PREVIEW: 2020 Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix – Sochi Autodrom

On the back end of yet another exhilarating Formula One Grand Prix in Italy, we head to Sochi and round 10 of the 2020 F1 season in Russia. Mugello provided the fans with a gripping watch which saw Red Flags up to the third in the space of two races. Alex Albon achieved his first podium for the Red Bull Racing team and Racing Point left wondering if they will be able to get the upgrades on the car in time for Sochi after Lance Strolls off at Arrabiata corner, leaving the car with heavy terminal damage.

Being announced alongside Mugello on the 10th of July for this unprecedented season, Sochi will allow the teams to have a more familiar approach to the race with the knowledge that is shared from the past 6 races here. Mercedes’ dominance has earned them a win in every one of them and the team certainly look set to do the same this year. Valtteri Bottas also took his first win at the Autodrom in 2017 for the Silver Arrows and will want to turn the tides on his championship fight and take it to Lewis Hamilton in the hopes of reducing the gap of 55 points.

Bottas took his first win for Mercedes in Russia three years ago – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

Knowing how the season has panned out so far, it is safe to say that we could be in for another treat of a Grand Prix. The Renaults have proven their pace with near podium finishes and they now lie 5th in the championship, honing in on both the Racing Points and McLarens who sit fourth and third. Daniel Riccardo is still in high hopes of sealing a bet with Cyril Abiteboul which amusingly details that if he was to gain a podium before the end of the season, the Renaults chief principle will be getting a Tattoo of Riccardo’s choice.

The Streaming superstars of Lando Norris, Alex Albon, Charles Leclerc and George Russell have all surprised us this season in regards to performance and results. The remarkable efforts of Russell have gotten the Williams into Q2 five times this season and the famous ‘Last Lap Lando’ attacks have provided plenty of late drama. Will we see these drivers taking the headlines if any of them at the Autodrome this weekend?

George Russell has impressed again in 2020 for Williams – Courtesy of Williams media

After Lance Strolls suspected puncture incident at Mugello and the car hitting the wall causing excessive damage, Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer suggested the upgrade that was on the car had a couple to three-tenths improvement. Due to the damage of Lance Stroll’s car, by the race weekend, Lance may still only be the one with the upgrade. And with Russia being a tight circuit that is difficult for overtaking, the overall pace of a car is vital for the higher positions and to optimise strategy.

With the news of reshuffling and the potential of F2 drivers making the jump to Formula One next year, this could cause worry for some of the drivers. Which makes this race an important statement to keep them in the team. Pierre Gasly – following the frustration of ending his Tuscan Grand Prix no more than two corners in after winning previous – will want to return to his exceptional ways that may prow the eyes of Red Bull for a potential step-up or other teams. However, with the current situation at Red Bull Albon may have found the confidence back that he was looking for after his P3 finish last time out.

Alex Albon’s podium in Mugello was his first in F1 – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

The set tyre choices for the 2020 season being predominantly soft tyres may see teams opt for a more aggressive strategy for the 5.8 km circuit, and maybe even a two-stop strategy with the evident tyre degradation in the new Pirelli tyres. And with the weather set to be clear it should be a straight forward strategy come race day for the teams.

A healthy gap to the rest of the field sees Mercedes lead by an enormous 152 points in the constructors’ standings, which will be difficult to close for Red Bull especially with the trend of this season let alone the track itself. Taking a look down the field there is a close battle with Ferrari just 17 points shy of Renault and the Alpha Tauri a further 13 behind.

Hamilton is aiming to equal Michael Schumacher’s tally of 91 wins this weekend – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

The Crew from Netflix will be on Mercedes for this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix with the hopes to capture a moment in history no one would have called, as the reigning Champion Lewis Hamilton is tipped to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 wins.

 

Feature Image Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Sebastian Vettel: Possible Redemption?

So the worst kept secret in F1 is out. Four-time champion Sebastian Vettel will be moving to Racing Point for next season when it is rebranded as Aston Martin. It all was the result of Vettel’s departure from Ferrari who he has raced for since 2015, a partnership that he had hoped would have resulted in a fifth championship – but it wasn’t meant to be.

Vettel won four straight championships with Red Bull who housed him throughout his junior career, however nowadays you would be forgiven for doubting that this was the same driver. The Vettel of today has been so dejected, dare I say humbled by his lack of success with the Scuderia, and there’s a narrative these days that it’s all because of Ferrari. I however disagree with this notion, it’s not all one party’s fault the relationship has soured.

