Technical Director James Key said, “One of the key elements of the MCL35M design is the integration of the Mercedes-AMG power unit, which has taken a considerable effort from the team in Woking, as well as our colleagues at Mercedes. Despite our limited scope for installation in a homologated car, the team has done a fantastic job of optimising our design work.”

The MCL35M will run for the first time at Silverstone tomorrow as part of a filming day.

The fall of Michael Schumacher’s record? F1 2021 season preview

At just 103 days, the winter break between 2020 and 2021 is one of the shortest, certainly in modern history in Formula One. In actual fact, it was set to be shorter still, but with the postponement of the Australian Grand Prix, the new season will kick off in Bahrain, but what can we expect from this year?

Well, in truth, this year will probably be a case of “same, but different”, as regulations set in place for 2021 mean that the 2020 cars have been carried over to this year, and only aero parts and PUs are eligible to be changed. Fundamentally, though, the cars must remain the same, and the chassis will be identical to last year, so do not expect any massive jumps in performance.

This means to say that Mercedes should still be top dogs, Red Bull should be a close second, and the midfield will still be as intense as it was throughout the entirety of the 17 races last year.

Mercedes seek to win their eighth consecutive Constructors’ title this year – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

But while substantial increases or otherwise in performance is too much to expect, little nuggets of gold may just help swing the tide a little as someone, somehow, looks to topple Mercedes’ absolute brilliance at the front.

Sergio Perez, surprise winner of the crazy Sakhir Grand prix last season, will make his highly-anticipated Red Bull debut having replaced the hapless Alex Albon. The discussion has been raging as to whether he will be able to beat their current titan Max Verstappen, and whether the Mexican truly does have the pace to compete at the front and spur Red Bull into serious Constructors’ Championship contention. It is widely expected that, if Perez is dominated by Verstappen the way Albon and Pierre Gasly were, it is a case of the car being geared to the Dutchman, as opposed to a lack of pace from Max’s team mates.

264 points separated Mercedes and Red Bull last year, so it will be fascinating to see if Red Bull’s third driver pairing in as many years will be able to close the gap and make life a little more uncomfortable for the imperious champions.

After leaving Racing Point following seven years with the team, Sergio Perez arrives at Red Bull to replace the departing Alex Albon – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Speaking of whom, newly-crowned champion Lewis Hamilton has finally put pen to paper on a new contract with the German team, in a deal that takes him to the end of the 2021 season.

Reasons for just the one-season extension have been speculated about; who knows if it could be down to the impending salary cap, or whether it is because Hamilton feels as though he only has one year left with the Silver Arrows, and in Formula One as a whole?

This would make sense. Hamilton is set to win his eighth championship this season, beating Michael Schumacher’s remarkable seven in the process.  The sport could certainly do with having Hamilton around next year, and we are likely set to see one of the most historical moments in the history of Formula One.

His team mate Valtteri Bottas could well be going into his last year with the Silver Arrows, but conversely to Hamilton, his future may not be in his own hands. In spite of a second-placed finish in the championship last season, Bottas’ overall performance has occasionally left something to be desired, and he will need to show stronger title credentials this year if he is to remain a part of the team in 2022.

A large part of this equation is the impressive progress of George Russell who, with a good performance in the Williams in 2021, could find himself in line for a drive next season. Particularly after Russell’s magnificent pace last year in the Sakhir Grand Prix alongside Bottas, this season will be a monumental one for both of them.

Depending on his 2021 performance, George Russell could well be in line for a 2022 drive with Mercedes – Courtesy of Williams Media

Further down, Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo are definitely ones to watch as they make their debuts for Ferrari and McLaren respectively. Ferrari acquired the services of Sainz after Sebastian Vettel’s departure for Aston Martin, while Australian Daniel Ricciardo left Renault for McLaren, replacing Spaniard Sainz. Ferrari’s new engine and aero parts for this season could lift them further into the midfield battle, and above the abysmal eighth place they managed last season with Vettel and Leclerc. Vettel meanwhile, with his new team and new haircut to boot, will attempt to make his presence felt in his new adventure with the new Aston Martin team, who take over from Racing Point this year.

