A new season of Formula One is on the horizon. Several key issues or questions linger going into the new campaign — we’ve rounded up the most pressing of them below.
Can anyone beat Mercedes before 2021?
The 2020 season represents virgin territory for the mighty Mercedes Formula One team. In 2019 it became the first team in history to win six consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ championships, and the prospect of a seventh this year would put the team head and shoulders above Ferrari’s six straight constructors’ victories between 1999 and 2004. But all good things must come to an end and there is a strong argument that 2020 will be Mercedes’ toughest title defence yet.
There are no major regulation changes going into the 2020 season and that should give Ferrari and Red Bull the opportunity to build on the progress they made in the second half of last season. In contrast to the start of 2019, when both Ferrari and Red Bull struggled to get on top of changes to front wing regulations early on, 2020 should see a continuous development of the same concepts that saw both teams close the gap to Mercedes in the second half of last year.
However, catching Mercedes is one thing, pulling ahead over the course of a 22-race season is quite another. To give some context to the gains made by Red Bull and Ferrari in 2019, if you were to create a mini championship formed of races after the summer break (the Belgian GP onwards), Lewis Hamilton would still have claimed the title and Mercedes still scored the most points by comfortable margins.
Points scored from Belgian GP onwards in 2019:
Hamilton – 162
Bottas – 138
Leclerc – 132
Verstappen – 97
Vettel – 84
Mercedes – 300
Ferrari – 215
Red Bull – 198
So while Mercedes is unlikely to repeat the eight wins it took from the first eight races of 2019 this year, it still goes into the 2020 season as the team to beat. Its main strength relative to its rivals was race pace last year, which was linked to its superior tyre management. With Pirelli’s compounds and constructions remaining unchanged this year, it is likely to continue to hold an edge on Sundays, even if Ferrari and Red Bull make progress in that area.
But Mercedes also had weaknesses in 2019, most notably in qualifying. An apparent lack of engine power compared to Ferrari and a tendency to struggle on bumpier surfaces could see it struggle at the opening two rounds of the year in Australia (a semi-permanent track) and Bahrain (a power circuit). If Ferrari or Red Bull can take advantage early on, it would put Mercedes under genuine pressure for the first time in six years and that may bring about more operational mistakes as the season progresses. That could create an opening and has the potential to kick start one of the most exciting title races F1 has seen in years.
Can Ferrari avoid civil war?
Sebastian Vettel or Charles Leclerc; who would you choose to lead Ferrari in 2020? In an ideal world they would coexist and push each other to new levels of performance — with four-time champion Vettel bringing the experience and Leclerc the relentless hunger of youth — but F1 is anything but an ideal world.
In 2019 the pair clashed over team orders, qualifying slipsteams and first-corner agreements before a physical on-track collision ended both their races at the Brazilian Grand Prix in November. The tension was clear to see in post-race media briefings and it was feeding off two themes that ran throughout 2019: Vettel underperforming and Leclerc overperforming. The reasons for that are wide and varied, but the result was a team that started the year believing Vettel would be its next world champion and finished viewing Leclerc as its long-term future. That shift in the driver dynamic manifested itself in a new five-year deal for Leclerc last December, while Vettel starts the 2020 season with a contract that expires after the final race in November.
For Vettel it creates an uncomfortable situation. In order to remain relevant in F1 he must beat Leclerc, but if his competitive edge is deemed as damaging to the team, he could be very easily cut before 2021. It may be that the two drivers are able to compete alongside each other for victories without the relationship deteriorating, but F1’s history is dotted with examples of teammates who struggled to coexist at top teams — not least when Vettel partnered Mark Webber between 2009 and 2013.
Publicly, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto has played down concerns of civil war between his drivers. Following the clash in Brazil, he claimed the team would benefit from the incident as it allowed the drivers to clear the air after a long and stressful season, and going into 2020 he has pledged to treat his two drivers as equals in the hope that the respect he shows to them off-track will be reciprocated by sensible behaviour on-track.
Whether that turns out to be the case will be one of the fascinating subplots of 2020.
Will Renault commit to a long-term F1 future?
Renault has raced in Formula One since 1977 but its presence in the sport has been anything but consistent. It has competed as both a full factory team (on three separate occasions) and an engine suppler, taking two championships as the former and 10 as the latter. The high points have been very high, but they also serve to increase the pressure when the brand is struggling through its lows.
Right now it exists as a full constructor team and is about to embark on year five of its original five-year plan to return to the top of F1. Unless the team makes a monumental breakthrough, it will fall short of that initial target and a solid fourth place finish in the constructors’ championship is a more realistic target for 2020.