Sebastian Vettel celebrates his fourth and final championship with the Red Bull Team – courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Before I proceed, I feel the need to put forward my biases and perspective so everyone knows. I wasn’t a fan of Vettel back in his Red Bull domination days, and to an extent I’m still not a fan but even now, I do have some sympathy for him.

When he joined Ferrari, it was the beginning of the Mercedes dominance in the turbo hybrid era so Vettel had a mountain to climb. He had just come off the back of a winless final season with Red Bull in which he was shown up rather considerably by new Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who took three wins on his way to third in the championship.

He took the seat of departing Fernando Alonso, who had hoped to be Ferrari’s next champion and came very close but lost out to Vettel in 2010 and 2012, and lined up alongside Ferrari’s last champion Kimi Räikkönen. Vettel really surprised in his first season with the Scuderia, as he took three victories at Malaysia, Hungary and Singapore on his way to third in the championship.

Vettel enjoyed a positive first season with Ferrari – Courtesy of Ferrari Media

However unlike his teammate the previous season Daniel Ricciardo, Vettel took those victories on pure pace as opposed to benefiting from some misfortunes that befell both Mercedes cars. In fact from 2014-2016, it was Vettel’s three wins that were the only ones that were won not from misfortunes for Mercedes. Even with Merc’s dominance, Vettel came very close to denying Nico Rosberg runner-up in the championship that year.

2016 was a bit of a nothing year for Vettel, but with the regulation change coming into 2017 there was renewed hope for Vettel and Ferrari that they could take the battle to Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. At first it was very much hopeful, as Vettel and Hamilton traded places in the first two races and then the Ferrari driver began opening up a lead.

Despite a promising 2017 season, Vettel fell short of his fifth title, losing out to Lewis Hamilton – Courtesy of Ferrari media

Whilst the two drivers were relishing this opportunity to battle it out for the championship, it did all come to a head at Azerbaijan when Hamilton led Vettel under safety car conditions, Vettel didn’t anticipate Hamilton’s movement and ran into the back of him, assumed he brake tested him so he did the thing he believed was a good idea, drove alongside Hamilton and deliberately ran into him.

Then the infamous Singapore start collision caused by Seb moving over on Kimi and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen handed the momentum to Hamilton, and with Mercedes outdeveloping Ferrari, the 2017 title race was swiftly over. A rejuvenated Vettel went into 2018 feeling confident, and he took two wins from the first two races to open up an early lead. But before long, Vettel began making more and more errors.

He threw away a win at Baku when he locked his brake going into turn one on a safety car restart, locked up at the start at the French GP and clipping Bottas, thus ruining both their races. However it was Hockenheim that sealed Vettel’s fate, where he had a commanding lead and when some drizzle arrived and he lost it heading into the stadium section and burying it in the gravel and tyre barrier.

From then on, it came thick and fast. Monza lap one when he spun after touching Hamilton, Suzuka when he spun when trying to pass Verstappen heading into spoon, lap one at the US Grand Prix when he tapped Ricciardo and, you guessed it, spun. Couple that with Hamilton driving like a man possessed, Hamilton went from trailing Vettel in terms of championships 4-1 to then being 5-4 in his favour.

Meanwhile on the other side of both garages, their Finnish teammates were highlighting the difference between them.

Whilst Vettel had Räikkönen as his teammate, Hamilton had Valtteri Bottas. Both of them were playing supporting roles, but it was quickly becoming obvious that whilst Hamilton’s driving was warranting the lead driver status, Vettel clearly wasn’t doing enough to have his teammate hang back. This coincided with the meteoric rise of a Ferrari-backed driver from Monaco, called Charles Leclerc.

After winning titles in GP3 and Formula 2, Leclerc spent his rookie F1 campaign with Sauber and got the call-up to Ferrari for 2019. Clearly very highly rated by many, there was expectations that Leclerc could do what Ricciardo did in 2014 and wipe the floor with Seb. In a way, he kind of did.

As Leclerc looked set to take victory in only his second race for the team before a mechanical failure dropped him to third, Vettel had it difficult to hold him back initially and then spun again when passed by Hamilton later in the race. Vettel then got a penalty for skipping across the chicane at Canada and nearly colliding with Hamilton, which ultimately lost him the race and he protested after the race with an act of defiance switching of the first and second place boards.