Just as exciting as the German’s new venture, Fernando Alonso makes his comeback in 2021 in the Alpine team that has replaced Renault for this year, and after two seasons out, expectation is high. Frenchman Esteban Ocon, who managed his first podium last season in Sakhir, gets a real test of his ability by going up against a driver who, as well as being a two-time champion, is widely regarded as one of the quickest and most skilled drivers in F1’s rich history.

Fernando Alonso returns to F1 this year after two years away from the sport – Courtesy of Renault Sport Media

Alonso, though, comes back probably feeling a fair bit older than he did when he left. He raced against Jos Verstappen and Michael Schumacher during his first 18-year spell in the sport, and he is now about to race against their sons.

While Max had already become a fixture towards the end of Alonso’s first tenure, Michael’s son Mick will now be on the same grid as one of his father’s greatest rivals, as two generations collide.

Ferrari Academy Driver Mick Schumacher makes his F1 debut with Haas this year – Courtesy of Ferrari F1 Media

Schumacher claimed glory in the F2 championship last season with Prema, and he arrives in Formula One with one of Ferrari’s junior teams: Haas. The American outfit enter this year will a new driver lineup; the departing Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are replaced by Schumacher and car number nine.

As Lewis Hamilton seeks a record eighth championship, and Mercedes try to extend their record of Constructors’ championship successes, the 2021 season is a huge one for a lot of drivers, in what is the last year before the regulation changes in 2022.

Why McLaren entering Formula E is no surprise

image courtesy of Formula E

Today, it was announced that McLaren will branch out of their already extensive motorsport catalogue, with the news that they have secured the option to enter the 2022-2023 Formula E season ahead of the launch of the Gen3 electric car. Although it’s uncertain yet as to what role they will take in participating, whether as a full manufacturer outfit or otherwise, the signs are clear that they intend to make a move into the rapidly growing electric series.

“We’ve been closely observing Formula E for some time and monitoring the series’ progress and future direction,” Chief Executive Officer Zak Brown said in a press release issued by Formula E earlier today. “The opportunity to take an option on an entry, together with the completion of the McLaren Applied supplier contract with the FIA at the end of Gen 2 gives us the necessary time to decide if Formula E is right for McLaren as a future competition platform,”

McLaren is no stranger to Formula E, having been a part of the spec car back in the series’ infancy. The first version of the electric car contained an electric motor, transmission and electronics all created by the Woking-based manufacturer. Despite the fact that there is more creative freedom within Formula E in terms of the powertrain and gearbox in latter seasons, McLaren Applied Technology has supplied all the batteries that power the cars since 2018 – allowing them for the first time to complete the entire race distance without the need for pit stops or car changes. With the contract expiring at the end of the 2021/2022 season, it comes as little surprise that McLaren would choose to branch out into one of the fastest growing series in motorsport, particularly as they have been at the heart of the action since the very beginning.

Their pledge to take an option with Formula E has particular significance, BMW and Audi have chosen to bow out of the series and McLaren may have sensed an opportunity to further their own prospects. With an already well established role within the NASCAR and IndyCar market in the United States, McLaren may have seen Formula E’s potential of bringing electric sustainability and racing to the heart of cities, particularly within places such as Jakarta and Seoul, lucrative markets which McLaren could potentially tap into. Mercedes and Audi have used their participation in Formula E with great effect, using it to promote their electric road cars and McLaren may well do the same – especially as they plan to launch their first hybrid road car in 2021, with the hopes of developing a roadworthy EV by 2025. McLaren as a motorsport constructor are now flourishing under Brown’s rule – a more relaxed approach than that of his predecessor Ron Dennis, and after several years of disappointment, are beginning to reap the benefits. It remains to be seen if McLaren will join Formula E in any capacity but the signs of them wanting to branch out beyond F1 are there.

Lights out on an extraordinary year: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Preview

What a year. 2020 was tipped by many to be one of the most exciting in modern times and, well they were not wrong.

This has been by far the most astonishing year any of us have ever witnessed, both on and off the track, and even the most ardent of optimists cannot deny that it has been a struggle for everyone.

