MEDLAND: What a difference a year makes

Red Bull vs Renault, 2018 French GP. Image by Portlock/LAT

MEDLAND: What a difference a year makes

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: What a difference a year makes

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For the most part, one year’s Formula 1 calendar looks a lot like the one that came before it, which is useful if you’re looking to compare how a team is positioned at various stages of the season.

Last year, the French Grand Prix was a returning race that hadn’t been on the calendar for a decade, so not exactly ideal for reflecting the previous 12 months. But it turned out to be somewhat of a watershed moment for three teams.

At the forefront of that was Red Bull. With more than a hint of mischief, the team used this weekend last year to confirm it would be splitting with power unit partner Renault and joining forces with Honda from 2019 onwards.

The drawn-out divorce was finally confirmed long after the situation had turned bitter at an executive level, and the grin on Christian Horner’s face throughout most of the weekend betrayed just how much satisfaction he was getting from announcing the news at Renault’s home race.

It has proven to be a smart move so far. Not that Renault hasn’t made good progress with its power unit — as evidenced by the performance of its manufacturer team in Canada — but both sides needed a fresh start, and Red Bull got it with Honda, itself making clear strides over the past few seasons.

A much more harmonious relationship has followed, with regular podiums and no massive drop in competitiveness from where Red Bull had been in recent years. In fact, when analyzing the gap to Mercedes, the team speaks about its chassis not being as strong due to the 2019 regulation changes rather than any power unit deficit.

And this weekend Red Bull will get a boost in power from Honda’s latest upgrade as the Japanese manufacturer responds to the call to keep bringing development at the earliest possible opportunity in order to get closer to the front of the grid.

But for Renault it was an important time, too. It was around the French Grand Prix that talks with Daniel Ricciardo started to become more serious; the Australian looking at other options available to him as he got a growing feeling that Mercedes would stick with Valtteri Bottas.

McLaren was also involved in those discussions, but had bigger issues to worry about at that stage — issues that would ultimately lead Ricciardo to decide the team had too far to go in order to return to real competitiveness.

Then-racing director Eric Boullier sat uncomfortably in front of the media following a story in a British newspaper that would become known as ‘Freddogate’. Disgruntled McLaren employees were voicing their frustrations at a lack of organization and leadership as the team’s season started to slip away, and Boullier was in the crosshairs. Of all the examples used, the one that caught the imagination was the team’s occasional distribution of chocolate Freddo bars…

Two weeks later, Boullier was gone.

McLaren’s split with Eric Boullier last summer was the first of several major changes within the team. Image by Portlock/LAT

As with Red Bull, McLaren embarked upon major changes that appear to be paying off a year on. James Key and Pat Fry were soon announced as arrivals, and Andreas Seidl has more recently started work in the role of team principal. Even while that evolution has taken place, the team has produced a more competitive car and still sits fourth in the constructors’ championship — ahead of Renault — despite a tough weekend in Canada.

But while the writing was on the wall for Boullier, there are plenty of bets you definitely wouldn’t have made at Paul Ricard a year ago.

Who’d have had Kimi Raikkonen back at Sauber? Or Esteban Ocon without a seat? Even with the movement that was going on at the time, there was no way anyone would have confidently predicted Ricciardo leaving for Enstone, either.

It just goes to emphasize how quickly F1 evolves, and how true the adage is that if you stand still, you go backwards.

Right now it’s hard to see where the next big change will come from. There’s relative stability in the driver market heading into the summer, and teams are well set from a power unit supplier point of view.

If there are to be headline changes, you’d expect them to come from either Mercedes or Red Bull. Valtteri Bottas continues to have to prove himself each year and will want to make sure Canada was just a dip after an impressive start to the season, while you can never be sure how secure a seat is at Red Bull even if Pierre Gasly has been slowly finding his feet.

Sebastian Vettel was pretty damning of his feelings towards F1 in Canada but still craves a title with Ferrari, and outside the top three the most attractive seats — at Renault and McLaren in terms of constructors’ standings right now — are pretty secure.

Haas is happy with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean for now as it focuses on its car problems, Racing Point has a certainty in Lance Stroll and a driver with few better options in Sergio Perez, while Toro Rosso’s line-up is all-new.

How safe is Kubica’s seat? Image by Dunbar/LAT

The most likely moves would come at Alfa Romeo — if Antonio Giovinazzi’s lack of results continue — and Williams, where Robert Kubica continues to be unconvincing and George Russell is influenced by Mercedes’ plans.

But as we learned last year, things can move pretty fast, and you don’t always see them coming. That even extends to the title race, where Vettel led heading to Paul Ricard last year but then saw his challenge rapidly fade in the coming months. Perhaps hoping for a reversal this year is asking a bit much…

Yet even if little happens, that’s why so much focus is turning to 2021, and the sport’s major overhaul of technical, sporting and financial regulations. Next year looks like being stable on a number of fronts, which helps, because the teams could be preparing for a very different F1 a year after that.

With a delay on final sign-off until October, there’s still going to be plenty of discussions and revisions before the future of F1 is finalized. Even with on-track dominance, this is a sport that will always deliver off-track intrigue.

 

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