Vettel’s dangerous re-join at last year’s Canadian Grand Prix earned him a race-costing penalty – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

At Silverstone, he locked up and slammed into the back of Max Verstappen just after he overtook Vettel after spending the majority of the race up until that point having a very close battle with Leclerc. Another spin at Monza was further compounded by Leclerc taking victories at the previous race at Spa, and then in front of the Tifosi, but even with Seb taking victory at Singapore the following round couldn’t shake the narrative that he was losing it.

It wasn’t helped when in Brazil, Vettel swiped at Leclerc putting them both out in an incident very similar to when he did the same at Istanbul back in 2010 to his then Red Bull teammate Mark Webber. In the end, Leclerc won the qualifying battle and despite Vettel being ahead in more races, he still finished behind Leclerc.

Ferrari endured a tumultuous 2019 season with among a tense inter-team rivalry between Vettel and Charles Leclerc

I am not just pointing these out to kick Vettel whilst he’s down, I took no pleasure in watching him make these errors which were becoming an all too common occurrence, prompting the meme ‘SBINALLA’ whenever he would mess up. Of course, before this delayed season began it was announced that Vettel’s Ferrari contract would not be renewed and he’d be replaced in 2021 by Carlos Sainz.

Since then, it’s been a narrative of “Vettel didn’t perform because Ferrari didn’t believe in him”. To that I say, well can you blame them? If a rookie kept making the mistakes Vettel was making, they would have probably been replaced. It’s a two-way system, Vettel made a lot of unforced errors which resulted in Ferrari losing faith, and now they don’t give him the belief that he needs.

Vettel will leave Ferrari having failed to win a championship with the team

Again I don’t take pleasure in saying this, even I’ve begun to feel sorry for the guy. However maybe the move to Aston Martin is just what he needs. A fresh start (which seemed to bode well for him in 2015), plus the current ‘Pink Mercedes’ which will be used again in 2021 could lend well to his driving style. The turbo hybrid cars don’t have as much rear downforce as pre-2014 cars due to the exhaust gases not being channeled under the car.

Vettel’s style could bode even better when the 2022 regulations roll around since they utilise ground effect. However by that point, maybe the likes of Verstappen, Leclerc and all the other young guns will be the benchmark.

I’m not writing him off completely, but Vettel has got a lot to be proud of in his career. Winning for Toro Rosso at Monza, winning four straight championships at Red Bull, and he could do very well with Aston Martin. But ultimately, just because he has done that in the past doesn’t mean his errors during his time at Ferrari can be overlooked.

I hope Vettel gets his mojo back and can bring a win or two for the team that started out as Jordan back in 1991, I hope he can prove to himself and everyone else that they are wrong.

 

Feature Image Courtesy of Ferrari Media

Ferrari’s 1000th race – but hardly a celebration: Tuscan Grand Prix Preview

We did get an Italian team on the top step of the podium in Monza, and I would love to say it was not the Italian team we expected.

But in reality, no one was anticipating that there would be a Ferrari – or an Alpha Tauri –  winning in front of the Tifosi like they did last year, and no one would predict that this weekend either at Mugello.

But as the F1 circus rolls in towards the 5.2 kilometre Tuscan race track, Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly enters the weekend as the 109th different winner in F1 history following his tremendous and shock victory last Sunday at the temple of speed.

Pierre Gasly celebrates his momentous victory in Monza – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

For Ferrari, their 1000th race will be played out in front of the 10,000 spectators that will be permitted to enter the grandstands, but following the presence of the Netflix during what was a disastrous weekend for the Scuderia, they will probably be wishing they were not in attendance.

A brake failure for Sebastian Vettel and an enormous crash for Charles Leclerc followed on from a horrible qualifying performance for them in Monza. However, the slightly more downforce-orientated nature of the Mugello circuit compared to Monza may soften the blow to the Ferrari team that have been battered and bruised thus far by the car’s terrible lack of performance.

The Italian Grand Prix was a home race to forget for Ferrari – Courtesy of Ferrari Press Office

Mercedes, meanwhile, were dealt their first real blow of the 2020 season, as a polemic pitstop penalty for Lewis Hamilton cost him any chance of a victory, while team mate Valtteri Bottas continued his frustrating run of form by finishing fifth and failing to capitalise on the red flag and penalty drama. A win at what is a very technical and tricky race track would do his confidence a world of good, even if his world championship hopes seem to have dissipated.