However, you also have to appreciate the fruits that have come out of a very tough situation. We have seen amazing race tracks like Mugello, Imola, Istanbul, Portimao and the Nurburgring introduced to a revised calendar, which has been a real delight for us all.

The Eifel Grand Prix saw a welcome return to the Nurburgring – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

We went from 22 races to 17, and it all culminates this weekend at the Yas Marina Circuit for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. In a year that has been dim for many, the floodlights will shine a light of F1’s season finale.

The 5.5 kilometre track made its debut in F1 in 2009, closing out Jenson Buttonb’s title-winning year, and Brawn GP’s successor Mercedes arrive here having won every race in Abu Dhabi since 2014.

And this will fill them with hope, because a horrible race in Bahrain last weekend leaves them desiring a strong result to close out what has been an otherwise phenomenal year.

Following a devastating result in Sakhir, George Russell may get a shot at redemption this weekend – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

It is yet unclear whether newly-crowned seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who contracted Coronavirus in the build-up to the Sakhir Grand Prix, will recover in time for this weekend. It therefore may be that George Russell returns to the car that he so nearly steered to victory in a stunning debut last race, only to be denied by not one, but two disasters.

Mercedes fitted team mate Valtteri Bottas’ tyres to race leader Russell’s car, forcing him to stop again and Bottas to stay out on dead tyres after a safety car. Having passed Bottas and made his way back up to second, Russell was baring down on Sergio Perez, only for a slow puncture to send him back to the pits. He would finish ninth, while Bottas ended up just one place better in eighth.

It was the aforementioned Perez that took his first ever F1 win, and the first ever for Racing point too. Following his devastating retirement last race that cost him a podium, he gave himself a great chance of securing fourth in the drivers’ standings this weekend, while Racing Point have now moved 10 points clear of McLaren in the battle for third in the Constructors’. Renault sit a further 12 points back.

Sergio Perez’s stunning victory was his first in F1, and Racing Point’s first as a team – Courtesy of Pirelli Media

It makes for an extremely intense finale in the context of the midfield battle, with all eyes firmly fixed on who will claim valuable positions in the drivers’ and constructors’ standings.

The gains will be valuable both financially and in terms of personal pride, and McLaren would be fully grateful of third following their cash flow issues at the start of 2020. As the race for third reaches a head, we eagerly anticipate this enormous battle between Racing Point and McLaren under the lights of Abu Dhabi.

Racing Point are locked in an intense battle with McLaren and Renault as we head to the final race – Courtesy of Racing Point Media

It has been a tough year for many, but hopefully F1 has helped make it that bit easier for you all, and we look forward to covering one last race for you before we gladly turn our backs on 2020.

Sergio Pérez takes maiden victory in astonishing Sakhir GP

What a race! In the jumbled up 2020 calendar that began in July at the Red Bull Ring, the last three races are a triple feast in the Middle East. Beginning with the traditional Bahrain circuit last weekend and ending the season at the Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi but that middle race would be another one at Bahrain. However it would be on the outer circuit which the F1 cars had been lapping at under a minute all through the weekend.

The lead up to the weekend was already packed with action, as Romain Grosjean’s horror crash from which he thankfully escaped with just a few burns meant that Haas drafted in reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi. Then the huge bombshell dropped that world champion Lewis Hamilton had tested positive for COVID-19 which meant Mercedes had to go looking for a replacement driver. That turned out to be George Russell who left a vacant seat at Williams, and that ended up being F2 racer Jack Aitken.

F2 driver Jack Aitken stepped in for Mercedes-bound George Russell this weekend – Courtesy of Williams Media

In qualifying, it was Bottas who just pipped Russell to pole by a microscopic margin. Max Verstappen qualified third and Charles Leclerc put in a mighty lap to drag that lacklustre Ferrari to fourth on the grid, and following him were Pérez, Kvyat, Ricciardo, Sainz, Gasly, Stroll, Ocon, Albon, Vettel, Giovinazzi, Magnussen, Latifi, Aitken, Räikkönen, and at the back were Norris and Fittipaldi who had taken grid penalties.

