The F1 2020 Season Preview

Eventually, Formula One racing is returning this weekend as the 2020 season gets underway. When the lights go out on Sunday for the Austrian Grand Prix it will have been 217 days since the last race in Abu Dhabi; the third longest gap between seasons in F1 history and the first time the season has started in Europe since 1966.

2020 was meant to be a record-breaking 22 race season before the coronavirus pandemic swept the world. Vietnam was meant to debut with its maiden Grand Prix in Hanoi and Zandvoort was meant to return for the first time since 1985. China, the country the outbreak originated in was the first race to be cancelled before the teams arrived in Melbourne and left before running a single session at Albert Park after a member of the McLaren team tested positive, prompting its cancellation.

The full original F1 2020 race calendar. [Image from essentuallySports].

Ten races have been either cancelled or postponed and now we have an 8 race schedule which starts in Austria with the Red Bull Ring hosting two successive races in as many weekends. That kick starts a manic five races in as many weekends as the Hungaroring hosts a race in between a double bill at Silverstone; the second being officially called the 70th anniversary Grand Prix. Quite fitting with Silverstone having hosted the first-ever Formula One Grand Prix. The Spanish Grand Prix at the Circuit de Barcelona Catalunya is the following weekend before we come to something that resembles the original schedule after a two week break. The Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps (August 28-30th) and Italian Grand Prix at Monza (4-6 September) remain in their original slots.

The revised first 8 races of 2020. [Image from formula1.com]

What happens after September 6th is still unknown. The situation with the pandemic is still fluid and ever-changing. We may not even get through these 8 races but the powers that be in F1 are still hoping to put a 15-18 race Championship together moving in a biosphere way. Europe is up first followed by Asia and the America’s in October and November before finishing in Bahrain and Adu Dhabi around December.

We know that street circuit races such as Azerbaijan, Monaco for the first time since 1954 and Singapore are cancelled. So too is Japan which is a surprise. They are not happening and with no sporting events allowed in the Netherlands until September, a return for Zandvoort may have to wait for 2021. If the Dutch government change policy from September then that might allow Zandvoort to happen. They do need a couple races in Europe and the Ferrari owned Mugello has been rumoured to be considered for a race after Monza. I really doubt we will see racing in Austin or Sao Paulo after the way the USA and Brazil are handling the pandemic and given the compact location of Mexico City, I’m not sure F1 will go there. That leaves only leaves Canada on the American continent but I think we’ll see races in Canada. Where else in Asia or America I don’t really know as I thought Japan would’ve been the logical choice. A potential return to South Korea?

F1’s planned biosphere schedule for 2020. [Image from roadandtrack.com]

The revised compact schedule has been made possible by the teams not taking their usual summer shutdown period where they take four weeks off during the summer. Instead, it was imposed on them earlier by the FIA during lockdown although several teams contributed towards producing ventilators to help.

What will be different in F1?

F1 was already bringing in a small number of changes to the cars and regulations for 2002 before the abandoned Australian Grand Prix. They are detailed here. Since then, they have brought in new rules and regulations to also help make the sport more COVID secure and more financially stable for the smaller teams…

  • At the Grand Prix, teams are limited to 80 personnel. Each individual is tested routinely and travel together on chartered planes between countries as teams. They’ll be operating as a family type bubble and will not be allowed to interact with people of other teams. There will be no motorhomes we are used to seeing and unfortunately, but necessary to prevent further spread of the virus, the races will be behind closed doors.
  • F1 had already agreed to introduce a budget cap for 2021 set at €175m. That has since been reduced to €145m for 2021 with €5m decreases for the following two years. The original policies were aimed to help bridge the gap between the bigger spending teams and the rest of the field and ensuring the future of the sport is financially sustainable. That could not be needed more now with the costs of the pandemic and the fact we are seeing teams like Williams and even McLaren struggling financially.
  • All teams effectively agreed to postpone the introduction of the 2021 regulations until 2022. They were meant to be the next big shakeup of things but they will now be delayed a year and come into force in 2022. Instead, the teams will use the same chassis that they are using in 2020 in 2021, it is hoped this will reduce costs and help the teams this year financially. McLaren will be given some leeway on this though to facilitate their prearranged switch from Renault engines to Mercedes though that will present some challenges too.
Mercedes will be running this stunning black livery in 2020. [Image from formula1.com]

Since then, Mercedes have decided to run their car with a black livery instead of their usual silver as a commitment against racism and discrimination. F1 as a sport has set up a Commission; #WeRaceAsOne [Featured in the image at the top of the post, image is from formula1.com]. That hashtag, as well as a rainbow pattern, will be appearing around the circuits that F1 race at and on all the cars as a sign of support and thank you for key workers around the world.