Racing point and McLaren enter the weekend on almost as big a high as Alpha Tauri, following magnificent podium finishes for Lance Stroll in third and Carlos Sainz in second, but the Spaniard did not hide his disappointment at not being able to snatch the win from Gasly at the end. The higher-downforce nature at Mugello will suit McLaren slightly better than Alpha Tauri and Racing Point, but it would probably need a race equally as eventful as Monza to earn them a podium.

Carlos Sainz and Lance Stroll join Gasly on the podium in Monza – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

But having said that, Stroll and Lando Norris are tied for points for fourth place in the drivers’ championship. They find themselves both ahead of Red Bull’s Alex Albon, who failed to score last weekend and is under pressure from the driver he replaced at the senior team last year – Pierre Gasly.

The Frenchman will be fully aware he is back in with a shout of being promoted once again for next season, and there will now be much anticipation as F1 heads to the first of the new tracks hurriedly introduced in the wake of the pandemic-affected 2020 season.

Following the second win for Alpha Tauri in the Italian Grand Prix, a second Italian chance beckons as Ferrari prepare for their 1000th race.

 

Feature Image Courtesy of Red Bull content Pool

Formula E champion Da Costa may make Portimao F1 debut

Back in 2014, former Audi WEC driver and three-time Le Mans winner André Lotterer made a one-off F1 appearance with the struggling Caterham team for the Belgian Grand Prix. After not making it very far into the race, Lotterer turned down an offer to race in the Italian Grand Prix and has since made his home in Formula E with Porsche.

That was the last time a driver made a surprise appearance in a one-time race deal. Many others have tried, including rally legend Sébastien Loeb who attempted to acquire a super licence to race for Toro Rosso in the 2009 F1 season finale at Abu Dhabi, but that didn’t happen. But now we have the prospect of another high profile one-off race cameo.

In the midst of the frantic motorsport rescheduling as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,  a country that has benefitted handsomely from this is Portugal. Both F1 and MotoGP haven’t had an event there since 1996 and 2012 respectively, both at the Estoril circuit.

But now their other prominent motor racing venue Algarve will host the two top level championships, with F1 going there on October 25th and MotoGP hosting their season finale there on November 22nd.

In MotoGP, Portugal already has a hero. In the most recent MotoGP race, Miguel Oliveira won in a stunning last lap, last corner move at the Red Bull Ring to win on his Tech 3 KTM. However in F1, Portugal hasn’t had a representative driver since Tiago Monteiro and no realistic prospects in the lower formulae. However with the news of F1 returning to Portugal, there is a very strong likelihood that we could see a home driver at Algarve.

Courtesy of FIA Formula E Media

António Félix da Costa is no stranger to the F1 paddock. Having previously come close to a Toro Rosso seat for 2014 after Daniel Ricciardo’s call-up to Red Bull, he ultimately lost out to reigning GP3 champion Daniil Kvyat.

Da Costa had looked like the more likely candidate. He was expected to win the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 championship, but finished third to future F1 drivers Kevin Magnussen and Stoffel Vandoorne, and despite Formula Renault 3.5 being closer to F1 performance than GP3, it was Kvyat who got the call-up. Undeterred, Da Costa became a BMW factory driver and has competed in the likes of DTM, the World Endurance Championship and Formula E.

Da Costa won a few races in DTM and even took a second victory at Macau in 2016. But it was Formula E where he made his name, having competed since the series’ inception back in 2014 and won races for Team Aguri, BMW i Andretti and DS Techeetah. It was this season though that Da Costa proved his potential, finally claiming that long awaited first Formula E championship.

Under the management of Monteiro, Da Costa is apparently in high demand after his Formula E title win. He’s been approached by teams from WEC, IndyCar and also F1. Two F1 teams according to Monteiro have approached him about a drive for Da Costa, although it is unknown as to whether that will be for an FP1 appearance or maybe even a race drive in front of his home crowd.

Courtesy of FIA Formula E media

Having had the majority of F1 races behind closed doors this year, the Tuscan Grand Prix at Mugello will mark the return of fans on a reduced scale and Portugal is allowing spectators too. FOM are said to be very keen to see Da Costa compete which will guarantee filling the spectator stands (again on a smaller scale).