At the start, Russell immediately got away better than Bottas who had to hold off Verstappen’s advances, and struggled to get out the first few corners. His compatriot Räikkönen spun in the back of shot and thankfully no awful imagery to worry about like last week at the same corner. But Bottas’ eyes were on Verstappen, closing the door on him which left an open opportunity for Pérez to go past the Red Bull.

After an intense qualifying, Russell pipped Bottas into the first corner – Courtesy of Mercedes media

But it was Leclerc who got caught out trying to brake for the corner, smacked into the Racing Point and spun him round, leaving Verstappen with nowhere to go but into the wall and retirement along with Leclerc. Somehow, Pérez was able to continue and pitted, benefitting from the subsequent safety car and was able to rejoin the back of the pack in 18th.

At the front, Russell’s massive lead that he got at the start was eliminated, but he wasn’t done. The safety car period ended on lap six and Russell eased off whilst Bottas was under pressure from McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, who rose to third amid the first lap chaos. He went around the outside of Bottas into turn one, but going through the turn two and three complex, Sainz ran wide and that allowed the Merc right back through.

Whilst Russell was experiencing what it’s like to be in the lead in an F1 car, further down the order were two of his mates, Lando Norris and Alex Albon. Lap 20 and Albon made a move stick on Norris, who was then immediately overtaken by Pérez despite the Mexican being spun on the first lap. The following lap, Albon was then passed by Pérez at the same corner.

Back at the front with Russell, he already had a gap of over a second before the DRS was enabled. The Mercs began gapping Sainz, and it was a steady lead Russell held over Bottas which fluctuated as they negotiated lapped traffic. He extended that lead after he pitted, undercutting Bottas after he was left out for a further four laps, and the gap went to the highest it had been all race even in spite of a sensor scare.

Russell’s typical Williams teammate Nicholas Latifi pulled off and caused a Virtual Safety Car, and not much changed other than Bottas swiped into Russell’s lead. But Pérez was continuing his charge through the field, putting a move on teammate Lance Stroll going into turn four and then the following lap, on former Force India teammate Esteban Ocon. The Mexican was absolutely flying out there. He was now on course for a podium finish with his strategy completely played out.

However, Russell’s replacement at Williams Jack Aitken lost the car coming out of the last corner and clattered the tyre barrier, leaving his front wing on the track and he dove for the pits. A Virtual Safety Car was initially called, but that became a full Safety Car, and Mercedes felt the need to cover off Pérez. But man, did they mess up.

The two Mercs double stacked, Russell came in and they put on the tyres, all well and good. Then Bottas came in and there seemed to be some hesitation, and they sent him back out on the same tyres he pitted with, which was a bit odd as to why they did that. Then it became very apparent. Russell had been sent out on tyres which were intended for Bottas, so now he was bunched up behind the safety car with Pérez, Ocon and Stroll behind him and he was called back to the pits to change the tyres.

This was a huge mess-up on Mercedes’ part. Russell came back out in fifth behind Bottas who remained on his old set, but looked to have the best tyres out of everyone in the top five. Racing resumed and Russell was a man on a mission, making quick work of his teammate on the old set of tyres pulling off an immense outside move going through the long turn six, then passing Stroll and Ocon with the help of DRS. He then set to work catching Pérez who was a long way up the road.

Russell was eating into Pérez’s advantage lap after lap but yet again, disaster. Russell was called back to the pits AGAIN as he had a slow puncture and they put him on softs, whilst the other Mercedes of Bottas just went backwards as he was overtaken by Sainz, Ricciardo and Albon in very quick succession.

But up at the front, a man who for some reason doesn’t have a drive in 2021 guaranteed. Sergio Pérez took an incredible first win for both himself, and the team that he’s leaving after next week’s season finale. Esteban Ocon took second ahead of Lance Stroll, then it was Sainz, Ricciardo, Kvyat had also passed Bottas in the closing stages, Russell recovered to ninth ahead of Norris who scored the last point.

