Thoughts on the 70th Anniversary GP

Max Verstappen won the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix (Image: Pirelli)

Formula 1 celebrated its 70th anniversary on Sunday with a Grand Prix at Silverstone, scene of the first ever World Championship race in 1950. The race was won by Max Verstappen, with Lewis Hamilton second and Valtteri Bottas third.

The race was notable in many respects, a few of which I’ll cover here.

Max Verstappen and Red Bull shine

Until Sunday’s race, it seemed perfectly plausible that Mercedes could win every race in 2020. With 4 wins from the opening 4 rounds of the season, Mercedes had been challenged only by by their own reliability issues in Austria and Pirelli’s fragile tyres at the British Grand Prix.

That all changed on Sunday when Max Verstappen and Red Bull beat Mercedes fair and square. They were helped by warm conditions and softer compound tyres than had been used at the previous week’s race, But the win was in no way fortunate. The combination of Red Bull and Verstappen was simply faster than Mercedes and the win was richly deserved.

Mercedes are still the team to beat, but Red Bull have now firmly established themselves as challengers. Verstappen is 30 points behind Hamilton in the Driver’s Championship – while that’s a sizeable gap, it’s by no means insurmountable. If Red Bull can continue to make progress, Verstappen might even have a shot at the title.

Hamilton matches Schumacher’s podium record

Not long ago, it was thought that most of Michael Schumacher’s records would stand for many years to come, possibly even forever. Lewis Hamilton has had other ideas, and has been steadily rewriting the record books, in the process firmly establishing himself as one of the great racing drivers of all time.

On Sunday, Hamilton scored his 155th podium, matching Schumacher’s tally. Hamilton achieved the feat in his 255th F1 race, meaning he has stood on the podium in just over 60% of the races has entered. That’s an astonishing rate of success, even considering that Hamilton has always driven competitive cars in his F1 career.

It’s hard to imagine that Hamilton will not claim the podium record outright in the very near future, probably at this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix.

The next record in Hamilton’s sights will be Schumacher’s mammoth total of 91 Grand Prix victories. To understand just how massive that tally is, consider that it is just one short of the total wins of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost combined.

Hamilton currently sits second in the all-time win list on 87. With at least 7 races left in 2020, and probably more still to be scheduled, it is possible that Hamilton will become Formula One’s most successful driver by race victories this season.

Hulkenberg deserves a place in F1

On the Thursday before the British Grand Prix, Sergio Perez tested positive for Covid-19, which ruled him out of competing. That meant Racing Point were in a sudden mad dash to find a driver. Nico Hulkenberg came to the rescue, rushed to Silverstone and made it through all of the mandatory checks just in time to participate in FP1 on Friday. Despite having not driven an F1 car all season and not having driven the current Racing Point RP20 at all, Hulkenberg spent the weekend getting closer and closer to team-mate Lance Stroll’s lap times.

A failure on the car meant he was unable to take part in the race, a massive disappointment for him and the team.

But Hulkenberg’s work was rewarded the following weekend at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix when he qualified 3rd on the grid, faster than everybody except the two Mercedes drivers, and comprehensively beating team-mate Stroll. Some issues with tyre wear in the race meant Hulkenberg had to make an extra pit stop and he ended up finishing seventh, just 13 seconds behind Stroll.

It was a demonstration of Hulkenberg’s value to any Formula 1 team. After so smoothly slotting into Perez’s seat and delivering points for Racing Point, it seems likely that any team in need of a driver for 2021 will be knocking on Hulkenberg’s door.

Albon desperately needs a good result

Alexander Albon is in a pretty tough situation. He’s a young, quick, exciting driver in a good car, and while that sounds like a perfect combination, there’s one problem: his team-mate is Max Verstappen. Verstappen is arguably the quickest driver in the field, with the possible exception of Lewis Hamilton, and he is using every ounce of his speed to try to challenge Mercedes for race wins. In the process, Albon is being comprehensively overshadowed by Verstappen at just about every turn.

It’s a situation reminiscent of a young Michael Schumacher leaving his team-mates in his dust. Verstappen is world champion material and it will be difficult for anyone to match him in the same car. At last weekend’s 70th Anniversary Grand Prix, Verstappen won the race while Albon finished 39 seconds back in fifth place. That gap is largely a positive reflection on Vertappen rather than a negative one on Albon, but Albon might struggle to see it that way. He will not be happy until he at least matches his team-mate.

Albon so desperately needs a strong result. Can he finally stand on the podium at this weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix? It would provide him with a much-needed confidence boost.