Which F1 team could it be? You would think having had previous connections with Red Bull, perhaps Alpha Tauri could be a realistic option. It would be very poetic if he ends up taking the place of Kvyat, the same driver who leapfrogged him to the F1 drive in the first place.

It would be very interesting to see how Da Costa will perform if this comes to fruition. I remember back when he lost the seat believing that it was the wrong decision, and that Da Costa had been robbed. Nevertheless, the Formula E champion will undoubtedly relish this unprecedented opportunity to race in F1 at his home Grand Prix, if it does indeed come to happen.

Ranking the F1 chances of F2’s top five hopefuls

This year the Formula 2 grid is full of drivers from F1 junior academies, with the top spots in the standings locked out by proteges from Ferrari, Red Bull and Renault.

With plenty of 2021 F1 seats still up for grabs, we’re taking a look at the chances of these young hopefuls stepping up to the top tier next season.

Yuki Tsunoda, Carlin (Dan Istitene / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

1. Yuki Tsunoda

Of all the young academy drivers on the 2020 F2 grid, joint Red Bull/ Honda talent Yuki Tsunoda looks the most likely to join F1 next year. Not only is he already racking up wins, poles and podiums in an impressive debut season, but Alpha Tauri boss Franz Tost has said it’s only a matter of time before Tsunoda is promoted to the team.

At almost 40 points adrift of the championship leader Callum Ilott, Tsunoda is an outside contender for the F2 title at best. But given Red Bull’s comments, so long as he can remain within the top four of the standings to secure the necessary super licence points, it seems almost a sure bet that Tsunoda will be a 2021 Alpha Tauri driver.

Robert Shwartzman, Prema (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

2. Robert Shwartzman

If Tsunoda is the most likely F2 driver to get an F1 promotion for next year, then Ferrari protege Robert Shwartzman isn’t far behind. After a dominant run to last year’s F3 title, Shwartzman immediately staked his claim to this year’s F2 crown with two wins early in the campaign.

Shwartzman may have lost the F2 lead to fellow Ferrari junior Callum Ilott, but that doesn’t seem to have harmed the Russian’s status as the FDA’s golden boy. And as well as his formidable talent, Shwartzman comes with additional backing from SMP Racing, which would be an excellent sweetener for Alfa Romeo should he be lined up to replace Antonio Giovinazzi.

Mick Schumacher, Prema (Courtesy of Ferrari Media)

3. Mick Schumacher

Ahead of the season Mick Schumacher was touted as one of the favourites for the F2 title. But although he’s scored more points and podiums than he did in his 2019 debut, a mix of incidents and mistakes means Schumacher’s campaign is still without a win.

However, Schumacher’s chances of an F1 promotion still remain relatively high for two reasons. Firstly, because there’s still half the F2 season left to run, meaning he has another 12 races to break his winless run and move up from fifth in the standings. And secondly, because if he can get in a position to earn his super licence, there’s every chance Ferrari will want to take the opportunity at getting a Schumacher back into F1 as soon as possible.

Callum Ilott, UNI-Virtuosi (Dan Istitene / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

4. Callum Ilott

It may seem odd or even unfair putting Callum Ilott behind his fellow FDA members Shwartzman and Schumacher, considering he is currently leading both in the F2 standings and should therefore be Ferrari’s F1 priority. But although Ilott’s every bit their match on track, Shwartzman and Schumacher both have a certain extra “superstar” quality that has left Ilott somewhat in their shade.

However, being F2 champion brings plenty of its own superstar quality. If Ilott can see off Shwartzman in the second half of the season and take the crown himself, he’ll give Ferrari no choice but to take notice of him instead.

Christian Lundgaard, ART (Joe Portlock / Formula 1 via Getty Images)

5. Christian Lundgaard

As F2 debuts go, Christian Lundgaard’s has been excellent so far. With a win and two further podiums to his name, the Renault junior has not just performed well on his step up from F3, but is currently third in the championship behind Ilott and Shwartzman.

However, even if Lundgaard were to march forward in the rest of the year and snatch the F2 title, the chances of it leading to an F1 seat are very slim at best. Renault have none available, having signed Fernando Alonso to partner Esteban Ocon for the next two years. And with no customer team to place him at either, Lundgaard’s F1 hopes probably depend on waiting for a gap at the works team to open up in 2022.