To be fair to Renault, that five-year plan was made before F1 committed to a major rules reset in 2021, making next season the obvious target for a major step forward. Yet with no commercial agreements in place, it’s still not 100 percent clear if Renault will make the starting grid in F1’s new era.
As of October last year, the Enstone-based team became part of parent company Renault’s ongoing strategic review into all areas of its business. No decisions have been made yet, but in theory the French manufacturer could make a clean break from F1 at the end of 2020 by not signing a renewal of its commercial agreement with the sport. The same applies to all teams on the grid at the moment, but with Renault the consistent underperforming puts it under even more pressure.
When it rejoined the sport in 2016, Renault agreed a deal with former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone that committed the brand to the sport beyond the end of 2020 as an engine supplier. But with McLaren set to switch to Mercedes engines in 2021, Renault will have no engine customers left after 2020 and could, therefore, walk away.
Much will depend on the commercial agreement Formula One has offered the team, but Renault will also look carefully at how relevant an F1 team is to its future. As more and more governments look to ban the sale of petrol and diesel driven cars in the coming 15 years, F1’s commitment to hybrid power may not fit with Renault’s marketing plans for the future. The counter argument could be that Renault may as well make the most of its recent investments in F1 while they still hold some relevance to the cars rolling out of its factories, but without success on track it could be a case of throwing good money after bad.
Renault’s season launch event on February 12 may hold the answer to this question, but if not it will be hanging over the team and its plans for 2021 until a definitive decision is made.
Where will Hamilton, Vettel and Ricciardo be driving in 2021?
It would be wrong to assume the prospect of an exciting driver market ended with Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen’s respective contract extensions with Ferrari and Red Bull. There’s still plenty that could happen this year which would shape next year’s grid with the three remaining lucrative free agents.
The Lewis Hamilton-Ferrari speculation was fuelled by his meetings with the Italian company’s chairman John Elkann last year. Those sorts of meetings are hardly uncharted territory for an F1 driver entering a contract year but it was the first time Hamilton had properly addressed the idea of driving for the most famous team in racing. Staying with Mercedes remains the most likely option, while there are numerous reasons Ferrari might opt against pitting the most dominant driver of the modern era alongside Leclerc — a driver it has invested so much in. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be open to the idea of a tweaked lineup for 2021.
The Ferrari link is only possible because of the ongoing uncertainty over Sebastian Vettel’s future. Vettel struggled to match Leclerc for most of 2019 and in the space of a year went from undisputed number one to having his future under the microscope. There is clear tension in that partnership and the nature of Vettel’s relationship with Leclerc later this year could determine his future, as Ferrari is not going to want to enter 2021’s new dawn with a toxic environment.
This is why Daniel Ricciardo, not Hamilton, is looking like a better bet to be the big mover in this year’s transfer talk. The Australian’s surprise move to Renault for 2019 came with a big financial reward, but was also part of a long game. While many have been second-guessing Ricciardo’s decision to leave Red Bull in the first place, seeing his former team sign Verstappen to a long-term contract justifies his feeling that the team was growing increasingly around its Dutch starlet. Leaving also put Ricciardo same contract cycle as each of the drivers mentioned above and therefore guaranteed he would be an appealing option for at least one top team at this stage.
Ferrari will no doubt see fluent Italian speaker Ricciardo as an appealing option – he’s hungry for a competitive car, is a proven race winner and one of the most popular and marketable drivers on the grid. And if Hamilton does make the move to Ferrari, Ricciardo suddenly becomes the best available current driver for Mercedes. Watch this space.
A few others worthy of mention
Will there be a Chinese Grand Prix? The outbreak of the coronavirus in China has left a huge question-mark over the status of the Chinese Grand Prix, set to take place on April 19. F1 is open to the prospect of postponing the event to later in the year but the congested calendar (which includes a record 22 races this season) makes finding an alternative date very tricky.
Is Valtteri Bottas a contender or a pretender? We heard plenty about ‘Bottas 2.0′ last year but it only ever looked like a flash in the pan. Early wins in Australia and Azerbaijan were a false dawn. Bottas’ three years at Mercedes have yielded seven wins but there are few who believe he is a genuine threat to teammate Hamilton going into this season. With Mercedes junior George Russell on the market after this coming year with Williams, Bottas is running out of time to prove he deserves another contract with the team, let alone that he can mount a championship challenge.
Will Alex Albon crumble or thrive at Red Bull? Alex Albon enjoyed a remarkable 2019, debuting with Toro Rosso and being elevated to Red Bull in the summer break. He spent his stint with the team a long way off Max Verstappen’s pace, albeit with a fair excuse having been dropped in the deep end. That excuse won’t hold in 2020. Many within Toro Rosso saw Albon as a future star but his performances at the notoriously unforgiving Red Bull environment will be under the microscope more than ever when he has a preseason of testing under his belt.