McLaren will be running with the #WeRaceAsOne rainbow logo on their Halo. [Image from Paddock Eye].

F1 is predominantly a white-dominated sport with Hamilton being the only non-white driver on the grid. It is also a rich man’s plaything with drivers bringing big sponsorship to teams struggling financially meaning the best driver may not always be selected, and that money is a deciding factor. I am referring to pay drivers. Some of them are good drivers like Sergio Perez but some when you’ve seen them in the car you question what got them there. Marcus Ericsson saw off two teammates at Sauber in a 50 race pointless run and recently Lance Stroll getting into Racing Point because he dad bought the team.

That is something I hope F1’s new task force with its stated aim of ‘finance primarily, but not exclusively, internships and apprenticeships within Formula 1 for under-represented groups to ensure they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential and have access to a promising career in the sport.’ will seek to address.

The 2020 Grid

All in all, there are only two personnel changes between the 10 teams for 2020 with Nicholas Latifi replacing Robert Kubica at Williams and Esteban Ocon returning to the grid at Renault in place of Nico Hulkenberg.

The 2020 grid started taking shape early last year when Mclaren made the unusual step of announcing they would be retaining both Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris before the British Grand Prix. At barely the half way state of the season, that was early. The next team to announce both of their drivers were Mercedes who had a decision to make. Would they retain Valtteri Bottas or give Reserve driver Esteban Ocon the drive alongside Hamilton. They opted to retain the Finnish driver and simultaneously announced that Ocon would be joining Renault. It was slightly surprising given that Renault were all but set to sign Ocon 12 months prior before they pulled off the Ricciardo coup. Ocon would partner the honey badger with Hulkenberg; who had been with the team since 2016 out of a drive.

Esteban Ocon sat out 2019 but was announced as replacing Nico Hulkenberg at Renault for 2020. [Image from Sky Sports].

The German became the main talking point of the drivers market with him thought of having a couple of options, the most heavily talked option was Haas. However, despite a difficult season for the US outfit, they opted to retain Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean. Could he have returned to Alpha Romeo; the team that he drove for under Sauber? That was always unlikely given that Ferrari have an option on one of their seats and it was not Kimi Raikkonen they had backed. Antonio Giovnazzi did come under pressure for his seat especially after spinning out of the points at the end of the Belgian Grand Prix. He responded in style scoring points at his home race the following weekend and a string of performances in the second half of the season earned the Italian a second season.

A shock option for Hulkenberg was Red Bull. Red Bull have not hired an external driver since Mark Webber in 2006 and prefer to recruit through their young driver academy. That said, Red Bull did have questions last season. After promoting Alexander Albon midway through the season for Pierre Gasly who struggled in the car, they needed to see what Albon did in the car. Albon impressed enough to be kept on as Gasly and Daniil Kvyat were confirmed for another year in the sister team.

A return to Racing Point was never on the cards after Sergio Perez became the first driver to commit to their team beyond 2020 and with Lawrence Stroll bankrolling the team they were always going to be keeping Lance. Williams had another difficult season and there was an opening when Robert Kubica decided that he would not be staying beyond last season. Could Williams have afforded Hulkenberg? It would undoubtedly have helped them having a driver of his experience and calibre given they’ve struggled at the back of the grid but in the end, they opted to promote Canadian Nicholas Latifi. Latifi has done fairly well in F2 last year but also because he brings significant sponsorship money which they will be on short supply of after their on-track struggles.

Nico Hulkenberg was unfortunately the big loser in the drivers market last year. [Image from EssentiallySports].

Like Ocon was a big miss last year, Hulkenberg will be the big miss in 2019. The german was a consistent midfield runner who perhaps was harshly never given a chance at a top team. However, there is one record that will be his for some time. He started 50 Grand Prix and never finished on the podium; an unwanted record.

