MEDLAND: Six F1 mid-season questions to ponder

Image by Zak Mauger/LAT

MEDLAND: Six F1 mid-season questions to ponder

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MEDLAND: Six F1 mid-season questions to ponder

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The summer break is over and Formula 1 returns to action at the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend. Inevitably, doubling the gap between races leads to more change off-track than on, with big decisions being made during the shutdown. Which leaves us with quite a few questions heading to Spa-Francorchamps…

Why Bottas over Ocon?

It was an easy choice in my book, and today’s announcement by Mercedes revealed that its boss Toto Wolff reached the same conclusion. Valtteri Bottas has done everything the team has needed him to so far since his arrival, backing up Lewis Hamilton and ensuring Mercedes has little trouble securing the constructors’ championship.

In his first season with the team, he won races but was a long way off Hamilton. Last year the wins deserted him, but again both titles were easily secured, and now he sits second to his teammate in the drivers’ standings with two wins to his name, and a harmonious relationship in the garage.

True, Bottas hasn’t had the best couple of races heading into the summer break, but he’s still bringing the points to the table that have helped Mercedes to pull 150 clear of Ferrari and march toward another championship double. Why rock that boat by promoting reserve driver Esteban Ocon, as talented as he is?

Ocon could be a future Mercedes world champion, but you wouldn’t say that’s a certainty at this stage. With Hamilton poised for title number six this year and favorite for a seventh next year given the rules stability in 2020, it’s hard to imagine the Briton not re-signing for 2021. Ocon has time for a few years elsewhere.

As was also confirmed earlier today, that destination will be Renault, with Nico Hulkenberg having failed to look convincing and a French driver being available for more than one season, which wasn’t the case last year. If the time then comes for Mercedes to come knocking with a race seat for Ocon, he’s always going to jump at the chance.

What will happen with Albon and Gasly?

In contrast, this is a lot harder to call. Pierre Gasly underwhelmed during his first 12 races at Red Bull, but there were occasional glimmers pointing to better things ahead. Matching up to Max Verstappen is an extremely tough job, and Gasly was failing to do so, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been all that surprising given his relative lack of experience.

Gasly was promoted out of necessity – he wasn’t going to displace either Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo based on his performances before that – and the problem is that Albon appears to be in the same boat. There have been some very impressive drives from Albon in his rookie year to date, but his move to Red Bull has as much to do with Gasly’s underperformance as it does the Thai-British driver’s showings.

Come the end of the season, Albon will have done well to convince Red Bull he is the driver worthy of retaining the seat. I reckon he’ll just do enough to buy himself more time, but it’s going to be up and down as he gets to grips with the new environment, and it might put Gasly’s struggles into a bit of context.

Will Ferrari finally win?

At the risk of looking very stupid in just 10 days time, I’m going to say yes to this one and put it all on the next two races.

Ferrari has had chances so far this year, and at the end of pre-season testing it was unthinkable that we’d be arriving in Belgium without seeing a Ferrari win, but Bahrain was a massive missed opportunity due to reliability problems for Charles Leclerc, and then Sebastian Vettel threw away the next best chance in Canada.

Leclerc’s German GP crash was one of a number of missed opportunities for Ferrari in the first half. Image by Steve Etherington/LAT

But with Leclerc again coming so close in Austria, it’s clear Ferrari does have a car capable of winning races on the right circuit. Spa might be that circuit, but it still has a middle sector requiring cornering performance, so Monza is going to the more obvious opportunity.

It will all come down to how Ferrari deals with the pressure and executes in front of the tifosi, but this year’s car should be the quickest around Monza by some margin. Based on expectations alone, the Scuderia needs to prioritizing getting a win there over beating Red Bull in the constructors’ standings, and then turn its focus fully onto ironing out the car’s weaknesses for 2020.

Can Renault turn its season around?

Renault will do well to make as many headlines this weekend for its car performance as it did today for its driver lineup, but even if it manages to do so, there is no hiding from the fact this has been a disappointing year so far.

The car is inconsistent, but the team is also not executing at the highest level – a contrast to a year ago when it took more opportunities than not. Now, Renault finds itself in a fight for fifth in the constructors’ championship, as opposed to trying to consolidate fourth.

Fifth should be achieved, because on average the Renault is a better car than the Toro Rosso and simply missed a big haul of points in Germany, but McLaren is well out of reach. To that end, 2019 could be written off.

I think it’s more likely that Renault limps to an underwhelming fifth-place finish than shows any real signs of progress this year, especially as more resources are diverted to next year’s car. With stability in the regulations, some of that development could still apply to the 2019 chassis, but the French manufacturer expects to be fighting for podiums, not still be scrapping in the midfield, so there might well be more short-term pain in search of longer-term gain.

If that approach is taken, then it will be a brave decision from the team’s management because it could lead to questions over certain senior positions.

Who ends up where in the driver market?

Mercedes is keeping its current lineup while Ferrari and Red Bull also are most likely going to start 2020 with the same drivers that will be in their cars this weekend. But Ocon’s move to Renault puts Hulkenberg on the market with a number of seats still to be confirmed. McLaren is a done deal with Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris, and Racing Point is likely to stick with Lance Stroll and Sergio Perez; the latter usually confirms his contracts closer to the Mexican Grand Prix.

Toro Rosso and Alfa Romeo are two key remaining pieces to the 2020 driver puzzle. Image by Zak Mauger/LAT

That leaves a spot at Alfa Romeo alongside Kimi Raikkonen to be confirmed, and Hulkenberg could be looking like an attractive option there if the team wants more consistency than it is getting from Antonio Giovinazzi. I’d have certainly said it was more likely than the German heading to Haas to partner Kevin Magnussen before Thursday’s announcements. But with the way Guenther Steiner, Magnussen and Hulkenberg have started flirting, you never know…

Given the struggles at Haas this year, stability could well be the approach there and earn Romain Grosjean another season, even as there are few drivers in junior formulae with Super Licenses knocking loudly on the door to try and join the grid. That includes Nicholas Latifi, who brings significant backing and a likely top-three Formula 2 finish to Williams – where he will gain further experience in FP1 this weekend – if Robert Kubica is not retained alongside George Russell.

The lack of a ready youngster is a problem for Toro Rosso, but probably means it will wait until the last possible minute to work out its approach, as it now has two drivers already demoted from Red Bull.

When will we finally get the 2021 regulations?

There’s an obvious answer to this question at present, with the final rules for 2021 set to be published at the end of October.

But that is much later than was originally intended after a June deadline was missed when the teams, the FIA and F1 opted to delay their finalization in order to further refine the approach. Given the development that is ongoing in the Sauber wind tunnel, it’s certainly not a case of waiting to present the rules, but attempting to optimize them right up until that deadline.

In true F1 fashion, further details are likely to leak out over the coming two months as teams spot aspects they don’t like, because self-interest is never far away when everyone is looking for a competitive advantage.

 

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