F2 Spa preview: Red Bull juniors aiming to impress in Belgium

After a week off, Formula 2 returns this weekend for the start of another triple header at Spa-Francorchamps, in support of the F1 Belgian Grand Prix.

One driver looking for a big result when track action begins is Yuki Tsunoda. After taking his first F2 win at the second Silverstone round, Tsunoda has been touted by Alpha Tauri boss Franz Tost as a potential driver for the team next year.

At the moment Tsunoda is doing everything he needs to get his F1 shot, as his fourth place in the standings will earn him enough points for a 2021 super licence. But in a series like F2, the championship order can change from weekend to weekend, so Tsunoda can’t afford to rest easy now.

With only five points between him and Christian Lundgaard ahead, another top three result in either race this weekend would do much to secure Tsunoda’s bid for a 2021 F1 drive.

But Tsunoda won’t be the only one aiming to impress Tost this weekend. As well as his Carlin teammate Jehan Daruvala, the Red Bull junior team will also be represented by Juri Vips. The Estonian is racing for DAMS for the next three rounds, standing in for Sean Gelael as he recovers from the back injury he suffered in Spain.

DAMS have said they’re treating Spa as a test weekend for Vips rather than a proper race outing, given that he’s jumping into F2 machinery for the first time. But with Vips’ pedigree and results from F3 last year, he should be able to get up to speed very quickly and may give some of the grid’s more established drivers something to worry about before the weekend’s through.

Callum Ilott, UNI-Virtuosi (Rudy Carezzevoli / Getty Images)

While these two Red Bull juniors will be battling for their F1 shot, Ferrari juniors Callum Ilott and Robert Shwartzman will be picking up where they left off in their tight duel for the F2 title.

As things stand Ilott is 18 points ahead of his rival, following a clean weekend in Barcelona while Shwartzman again missed out on points in the sprint race. Where Shwartzman had started off the season in dominant form, Ilott has been the more consistent driver since, picking up 58 points to Shwartzman’s 16 over the second triple header starting at Silverstone.

After a week off, Shwartzman will be hoping to regroup in Spa, where he took a commanding double podium in F3 last year. Two consistent points finishes after his barren run in the last three rounds would do a lot to restore his campaign. But with Ilott building a gap Shwartzman realistically needs to be targeting the podium again this weekend if he’s to regain the lead before it’s too late.

But although there’s plenty to talk about on-track this weekend, F2’s return to Spa is also about remembering the tragic loss of Anthoine Hubert in last year’s feature race, and the serious injuries suffered by Juan Manuel Correa in the same incident.

Ahead of this year’s race F2 has announced that it will permanently retire Hubert’s number 19 from the championship, which was not assigned to any car this year. A minute of silence will also be held before Saturday’s feature race, as well as Sunday’s F1 Grand Prix, to remember Hubert.

Joe Portlock, LAT Images / FIA F2 Championship

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.
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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: Is Verstappen costing Red Bull the Constructors Title?

Taking over from Stewart Grand Prix in 2005, Red Bull Racing have been one of F1’s front running teams for over a decade. However, despite having a winning car since 2009, their last constructors’ (and drivers’) title was in 2013 – seven years ago.

Vettel-Webber 2009 Abu-Dhabi 02 // Paul-Henri Cahier/Red Bull Content Pool // SI201412034496 // Usage for editorial use only //

In part, that is due to the Turbo Hybrid Era and the rise of Mercedes’ subsequent rise. The change of engine regulations after 2013 saw Mercedes dominate the sport, with Red Bull’s Renault engine unable to consistently match the German outfit. Yet, in recent years, separate issues have arisen within Red Bull Racing that makes them look less and less likely to win another constructors’ championship.

2014 Canadian Grand Prix, Sunday – Wolfgang Wilhelm

As soon as Max Verstappen joined F1 in 2015, it was clear that he was Red Bull’s golden boy and, in the eyes of many, he had the talent to deserve it. It wasn’t long before he was promoted to the team in place of Daniil Kvyat, partnering Daniel Ricciardo. With Verstappen and Ricciardo at the wheel, they appeared to have one of the strongest line-ups on the grid and if they could just have a competitive engine, they’d be able to grab the title.

But their relationship with Renault was quickly diminishing and it was announced they would run the Honda engine from 2019 onwards. Paired with Red Bull’s increasing focus on Verstappen, Honda’s unsuccessful recent record in F1 did little to persuade Ricciardo to stay. He left for Renault.  Red Bull were now in a predicament, who should they sign as a replacement? The promising, but inexperienced Frenchman, Pierre Gasly, was who they went with.

