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Bob Varsha

Volume 45 Issue 14

Jul 4, 2020

  Well, here we go, finally, maybe. When the 2020 Formula One World Championship, the much-anticipated 70th season, roars to life on July 5th at Austria’s Red Bull Ring, fans around the world will breathe a sigh of relief. In this column I will try to preview races that may or may not happen, contested by cars and drivers with minimal previous mileage...

    Well, here we go, finally, maybe. When the 2020 Formula One World Championship, the much-anticipated 70th season, roars to life on July 5th at Austria’s Red Bull Ring, fans around the world will breathe a sigh of relief. In this column I will try to preview races that may or may not happen, contested by cars and drivers with minimal previous mileage, fielded by teams working under the cloud of an international pandemic that puts their health at risk, blurs the season schedule, and eliminates predictable budgets. And, as is perhaps most likely, in front of empty grandstands.

    Let’s not be too pessimistic. If the series returns to action for the first time since the season was abruptly, and clumsily, put on hiatus on race morning in Melbourne back in mid-March, it will be a different sort of grand prix racing, and for that reason perhaps more interesting, as the championship grapples with the effects of the worldwide pandemic, capricious government regulations, and the continuing economic uncertainty.

    On track, things are unlikely to change in terms of competitive balance. The big three teams: Scuderia Ferrari, Mercedes-AMG and Red Bull Racing have the resources to keep their considerable competitive advantage over the seven other competitors despite the three and half month stoppage, including an extended mandatory shutdown of all team factories that has left everyone with just five weeks for actual hands-on work on their as-yet unraced creations. All three have spent their two permitted days of testing, limited to two-year old cars and barely enough time for both drivers to knock the rust off. And RBR’s Max Verstappen wasn’t even allowed that privilege, as his team chose to test at home in Britain, which would have obliged the Dutchman to a two-week quarantine. Other teams have simply chosen not to test at all, preferring to wait for practice on the first race weekend while their drivers tried to keep sharp using karts, Formula 3 machinery, and ever-more-elaborate computer simulators.

    Still, despite the lack of on-track action there has been some interesting activity on the driver market that will add an extra layer of intrigue to the season. The biggest headline came in May, when Ferrari announced a parting of ways at the end of 2020 with four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who like Fernando Alonso before him was unable to add a title with the Scuderia, leaving Kimi Räikkönen’s 2007 success the most recent for the team. As of this writing Vettel has yet to make his future clear, and so it will be interesting to see how the German performs once the racing begins. Carlos Sainz, Jr., was quickly drafted in from McLaren to replace Vettel for 2021 alongside the man who completely outperformed his team leader last season, Charles Leclerc. The shop in Maranello has not been idle; the red cars will feature new gearboxes and power units, already considered the most powerful on the grid. Those hybrid units will be heavily scrutinized following the notorious secret “agreement” with the FIA last year that resulted in new rules to control suspected oil-burning and fuel flow shenanigans.

    Ferrari customer teams Alfa Romeo and Haas F1 return intact, though it remains to be seen whether they will immediately benefit from any upgrades the parent Scuderia can produce. Antonio Giovinazzi at Alfa declared he was honored to be in the conversation for the seat that went to Sainz, considering his lackluster 2019 results, while dear old Kimi Räikkönen remains, as always, a threat for points when the car is working. They were not impressive at all in pre-season testing so long ago, and as the only team based in Switzerland, they had a unique set of pandemic protocols to adhere to. Chances are they will need time to find the speed they lacked in Barcelona back in February.

    As for North Carolina-based Haas, despite the threat to their jobs presented in the television series on Netflix, drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen return. The question this season will be whether founder Gene Haas will decide to stay in F1 after he openly said last year that he was tired of competing at a disadvantage to the big teams. Team principal Guenther Steiner has deflected several rumors that the team might be sold, and says his boss remains undecided about continuing. Ominously, Steiner also has said there will be zero upgrades to the cars until the full budget is in place for 2020, which will be a big ask in what is increasingly a lean year in an expensive game. Perhaps Haas will be swayed by the newly agreed-upon spending cap of $145 million coming in 2021, with annual decreases to follow in an effort to help reduce that financial disparity between teams.

    Meanwhile, expect the six-time defending champions from Mercedes-AMG to be their usual dominant selves. Driver titlist Lewis Hamilton spoke out in the wake of the worldwide George Floyd protest, and founded The Hamilton Commission to promote diversity in the STEM professions. Comments attributed to Red Bull racing director Helmut Marko to the effect that Hamilton’s new cause would be a “distraction” were debunked (Don’t laugh. Years ago, an F1 “journalist” freely admitted making up quotes to spice up a story.) In any case, the Hamilton-Mercedes combination are not so easily derailed. The same goes for Valtteri Bottas, who is under a one-year contract and a ton of pressure. The silver cars will have a number of updates in Austria, including the “Dual-Axis Steering” system seen in testing, which allows the driver to vary the alignment of the front wheels by pushing or pulling on the steering wheel.