The 2020 Grid in Numbers

Most Starts: Kimi Raikkonen 312

Least Starts: Nicholas Latifi 0

Nationalties: 14

Oldest Driver: Kimi Raikkonen 40 years old

Youngest Driver: Lando Norris 20 years old

Average Age: 26.95

Combined Starts: 2,138
Kimi Raikkonen 312, Lewis Hamilton 250, Sebastian Vettel 240, Sergio Perez 176, Daniel Ricciardo 171, Romain Grosjean 164, Valtteri Bottas 139, Kevin Magnussen 102, Max Verstappen 102, Carlos Sainz 102, Dannil Kvyat 93, Lance Stroll 62, Esteban Ocon 50, Pierre Gasly 47, Charles Leclerc 42, Antonio Giovinazzi 23, Alexander Albon 21, Lando Norris 21, George Russell 21, Nicholas Latifi 0

Race Winners: 7
Lewis Hamilton 84, Sebastian Vettel 53, Kimi Raikkonen 21, Max Verstappen 8, Valtteri Bottas 7, Daniel Ricciardo 7, Charles Leclerc 2

Podium Finishers: 14
Lewis Hamilton 151, Sebastian Vettel 120, Kimi Raikkonen 103, Valtteri Bottas 45, Max Verstappen 31, Daniel Ricciardo 29, Charles Leclerc 10, Romain Grosjean 10, Sergio Perez 8, Daniil Kvyat 3, Pierre Gasly 1, Carlos Sainz 1, Lance Stroll 3, Kevin Magnussen 1

Pole Positions: 7
Lewis Hamilton 88, Sebastian Vettel 57, Kimi Raikkonen 18, Valtteri Bottas 11, Charles Leclerc 7, Daniel Ricciardo 3, Max Verstappen 2

World Champions: 3
Lewis Hamilton 6, Sebastian Vettel 4, Kimi Raikkonen 1

2021 Driver Changes

With there being no track action there has been more time for negotiations between teams and drivers over contracts. Before the shutdown, there was a lot of anticipation for some big driver moves ahead of the new regulations with all the big names not committed to a team for 2021. Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen committed to Ferrari and Red Bull quite early but the bombshell came in May when Sebastian Vettel announced that he would be leaving Ferrari and the end of 2020.

The announcement of Vettel’s departure triggered a chain reaction as within days, Ferrari announced that he would be replaced by Carlos Sainz for 2021. They knew who they wanted to partner Leclerc but his move was made possible by the announcement from McLaren that Daniel Ricciardo will be replacing him to partner Lando Norris. All this within a matter of days.

Sebastian Vettel (left) is leaving Ferrari at the end of 2020 to be replaced by Carlos Sainz (middle) to be replaced at McLaren by Daniel Ricciardo (right).

Questions in the driver market now hang over Mercedes and Renault. They appear to be the big components next. Will Mercedes retain Lewis Hamilton (who may decide 7 is enough if he wins this year, you never know) and Valtteri Bottas? If Vettel is to remain in F1, he needs to be at a team that love him and I’m not sure h would want to go toe to toe with Hamilton in the same car. He would want to be the number 1 driver. If either Hamilton or Bottas moves on, Mercedes would have a big call to make as they could promote George Russell who is still one of their development drivers.

Renault have a big call to make. They are the next best team Vettel could join but it is a question of would Vettel be content to battle in the midfield in 2021 before a potential title challenge with the new regulations in 2022? Fernando Alonso has been linked with what would be a surprise return to F1 and a third spell with Renault. That would be some story but the same questions surrounding Vettel would also apply to the former two-time champion. Does he have the desire for a long term project? They could promote within with F2 driver Guanyu Zhou in their Academy group who showed some promise in the F1 sim race-winning its first race around Bahrain. They are rumoured to be looking at Bottas too. I think the next big announcement will come from Renault.

Returning to Vettel though and this is something that McLaren and Renault will all need to think about. I don’t think there is a question that they drivers effort and commitment to their racing will be any different but will the teams use team orders to prioritise the driver that they know is not leaving? In the case of Sainz and Ricciardo, they are leaving for a rival team and typically once it’s known, teams do not share with them as much information. Ferrari will be prioritising Leclerc so it could be an interesting year at Ferrari. Vettel does not always listen to team orders so it could be feisty. Will McLaren prioritise Norris and Renault Ocon over any future updates they bring to the car and in terms of race strategy? We will see

What am I looking forward to this season?

A Hamilton vs the young upstarts title battle: F1’s changing of the guard is happening but I am looking forward to a potential title battle between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. Red Bull appeared to be the closest challengers to Mercedes and with their only being 8 confirmed races so far, 3 of them at circuits Verstappen was mighty at last year and two at a fairly high altitude; something Mercedes struggled with last year then if Verstappen performs at the same level he did last year then he could really challenge. It will be interesting to see where Ferrari really are too. They did not impress tat much in pre-season testing and by sounds of it, they’re not bringing big upgrades to Austria like Red Bull and Mercedes are so are they in the title picture this year? I’d like to see a three-way battle between the teams but a red Bull v Mercedes battle would be intense.

Could we see a three way Championship battle between Lewis Hamilton and the emerging talents of Max Verstappen ad Charles Leclerc?

Who will be Champion? I do think it could be close this season but I have to think that Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton, being such a well oiled title-winning machine will be able to get some big results in. two races at Silverstone could be big for Hamilton and with the DAS system on their car for this year, that could make a difference. Valtteri Bottas will attempt to make his presence known in the Mercedes garage but we’ve had Battos 2.0 or whatever and while he can come back strong at the start of a campaign he doesn’t seem able to match Hamilton consistently. I think it will be 7th title for Hamilton.

Rowan’s Championship Top Three Prediction:              1st Lewis Hamilton, 2nd Max Verstappen, 3rd Valtteri Bottas.

A tight midfield battle: McLaren, helped by consistent performances from Carlos Sainz to finish 4th last year including his maiden podium. They looked closely matched with Renault judging from pre-season testing performance but I do wonder now just how much off-track events will impact the racing outfit. At pre-season testing, F1 senior writer Lawrence Barretto has earmarked Renault as dark horses for 2020 and not just because they used an all-black livery for their car in testing. Ricciardo went quickest in the final morning of testing with the fourth quickest time overall and their race pace looked mightly impressive having found a lot of time over winter. Then, there is Racing Point…

Racing Point? They struggled a bit last year which the team put down to a hangover from the financial issues the teams’ former guise Force India ran into in 2018. They had a strong pre-season back in February and raised some eyebrows when they turned up with what was dubbed ‘the pink Mercedes’. The team denied any information sharing with Mercedes insisting they produced a car looking at drawings of the Mercedes. Either way, the car looked strong. Could they finish top of the midfield ahead of Renault and McLaren and could they even threaten Ferrari on track if they are struggling? They could be the dark horse I thin for this year and I think they will get some podiums.

A New team in Alpha Tuara: It’s the same team structurally from Toro Rosso last year with the team being rebranded in favour of red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz’s fashion line. There is a new livery for the team but other than that, nothing else changes on the operations side. It is still the same team, same people that were working under the Toro Rosso guise in 2019. Team Boss Franz Tost remains and as he insisted ‘From this side, nothing changes. We’re even pushing more as we have a new partner, we’re an ambassador of this brand, we must perform well. The motivation in the team is high.”

The newly rebranded Alpha Tauri [Image from fromula1.com].

Could this be Kimi Raikkonen’s last season? If F1 races into November and December he will be 41 and while he seemed to be enjoying racing last year, will he want to continue beyond this year? That is a question he may well know the answer to early doors into this 8 race stint. Although he has not ruled out racing until 2022 (he would be 43 at the end of that season), it means there could be a vacant seat at Alfa Romeo and big performances from Antonio Giovinazzi may be required to keep him in the team.

Williams closer to the rest: Williams have been marooned at the bottom of the field for the past two seasons now and at times last season they were more than 1s off the pace in qualifying and the race. Looking at their pre-season testing performance, it does look like they will be closer to the rest of the pack meaning they could have the odd chance of scoring points in 2020. Hopefully, for George Russell, they can. He didn’t score a point last season despite dominating Robert Kubica but demonstrated in the sim racing just how competitive he is winning 4 races on the bounce against his peers despite not having a sim racing console before lockdown. Russell and Latifi have had some bonding time in that series too racing together so hopefully, the only way is up for the Grove-based team.

Well, it’s all to play for as the F1 season eventually starts, I will be enjoying the action when it’s live and with the compact nature of the new schedule, I will try to review races but it may be difficult for me to keep up…

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