Russell finally got his long awaited first points finish as well as another for fastest lap, although it was little consolation for what was throughout the entire race looking set to be an incredible first win for the guy. He did absolutely incredibly all weekend, and it definitely will not be the last we hear from Russell, who may get a second stab at the cherry this weekend in Abu Dhabi providing Hamilton isn’t well enough to participate.

Esteban Ocon earned a thoroughly-well deserved podium – Courtesy of Renault Media

But it was Pérez who after 190 starts, finally took victory and became the first Mexican to win an F1 Grand Prix in 50 years. A win that was perhaps long overdue, especially if we harken back to Malaysia 2012 when he came very close in his Sauber to denying Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso a win that day. But better late than never, and hopefully Pérez is not out of F1 for long.

The problem with finding the ideal F1 reserve driver

You’ve got to feel for Stoffel Vandoorne. The former McLaren driver has had several realistic chances to return to the Formula One grid this season in his capacity as Mercedes reserve driver, but each time he’s found himself overlooked in favour of an outside contender.

It’s no reflection on Vandoorne as a driver. Leaving aside his two demoralising years driving uncompetitive McLarens, Vandoorne has been a race-winner in almost every top flight series he’s contested.

The problem is more with the concept of F1 reserve drivers in general. Or rather, with the near impossibility of finding a reserve driver who truly fits the bill of what’s asked of them.

Stoffel Vandoorne, Mercedes F1 reserve driver (Courtesy of FIA Formula E)

When it comes to the ideal F1 reserve, the most important thing teams look for is someone whose experience is as recent as possible. F1 development stops for no one, so there’s little use in fielding a stand-in whose last Grand Prix was four or five seasons ago.

Secondly, they need to be quick if they’re going to fight for the results the team expects. But the problem here is that if a driver with that kind of talent finds themselves out of F1, it’s most commonly the case that they’re either moving on to another series or retiring at the end of their career, and therefore won’t be looking for a reserve role.

(There are of course exceptions to this. Nico Hulkenberg, for example, found himself without a drive for this year but that’s not for lack of talent. And Jenson Button stepped in to deputise for Fernando Alonso at McLaren in 2017 despite bowing out of F1 the previous year. But cases like this are extremely rare.)

The final problem with finding the ideal reserve is availability.

For a reserve driver to be quick they need to keep their qualifying and race craft sharp for whenever it’s needed, even if that’s away from F1 machinery.

But at the same time, they can’t spend so much time racing in other series’ that it clashes with F1 weekends—an increasingly large problem as the F1 calendar continues to swell year by year.

Red Bull is a good example of this, as they recently had to secure a super licence for Juri Vips to act as reserve for the Turkish Grand Prix, as their usual backups Sebastien Buemi and Sergio Sette Camara were both racing elsewhere.

Juri Vips, Red Bull reserve driver (Mark Thompson, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool)

And that’s the reserve driver paradox. To be the ideal Grand Prix stand-in, one has to be fresh out of F1 and somehow keep that freshness year after year, be quick enough to compete with the current F1 grid despite being dropped from it, and keep race-sharp all year round while still being available 23 weekends out of 52 (and counting).

As a result, reserve drivers tend to be a compromise that’s not quite the best of any worlds. You have the likes of Paul di Resta, who was briefly named McLaren’s reserve this year despite not racing in F1 since 2013. Or you have Formula 2 drivers like Jack Aitken at Williams or Louis Deletraz at Haas, who race regularly on the F1 calendar but are completely unproven in a Grand Prix.

And then you have Ferrari, whose nominated reserve is Antonio Giovinazzi—somehow who has plenty of contemporary F1 experience and race-fitness, but comes with the added complication of currently driving for Alfa Romeo.

It’s all part of the reserve driver role. They’re the person a team relies on when one of their star drivers is sick or injured, but they’re often an imperfect solution at best. And so it’s not really a surprise that teams often search for a better alternative outside their pool if the need for a stand-in actually arises.

It’s a shame when that happens, especially for a driver like Vandoorne whose talent merits at least one more outing in a competitive F1 car. But when big points are on the line and a Hulkenberg or George Russell is available, it’s hard to fault the teams for taking advantage of that opportunity—even if it means their reserve driver spending Sunday playing Call of Duty.