Indulge me a little bit, because I never do a diary, but this week is set to be one full of anticipation, hope, expectation and hopefully some wild predictions, on top of planes, trains, automobiles and some very early alarms.
Yup, it’s launch week in Formula 1. Well, launch fortnight I guess. No that’s not right, launch 10 days? Less catchy. Anyway, by the time I go to bed on Friday night I will have been to four different countries across four days to see four different teams launch at least something, (as Renault has already said we won’t be seeing its 2020 car).
Italy, France, the UK and Austria are still to come, but the first destination on Monday was nice and close to home — a short underground ride into central London and the Royal Automobile Club in Mayfair.
It was here that Haas launched the ill-fated Rich Energy partnership a year ago, but this time it was Mercedes announcing a new partner as INEOS came on board and gained a little splash of red on the 2020 livery.
To be fair, this was never expected to be a major event in terms of the livery or car launch (it was the 2019 car being used, the new one will appear on Friday at Silverstone), but could still prove to be the most insightful.
There have been so many question marks over Lewis Hamilton’s future, Toto Wolff’s position and Mercedes’ interest in F1 overall that even a 45-minute press conference was never going to be enough to dig into all of it. (Apologies to anyone who tuned into the live stream wanting to see the new livery, that was always being unveiled about an hour into the event…)
Wolff was open on all topics, even if he wouldn’t set any deadlines. On Hamilton, he described a new contract as “an obvious pairing going forward,” and a similar comment about planning for the long-term himself was anchored with the use of “when,” not “if” he would sign a new deal.
It was the team’s future that really got Wolff ticking, though. He strongly dismissed a report that Daimler could be considering pulling out of F1, criticizing such “nonsense” because it could worry the huge number of staff he has working below him. It was a far more convincing answer than the fact that a five-year contract with INEOS means Mercedes is going nowhere, given how that could just make the team more attractive to a potential buyer if needed.
What the deal does do, however, is reduce how much money Daimler will need to put in once the budget cap comes into effect, with millions now coming from INEOS as well as a number of other major partners.
So the first launch event told us nothing about the 2020 season and how quick Mercedes will be, but then it was on to the next stop in Italy for the first appearance of an actual 2020 car.
TUESDAY – Ferrari launch in Reggio Emilia
I have to admit, the only time I’ve been to Maranello was in a McLaren 570GT, driving it from the French Grand Prix to the race the following weekend in Austria (tough, I know). I’d never been able to make it to an event at Ferrari’s headquarters if invited, so decided to drop in and turn a few heads with a rival supercar that drew a few laughs and frowns in equal measure from those in Ferrari gear.
And then I got invited to his year’s launch, could finally go, and it wasn’t at Maranello…
After an early-morning flight from London to Bologna, there was time to stop for lunch near the Gestione Sportiva, although a famous Ferrari haunt called Montana proved too full. Still, any ristorante in Maranello is crammed with Ferrari memorabilia and imagery, so I could soak up a bit more of the history before taking a slightly less exciting Italian model — a Lancia Ypsilon — to the launch venue.
The city of Reggio Emilia is the birthplace of the Tricolore — Italy’s national flag — and the Teatro Municipale Romolo Valli provided a stunning setting for the unveiling of a Formula 1 car. Tifosi were out in force outside the theatre before the event as the sun set on a remarkably warm February afternoon, and inside hundreds of Ferrari employees sat with sponsors and guests to witness some ballet alongside bold statements.
As the media we were placed — as Ferrari CEO Louis C Camilleri himself described it — “in the nosebleed seats” but still had a pretty special view of the event from above.
Even before Christmas, Ferrari was saying it would be first to launch its 2020 car, and it was. Sure, Haas and Mercedes have shown off liveries, but not the new designs. And what stood out from the vantage point up high was just how tightly packaged the rear end is.
To the naked eye, much looks similar about the SF1000 compared to last year’s SF90, but there has clearly been plenty of work gone into it. Mattia Binotto highlighted not only the packaging but tellingly suspension changes designed to make the car easier to set up. After all, last year’s car was blisteringly quick at certain times but woefully slow at others, so being able to find the sweet spot more easily could be crucial.
Before Binotto even spoke, Camilleri was keen to stress how much he values his team principal’s leadership skills and is backing his long-term vision. Not comments that regularly come out of Maranello…
And similar ones came from Binotto himself regarding Sebastian Vettel once the theatre was cleared and a press conference took place. Vettel is Ferrari’s preferred choice for 2021 onwards, the Italian insisted, even with Lewis Hamilton still yet to start talks with Mercedes.
Little needed to be said about the backing for Charles Leclerc given the five-year contract he has been handed over the winter, so while there was some interest in how this car could be a threat to Mercedes, it’s clear the dynamic between the two Ferrari drivers — who Binotto says are now free to race on an equal footing — and Vettel’s future provide plenty of intrigue regardless.
The buzz around the city and big crowd outside the theatre just served to highlight that whatever happens at Ferrari, it’s always a big story. It was somewhat apt that its 2020 season kicked off in front of such an audience that is just waiting to be entertained.