However, this was where those big issues started to rise to the surface. With only one “star driver” in the team, Red Bull decided to mould the team around Verstappen. They designed the car to suit him, told his teammate to use his setups, and allegedly gave him the new upgrades first. If Fernando Alonso taught us anything, it’s that this model is rarely successful, and somewhat unsurprisingly, Gasly wasn’t on the pace. He was dropped after just 12 races in 2019.

MONTMELO, SPAIN – FEBRUARY 28: Pierre Gasly of France and Red Bull Racing talks with race engineer Mike Lugg in the garage during day three of F1 Winter Testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 28, 2019 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI201902280252 // Usage for editorial use only //

Alex Albon, Gasly’s replacement, started off his Red Bull career closer to Verstappen, but since the start of the 2020 season he has also been too far away from his teammate. He was even allegedly used as a test dummy for the Hard tyres in the recent Spanish Grand Prix. Gasly was GP2 (now F2) Champion in 2016, and Albon finished third in F2 in 2018, just marginally behind the highly rated Lando Norris and George Russell, so how can it be that these two drivers seemingly forgot how to drive overnight? Answer: They didn’t.

With Red Bull giving sole focus on superstar Verstappen, they will struggle to find someone who can be quick enough to support him. In order to be competitive, drivers need attention from their team. and currently Red Bull are stuck in a cycle whereby: the more they focus on Verstappen, the worse their other driver does, thus the more they focus on Verstappen etc. One of the biggest factors of Red Bull’s failure to win the constructors title is the toxic nature of how they treat their drivers. Max Verstappen is undoubtedly exceptional, but the team focusing just on him is costing them a chance at fighting for the championship. Unless they can find a driver who happens to suit a car that is built around Verstappen, Red Bull will not win the team’s title for the foreseeable future.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO – MAY 27: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Aston Martin Red Bull Racing RB14 TAG Heuer on track during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 27, 2018 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // SI201805290325 // Usage for editorial use only //

At the moment, Mercedes have a dominant car, and in order to win, Red Bull need to improve theirs, but it is next to impossible to succeed as a team with just one car. They are the only team looking anywhere near likely to challenge Mercedes, but whilst they only pay attention to Verstappen, I fear Mercedes’ dominance will continue for some time.

Feature Image Courtesy of Peter Fox/ Getty Images/ Red Bull Content Pool

Super Max again? Spanish Grand Prix Preview

At the beginning of 2020, the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona was set to be round number six of the 71st world championship season in the sport’s history. Now, 96 days after it was supposed to be held, it will still be round six.

Never, after pre-season testing in February at the same track, did anyone imagine that it would take this long for the F1 circus to return to Cataluña, or that the F1 season would be as altered and impacted as it has been – but F1 belatedly returns for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Haas’ Romain Grosjean at pre-season testing in Barcelona

The 4.6 kilometre circuit has seen 29 Formula One races, and only 10 times has the pole-sitter failed to win the race. Therefore, you would get the feeling that qualifying would be pretty important this weekend.

Cue Mercedes whose five pole positions from the first five races have once again symbolised a dominant car. Lewis Hamilton has established a 30-point lead in the world championship, but the champions did not have it their own way last time out at the 70th anniversary Grand Prix in Silverstone.

Red Bull’s Dutch sensation Max Verstappen produced a clinic in tyre conservation and consistency as he steered his car to victory following an exceptional strategy by the Red Bull team.

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – AUGUST 09: Race winner Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing walks with Second placed Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP with their trophies after the F1 70th Anniversary Grand Prix at Silverstone on August 09, 2020 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Will Oliver/Pool via Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool // AP-24VYR9KC11W11 // Usage for editorial use only //

It is also a circuit that will be naturally tough on the tyres. Mercedes’ strife over the two weekends in Northamptonshire saw Hamilton take a narrow win after a last-lap puncture. A puncture for Bottas saw him fail to score points in the British Grand Prix, and he lost the win and second place from pole position. He knows he needs to string together some strong weekends in order to propel himself back into championship contention.