    Over at Red Bull Racing, Max Verstappen may still be smarting over the cancellation of the race at the renovated Zandvoort circuit, sure to have been heaving with his orange-clad Dutch countrymen. Teammate Alex Albon was a bit of a revelation in 2019, and we can be sure the mind of ace designer Adrian Newey has been percolating with update ideas for what was already a solid car in testing. Expect to see a similarly effective performance from junior team Alpha Tauri, formerly Toro Rosso, where drivers Daniil Kvyat and Pierre Gasly are under pressure from talented prospects in the junior program. For Red Bull Racing boss Helmut Marko, results are all that matters.

    Another driver who, like Vettel and Sainz, will spend the season with a team he is leaving at year-end is Daniel Ricciardo, going from Renault to replace Sainz at McLaren. If the Australian was second-guessed for leaving Red Bull two years ago, he is headed for more of the same. Despite an uptick in performance in the midfield last year, McLaren is in the midst of massive layoffs, and has asked a British court to free up company assets in order to help arrange more than a quarter of a billion dollars in urgently-needed financing. Like Vettel, Ricciardo likely feels he has something to prove before he steps out of his current car. Oddly, team boss Cyril Abiteboul says a replacement won’t be named until the season gets underway (so who’s the guy in the car?). Vettel and Fernando Alonso are rumored to be candidates.      

    If preseason testing was any indication, both Renault and McLaren will battle for “best of the rest” with Racing Point, under the ownership Canadian billionaire and noted Ferrari collector Lawrence Stroll. Among the smaller and more modestly-budgeted teams on the grid, they have punched above their weight for some time now thanks to drivers Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll, son of Lawrence, despite using a car questioned as a mere knockoff of the all-conquering Mercedes-AMG machine. With the added resources the senior Stroll and partners bring to the table, expect better than average from one of two teams on the grid with a father-son connection.

    The other is Williams, which appears to have reached a new low. The experiment of bringing back pitlane favorite Robert Kubica ended after one season, making second-year pilot George Russell the senior driver. His new teammate is Nicholas Latifi, son of yet another Canadian billionaire, Michael Latifi. Deputy principal Claire Williams has announced that the legendary team founded by her father, Sir Frank Williams, is for sale, though she insists a full budget for 2020 is in place despite the sudden departure of title sponsor ROKiT. Clearly there are more tough times ahead for this team that won championships in the past for the likes of Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell, Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve and Alain Prost. Russell is a star in “virtual racing,” while Latifi’s resume is unremarkable. They trailed in testing, and likely will in the grands prix.

    Overshadowing the relative strengths of the competitors are the sheer logistics of this unique season. As of this writing, the schedule remains a work in progress, with just eight races confirmed in a blur of ten weeks at six European tracks: Red Bull Ring, Hungaroring, Silverstone, Barcelona, Spa-Francorchamps and Monza. All easy to reach for the teams, assuming no one runs afoul of local testing or quarantine restrictions. The Imola and Mugello circuits have hosted recent testing, and have expressed interest if additional events are needed.

    However, FIA rules stipulate that a “world championship” season must include at least three continents. The Formula One Group says to expect “fifteen to eighteen” total rounds. This is the tricky part: Sochi, Russia, wants to stay on the calendar, and Montreal is expected to run in October, possibly followed by Austin, Mexico City and Sao Paulo. But Russia, the USA and Brazil are experiencing the world’s worst rates of COVID-19 infection. Even barring spectators, getting the circus in and out of town is problematic, to say the least. Shanghai is standing by, so a three-continent hop from Europe to Canada to Asia would meet the rule.

    Like virtually every other form of motorsport, the F1 teams will operate under very different regulations. Grandstands will be empty, and personnel will be limited. Team numbers in the pits have been cut in half, and testing will be pervasive. Tire choices have changed as well, each driver getting an identical allocation of two hard sets, eight medium, and three soft.

    The shortened season brings another element into focus: strategy. With fewer races, the likely plan for scoring points recalls the old joke about voting in Chicago: do it early and often. A championship lead will be more valuable than ever before, putting pressure on those behind to take risks. Or perhaps the ideal strategy is to opt for a steady pattern of picking up points, avoiding risk in order to pressure those around you to assume it in the name of making up ground.

    But the biggest challenge may be financial; with fewer races, the teams will earn less prize money, and sponsors will get less exposure, making programs a harder sell. Those resources are sorely needed, as there is a totally new race car coming in 2022. To help, teams will use this year’s cars again in 2021, but that still requires developing the current machine and the all-new 2022 version simultaneously, as work cannot begin on the 2022 car until January 1, 2021, except for braking systems. In addition to the spending cap, restrictive new rules governing development options, including aerodynamics, come into play. All this means some seriously careful planning and insightful decision-making is required, in a very short period of time.

    All this just scratches the surface of the challenges facing Formula One in this bizarre 2020 season. It should be a season you will want to say you witnessed, no matter how many races are run, in whatever locations. The world champions who emerge in a few months may be the biggest surprise of the 70 years of the championship.


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