Ferrari are nowhere in 2020

Sebastian Vettel in action during qualifying for the 2020 Hungarian Grand Prix (Image: Ferrari)

What on Earth has happened to Ferrari in 2020? After the first three races of the season, they just look slow. It’s tough to see how they could even begin to recover a serious challenge for victories never mind championships this year.

Don’t be deceived by Charles Leclerc’s 2nd place finish in the season opening Austrian Grand Prix. It was a very fortunate result – if not for the retirement of both Red Bulls, a late safety car and a time penalty for Lewis Hamilton, Leclerc would have been nowhere near the podium.

In today’s Hungarian Grand Prix, Ferrari simply had no pace. The best they could do was 6th for Sebastian Vettel, behind both Mercedes, both Red Bulls and the Racing Point of Lance Stroll. At no point did Ferrari look like they had the pace to even think about challenging for podium positions.

The Hungaroring is a tight, twisty, high downforce track. It may be that it showed all the weaknesses and none of the strengths of the Ferrari SF1000. But that doesn’t explain why Ferrari also struggled at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, a circuit that focuses more on engine power.

In fact, Ferrari’s seeming lack of power is a little bit mystifying. They started 2019 with an apparent power advantage over even Mercedes. In the 2020 pre-season, the news broke that Ferrari had reached a deal with the FIA over technical aspects of their power unit, which suggested they had found a clever solution that would give them a power advantage. But instead Ferrari, and all the Ferrari engine customer teams, seem to be struggling for power.

It’s too early in the season to write the car off entirely. There is still time for Ferrari to develop the car and the power unit and perhaps even challenge for race victories. But the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships may already be out of reach. Mercedes look unstoppable – they have won the first three races of the season with relative ease – and Lewis Hamilton in particular is in dominant form.

Charles Leclerc is already 45 points behind championship leader Hamilton, with Vettel a further 9 points adrift. Meanwhile, Ferrari are already 94 points behind Mercedes in the Constructors’ Championship. Those are massive margins to have to make up, particularly considering it is not clear how many races there will be in 2020. The season has been shortened due to the Covid-19 pandemic and currently only 10 races are scheduled. While it seems likely more races will be added to the calendar, it is virtually certain that there will be fewer than the 20 or 21 races that have become standard in a Formula 1 season.

Ferrari have started 2020 firmly on the wrong foot. What can they achieve from here? The next round, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 2 weeks time, will show if the recovery has started. If they continue to struggle, a very short F1 season is going to seem very long to the team from Maranello. 

 

Alonso back in F1 with Renault in 2021

Alonso pictured in his Ferrari days (Image: Ferrari)

Spain’s motor racing superstar, Fernando Alonso, is set to make a comeback to Formula 1 in 2021. Alonso will drive for Renault alongside Esteban Ocon, replacing the departing Daniel Ricciardo who is on his way to McLaren.

This will be Alonso’s third stint at Renault. After starting his F1 career with Minardi in 2001, Alonso became Renault’s test driver in 2002 and was promoted to a race seat in 2003. He repaid Renault’s faith in him with consecutive championship wins in 2005 and 2006, dethroning Ferrari’s megastar Michael Schumacher.

After a competitive but turbulent year at McLaren in 2007, Alonso returned to Renault for 2008 and 2009. Five years followed at Ferrari that included race wins but no championships, and Alonso then spent a disappointing four seasons at McLaren before stepping away from Formula 1 at the end of 2018.

Alonso’s return can only be good for Formula 1. He’s a global superstar and a double F1 world champion. He will draw massive crowds all over the world and particularly in Spain.

For Renault, Alonso will be the focal point for their championship hopes in 2022. F1 is due to introduce radical new regulations from the 2022 season, which provides an opportunity for the pecking order to be shaken up. Renault are currently in the midfield, some distance away from the front, but that could all change with the new regulations in 2022.

For Alonso personally, whether or not his return is worthwhile will depend largely on the performance of the Renault car. He spent several seasons frustrated in the midfield in uncompetitive McLarens before calling it a day at the end of 2018. It seems unlikely that Alonso will be happy with a return to mediocre results. He will want to win.

While Alonso’s comeback will be positive for Formula 1, Renault and possibly Alonso himself, it is likely to be a bit disappointing for the up-and coming drivers of the Renault Sport Academy, and in particular Guanyu Zhou, who is currently racing in Formula 2. Zhou took pole for the Formula 2 season opener in Austria last weekend and is currently the Renault F1 test driver. He will have been hoping that a strong 2020 in F2 could result in promotion to the Formula 1 team for 2021. That hope has evaporated with the confirmation that Alonso will join Ocon in the Renault F1 2020 driver line-up.

I wonder what is motivating Alonso’s return to F1. He’s already been world champion twice. He’s universally acknowledged as a fantastic Formula 1 driver and arguably one of the greatest all-round drivers in the world at present. But what does he he hope to gain from another go at Formula 1, particularly with a team that has not been at the front for some time? What is Alonso’s unfinished business in F1?

Alonso will be 39 when he returns to the grid next year. That will make him the oldest driver on the grid if Kimi Raikkonen doesn’t renew his contract with Alfa Romeo (Raikkonen turns 41 during 2020). He doesn’t need to build a career or a reputation. Those are already well established.

Alonso must surely be hoping to rewrite the end to his Formula 1 career. He left F1 at the end of 2018 after 4 winless years at McLaren, clearly tired of being an also-ran in the sport he dominated back in 2005 and 2006. I expect he would much prefer sign off from F1 with race wins at least and preferably a championship too.

Most drivers would be over the Moon to have two Formula 1 World Championships to their name. But for a driver of Alonso’s quality, it almost doesn’t seem like enough. He finished 2nd three times at Ferrari, and in two of those seasons the title went down to the final race. In 2007 Alonso was third in the championship but only 1 point behind champion Kimi Raikkonen – Alonso and his McLaren team-mate Hamilton had equal points and won 4 races each, but Hamilton had 5 2nd places to Alonso’s 4 and so Hamilton was classified 2nd in the championship).

Alonso could easily have been a five-time champion and nobody would have doubted the merit of the achievement. He must feel like there is some unfinished business there. One more title would put him in the same company as Ayrton Senna, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Jack Brabham and Nelson Piquet – all three-time champions and all greats of F1.

In all of Formula 1 history, there has only been one true comeback champion (Prost won in 1993 after a year out but hadn’t actually retired). Niki Lauda retired in 1979 with two titles for Ferrari under his belt. A return with McLaren in 1982 led to the title in 1984 and sealed Lauda’s place as an F1 legend. On the other end of the comeback spectrum, Michael Schumacher came out of retirement in 2010 and spent three tough seasons with Mercedes that yielded a single podium, no wins and not even a sniff at the title. If Alonso can crown his comeback with a third title, it will firmly add him to the list of Formula 1 legends. But Schumacher’s comeback showed the extent of the challenge that awaits.

Whatever his motivation, having Alonso back in F1 will be spectacular. He is always on the limit of the car and always giving 100% in pursuit of victory. And isn’t that exactly how racing drivers should be? All on the line, all of the time. Bring on 2021.

Father-son world champions in F1

Nico Rosberg won the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship (Image: Daimler AG)

Nico Rosberg won the 2016 Formula 1 World Championship (Image: Daimler AG)

Like many occupations, motor racing tends to be a family affair. The children of professional racing drivers often become racing drivers themselves, to varying degrees of success. In very rare cases, both generations reach the pinnacle of their chosen racing categories. Let’s have a look at how this has happened in Formula 1.

In the history of motor racing, it’s not all that unusual for multiple members of the same family to race in Formula 1 (examples include Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve; Emerson, Wilson Jr and Christian Fittipaldi; Jody and Ian Scheckter; Michael and Ralf Schumacher; Jos and Max Verstappen) . Winning the World Championship, however, is a much more elite affair, so much so that only twice has a World Champion been related to a previous World Champion. In both cases,  the relationship was a that of son-father.

The first son of a World Champion to win the title himself was Damon Hill, in 1996. Damon is the son of double World Champion Graham Hill, who won the title in 1962 for BRM and 1968 for Lotus. While Damon was certainly exposed to racing from a very young age due to his father’s career, it was by no means a given that he would find success in Formula 1. Having started his racing career on motorcycles, Damon only started racing racing cars from 1983, when he was already 23 years old.

Damon Hill made his F1 debut for Brabham at the 1992 Spanish Grand Prix. At the time, he was 31 years old, which even then was unusually old for a driver to break into Formula 1. In the same season, he was a test driver for Williams, who signed him for a race seat in 1993 when Riccardo Patrese moved to Benetton. Hill won 3 races in 1993, providing his team-mate and eventual champion Alain Prost with a stronger challenge than expected.

In 1994, Damon remained with Williams to partner Ayrton Senna, and would no doubt have expected to spend the season as Senna’s number two. Tragically, Senna was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix, and Hill inherited the role of team leader and challenger to championship leader Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher would go on to take the title in 1994 and 1995, with Hill second in both seasons. 1996, however, was Hill’s year, and he fended off a strong challenge from Williams team-mate Jacques Villeneuve to realise his dream of becoming Formula 1 World Champion. In doing so, he became the first son of a World Champion to win the title.

For a while, it seemed that the Hill family might have a chance of producing a third-generation champion. Damon’s son Josh raced single seaters for a few years, progressing as high as the European Formula 3 Championship in 2013, but decided to retire from racing that season.

Nico Rosberg became only the second son of a World Champion to win the title himself when he beat Lewis Hamilton to the 2016 crown just a few weeks ago. Nico is the son of Keke Rosberg, who won the title for Williams in 1982.

Success at F1 level was a long time coming for Nico Rosberg. He made his debut for Williams in 2006, but had to wait until the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix, his 111th Grand Prix start, to take his first win in Formula 1. It was worth the wait, however, as the younger Rosberg would go on to win 23 races and eventually the 2016 World Championship.

Nico Rosberg owes his F1 success to a significant extent to the dominance of the Mercedes team over the past few seasons. That’s not to minimise his achievement – the vast majority of F1 championships have been won in the fastest car. However, being at Mercedes has also brought the challenge of being team-mate to Lewis Hamilton.

Rosberg finished runner-up to Hamilton in 2014 and 2015 before finally besting his illustrious team-mate in 2016. Such was the dominance of the Mercedes team, though, it could easily have been Rosberg who topped the standings in all three seasons. His defeat of Hamilton in 2016 was testament to Rosberg’s determination and consistency. Never before in the history of F1 has a driver beaten his own triple-World Champion team-mate to the title.

In winning the 2016 World Championship, Rosberg became only the second son of a World Champion to win the title. His shock retirement from F1 immediately after securing the crown means there are no drivers currently in Formula 1 who can repeat the achievement – assuming they continue to race in 2016, Max Verstappen, Kevin Magnussen and Jolyon Palmer are all the sons of former F1 drivers, but none of their fathers won the World Championship.

Who will be next?

In the junior ranks of single seater racing, no name is currently attracting more attention than Mick Schumacher. The son of seven-time Formula 1 World Champion Michael Schumacher, Mick is 17 years old and looks likely to make his Formula 3 debut in 2017.

Mick Schumacher seems to be more than just a young driver with a famous name. In 2016, he competed in Italian Formula 4 and German Formula 4 and finished runner-up in both championships, with a combined total of 10 wins and 8 pole positions.

The young Schumacher is currently racing in the 2016–17 MRF Challenge Formula 2000 Championship, which takes place from November 2016 to February 2017. He is fourth in the championship, with  2 victories.

Rumours over the last couple of years have linked Mick Schumacher with the junior programs of the Ferrari and Mercedes Formula 1 teams. Given the close ties both F1 teams have to the Schumacher family, it seems possible that Mick could be under consideration for a Formula 1 drive in the future, assuming that he continues to impress as he makes his way through the junior ranks.

Hamilton hunting Prost

Lewis Hamilton on his way to victory at the 2016 United States Grand Prix (Image: Daimler AG)

Lewis Hamilton on his way to victory at the 2016 United States Grand Prix (Image: Daimler AG)

This weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix could see Lewis Hamilton pull level with F1 legend Alain Prost’s tally of race wins. Prost took the chequered flag first 51 times in his illustrious career. Hamilton currently sits on 50 career wins in Formula 1, and shows no signs of stopping just yet.

During the course of his F1 career, Hamilton has accumulated records at a steady rate. He already has more wins (50) and pole positions (58) than any other British driver in the sport’s history (considering the number of British F1 drivers, the comparison is actually meaningful) and is equal with Jackie Stewart for most titles by a British driver (3).

In the overall standings, Hamilton lies third for pole positions on 58, after Michael Schumacher (68) and Ayrton Senna (65). If Mercedes remain competitive, it is possible that Hamilton could top the pole position list as soon as 2017.

A more significant record, though, is that for most career victories. Hamilton currently lies third in the overall standings, on 50 wins. Michael Schumacher leads the way by some margin on 91, with Alain Prost second on 51. It’s Prost’s second place that Hamilton seems sure to match, perhaps even in Sunday’s Mexican Grand Prix.

Prost achieved his 51st win (at the time a record) in his 196th race entry. Lewis Hamilton (if he wins on Sunday) would match Prost’s tally in only his 186th race, 10 fewer than the illustrious Frenchman. It’s worth noting here that Michael Schumacher’s 51st victory came in just his 158th F1 race when he won the 2001 Hungarian Grand Prix. Also interesting to note is Schumacher and Prost each took their 51st win in the year they won their fourth World Championship (Prost in 1993 and Schumacher in 2001). If Hamilton wins the title this year, he will also match Prost’s tally of 4 titles.

Lewis Hamilton is only 31 years old and potentially has several F1 seasons remaining in his career. It seems virtually certain that he will equal Prost’s tally of wins, perhaps even this weekend. The next target is Schumacher’s mammoth 91 victories. How close can Hamilton get? Time will tell.

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