2020 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, Sunday – LAT Images

It all came on a day Verstappen claimed he would not have enough to challenge the Silver Arrows, and we now arrive at a circuit that where the team is expected to flourish. Complete with tricky, high speed corners and few straights, Red Bull will know that Spain is a wonderful opportunity to take their second consecutive victory, and the team’s fourth there since 2010.

A special mention also goes to Carlos Sainz, who enters his sixth home Grand Prix. He looks to become the second Spanish race winner in Barcelona after Fernando Alonso’s two victories – the second of which was in 2013 for Ferrari. Sainz did not manage any points in Silverstone due to puncture and pit-stop dramas and will be looking for a bounce-back this weekend.

BARCELLONA ( SPAGNA ) 12/05/2013
© FOTO STUDIO COLOMBO X FERRARI

But it is all eyes on Red Bull and Super Max, as they look to once again take the fight to Mercedes at the front at the circuit where Verstappen took his first ever victory in 2016.

 

Feature Image courtesy of Red Bull content Pool

Why Albon isn’t in the same danger as Gasly was

There’s no denying Alex Albon’s first full season at Red Bull is so far falling short of expectations. Just sixth in the drivers’ championship and with two consecutive Q2 exits in the previous races, it’s also unsurprising that talk of him facing a midseason drop like Pierre Gasly’s last year has already begun.

On the face of it, the concern over Albon’s position at Red Bull does appear to be more than just speculation for speculation’s sake.

Much like Gasly last year, Albon has struggled to get to grips with his car over the opening races of the season, and more importantly doesn’t seem able to extract the most from it in the same way teammate Max Verstappen has. As a result, Albon has been behind Verstappen in every race they’ve both finished and only has half the points of his teammate.

Albon’s results have also been following a downward trend so far. After finishing fourth in the Styrian Grand Prix, Albon was fifth at the Hungaroring and then eighth at Silverstone last weekend. It’s easy to conclude from that record that Albon’s entering into a downward spiral, or a slump at the very least. That Gasly found himself in such a spiral last year was one of the key reasons Red Bull gave for moving him back to Toro Rosso, in the hopes of forcing a reset for the Frenchman.

Bryn Lennon, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

But although Gasly’s results were obviously a key factor in his demotion, more important were the reasons behind those results. In particular, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner cited Gasly’s hesitance in on-track battles, which often left him stuck behind midfield cars despite his own RB15’s pace advantage.

Albon, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have this problem. The British Grand Prix might have been his lowest result of the season so far, but his drive to eighth was a recovery negating an extra pit stop and a time penalty. Likewise, in Hungary he made up eight places to finish fifth after an early qualifying exit.

Admittedly, Albon’s racecraft does still need honing. The collision with Kevin Magnussen that earned him that penalty at Silverstone is the most recent example, not to mention his two race-ruining incidents with Lewis Hamilton in Brazil last year and Austria this year.

But despite this, Albon’s willingness to go for a move and not be daunted by it—particularly if that move is against a six-times world champion like Hamilton—is clearly something Red Bull values.

Bryn Lennon, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

It’s also worth noting that the context of of Albon’s year is very different to Gasly’s. Last year Red Bull had a car that could legitimately contest Mercedes for podiums, poles and wins, and the feeling was that they were losing out on big results because Gasly’s absence from the front of the field meant they were unable to fight the Silver Arrows strategically.

This year, despite Verstappen’s podiums the RB16 is not as close to Mercedes as its predecessor, and so Albon’s struggles aren’t costing Red Bull as much as Gasly’s. What’s more, with Ferrari so far off the pace compared to 2019, Red Bull is also not at risk of losing second place in the Constructors’ Championship.

On top of that, Red Bull had the perfect opportunity to perform a driver swap last year. The three week summer break not only provided Albon with a chance to get his head around the pressure associated with driving for the top team, but also gave Gasly enough time to accept the decision before facing the media at the next race weekend.

With no such break this year, Red Bull don’t have that convenient chance to swap drivers without the risk of it backfiring for the rest of the season. Hopefully, they’ll have learnt this from what happened to Daniil Kvyat after his sudden drop in 2016.

There’s no hiding the fact that Albon’s start to the 2020 season has so far fallen short of his and Red Bull’s expectations, and he needs an upturn in form over the coming races to get things back on track. But as for talk of him being demoted back to Toro Rosso, Albon’s performances on track and relationship with the team show a much different picture to Gasly’s time at Red Bull. For 2020 at least, Albon’s seat should be secure.

Bryn Lennon, Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool