Formula One Recap
Volume 46 Issue 01
Jan 3, 2021
Bob Varsha recaps the year in Formula One
In this space back in July, I offered a preview of the pandemic-delayed Formula One World Championship season. Reading over that article now that the strangest season in history is complete, I think it’s fair to say that I nailed some points, and whiffed on others, as the 70th season of F1 played out.
Enormous credit goes to the FIA, the Formula 1 Group, the teams and the promoters for pulling together a viable schedule amid constantly shifting national travel restrictions.
The measures put in place included slashing the number of credentialed personnel and implementation of a comprehensive testing regimen. More than 78,000 total tests produced a mere seventy-odd positive results, and more than 1,200 people moved in and out of twelve countries safety.
In July there were a mere half-dozen confirmed races, all in Europe. Once the FIA loosened the requirement for an international calendar, the door was opened to additional nearby circuits, including first-timers Mugello in Italy and Portimao in Portugal. Old favorites Imola, Nürburgring and Turkey were also added.
The final tally of seventeen grands prix, jammed into just twenty-three weekends, surpassed the fifteen required to trigger lucrative television and sponsor contracts, though some tracks had to be rented.
I predicted in July that we would see little change in the hierarchy among the teams, with Mercedes-AMG, Scuderia Ferrari and Red Bull Racing dominating.
I got two-thirds of that right, and sadly the exception was Ferrari. The red cars were a shambles: a handful in corners, slow on the straights. The cars were even lapped in the finale.
There was little hope offered from Maranello; team principal Mattia Binotto even declined to attend late-season races.
In the end Ferrari failed to lead a single lap in a season for only the third time ever. Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel never qualified on the front row, and finished 8th and 13th among drivers. The team finished sixth among Constructors, their worst since 1980.
Vettel pronounced his five seasons as a Ferrari driver “a failure” as he moves to a new home at Racing Point/Aston Martin in 2021. Leclerc’s new teammate, Carlos Sainz, over from McLaren, may be wondering what he was thinking.
Meanwhile, Mercedes and Red Bull remained at the sharp end, and even that wasn’t a close-fought thing.
Lewis Hamilton dominated as expected, with eleven poles and an equal number of victories in just sixteen races due to a COVID positive, and his points alone were more than the RBR two-car total!
His seventh drivers title matches Michael Schumacher’s record, and he surpassed the German’s marks for poles with his 98th and wins with 95.
Teammate Valtteri Bottas provided support, managing five poles, two race wins, and runner-up in the standings. Mercedes seventh constructors’ crown keeps them undefeated in the turbo-hybrid era.
Bottas is confirmed for another season in 2021, and while Hamilton has yet to renew, he has no options if he plans to continue his extraordinary career.
Red Bull Racing star Max Verstappen could make things entertaining when he had the car under him that he needed and he stayed out of trouble.
The team updated their car furiously as the season wore on, and paid public tribute to Honda for improvements.
The Dutchman won twice, in the second race at Silverstone and the finale, from his only pole, in Abu Dhabi. His eleven total podiums left him just nine points behind Bottas in the final standings.
Teammate Alex Albon was utterly eclipsed by Verstappen but still produced two third-place finishes and seventh in points. It wasn’t enough, and he was replaced for 2021 by Sergio Perez, who was dismissed by Racing Point.
More importantly, Honda announced their planned departure from F1 at the end of 2021, leaving Red Bull and junior team Alpha Tauri scrambling.
My prediction that the fight for “best of the rest” would involve Racing Point, Renault and McLaren was accurate.
I admit the winner, McLaren, was a bit of a surprise. The team faced a financial crisis, losing $227 million in the first quarter, laying off employees, borrowing $195 million, and then planning the sale and leaseback of the team’s factory.
Finally, the team announced sale of a $250 million stake to American investment group MSP Sports Capital. Despite the turmoil the team managed consistent finishes from Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, sixth and ninth in the points with a podium each.
Daniel Ricciardo replaces Sainz next season, and the trick will be continuing the upward momentum.
The “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” trophy goes to fourth place Racing Point, whose car was often second-best only to the Mercedes, no surprise as it was basically a knock-off of last year’s winner.
Lance Stroll took a shock pole in Turkey, while Sergio Perez won the second Bahrain race, his breakthrough after a decade of trying, and the first for the team since 2003 as Jordan Grand Prix.
But the team was penalized fifteen championship points over the copying issue; both drivers missed races due to positive tests (welcome back, Nico Hulkenberg!) and neither car finished in the points in two of the final three races, with three retirements.
Perez and Stroll finished fourth and eleventh, so of course the Mexican was pushed out to make way for Sebastien Vettel, since Stroll’s dad owns the team.
It’s never a good thing for a factory team to be beaten by a customer outfit, but that is where Renault wound up, 21 points and two places behind the McLaren entries powered by the French brand. Still, it was Renault’s best finish in the five years since it returned as a factory team, with three podiums from Daniel Ricciardo, fifth in points, and Esteban Ocon, 12th.
Ricciardo now moves on to drive for McLaren, his place taken by Fernando Alonso, who returns from a two-year hiatus.
The 39-year old Spaniard, who scored the team’s most recent win in Japan in 2008, was allowed to participate in the post-season young driver test in Abu Dhabi, where he turned the fastest lap. It was with Renault, which will race next season under subsidiary brand Alpine, that Alonso earned his World Championships in 2005 and 2006.
Everyone likes a good underdog story, and that is what former Toro Rosso team Alpha Tauri presents.
In the 2008 Italian GP at Monza, a young Sebastian Vettel gave the team its first victory; this year Pierre Gasly produced its second at the same race, in front of a delirious crowd.
No, it wasn’t as good as a Ferrari victory, but Alpha Tauri, which began life as Minardi many years ago, is based in Faenza, Italy. That may explain why Gasly returns in 2021, while teammate Daniil Kvyat will not, replaced by 20-year old Japanese Yuki Tsunoda, third in F2 this season.
Both Alfa Romeo and the North Carolina-based Haas F1 team might well blame another pair of humble team finishes, eigth and ninth, respectively, on the shortcomings of their Ferrari power.
Ninth was also the best race finish among the drivers: Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovanazzi for Alfa, Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean for Haas.
The Alfa pair will return, while Grosjean’s miraculous escape from his fiery accident in Bahrain prevented a proper farewell, as both he and Magnussen are out.
Their replacements are new F2 Champion Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, and Russian Nikita Mazepin, son of Dmitry, another billionaire.
The younger Mazepin stumbled right off the bat by posting a video of himself committing sexual assault. Given the resulting internet outrage, let’s call his seat pending.
On a more positive note, the only American F1 team has committed to the series for another five years.
Finally, there is Williams, a team with world championship success in the ‘80s and ’90s, but sadly mediocre since then.
This was emphasized when driver George Russell, also a Mercedes reserve, stepped in for the quarantined Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain and nearly took pole.
Only a team error and a late puncture in the race prevented the Brit from winning.
For the first time ever, Williams failed to score a single championship point. The team was sold during the season to New York equity firm Dorilton Capital, offering hope for the future.
Russell returns to his seat alongside deep-pocketed but performance-challenged Canadian Nicholas Latifi.
Next year lower revenues will be stretched tighter over the biggest calendar in history, twenty-three races.
Among the cost-saving measures are the new budget cap and the reuse of this years’ cars. But that may all be premature.
Will 2021 feature an exciting new normal? Or are we facing another cut-and-paste calendar, and a paddock filled with isolation bubbles and testing swabs?
We’ll soon know, as it starts, hopefully, barely three months from now.